The NSO's Rewarding Change in Plans

Pinchas Zukerman filled in for Mstislav Rostropovich.
Pinchas Zukerman filled in for Mstislav Rostropovich. (By Paul Labelle)
By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 3, 2006

The National Symphony Orchestra was supposed to kick off a two-week Shostakovich festival, led by musical director emeritus Mstislav Rostropovich, at the Kennedy Center last night. The renowned cellist and conductor has dedicated much of his energy to the work of his late friend, and his Shostakovich interpretations are known for their idiomatic style and brash energy. So when the 79-year-old Rostropovich canceled for unspecified health reasons, a program change became as necessary as a replacement conductor.

Violinist Pinchas Zukerman, an increasingly in-demand conductor, stepped in and worked fluently with the orchestra. He brought out a burnished sound in German music centered on Mozart and early Beethoven. While it was no substitute for the highly personal musicmaking the original program promised, the evening offered its share of delights.

Wagner's brass-laden Prelude to "Die Meistersinger" is fist-shaking stuff with grand musical proclamations and a firm pulse, and Zukerman took an expansive approach. The drawn-out tempo allowed the lush phrases to emerge and added sparkle to the glowing climaxes.

Cellist Amanda Forsyth, Zukerman's wife, was the soloist in "Kol Nidrei," Op. 47, an achingly poignant setting of an old Hebrew melody. Max Bruch, a 19th-century composer from Berlin, wrote the piece because he liked the tune rather than from a desire to commemorate Judaism. Yet Forsyth -- applying a darkly lush tone -- played the part with a nurturing lyricism and grace that evoked religious solemnity and timeless belief.

A similar sensitivity and verve shot through Zukerman's playing in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219, in which he was both conductor and soloist. His mastery is so complete that he can come off as overly cool and disinterested in a pure playing capacity. Yet in this double role, when his intellectual energies are more completely engaged, his legendarily plaintive tone and plentiful ideas again take flight. This was a reading built on steady rhythms and moderate pacing. While outmoded compared with the breezy Mozart now in vogue, the approach brought a certain grandeur and provided a foundation for Zukerman's luminously turned phrases. The vigorously climbing figures of the first movement led into the undulant lines of the Adagio, all of which hurled into the blazing finale with its Hungarian-inspired themes that somehow got the concerto the nickname "Turkish."

At the close, Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36, dealt in wit and liveliness. Zukerman could have played up the moments that look to the composer's new horizons or placed the work firmly in the realm of Mozart, highlighting its symmetries and form. Rather, the musicians gave it a straightforward performance in the best sense, ensuring the central music line was flowing and prominent. It was not the most insightful performance, but it was a picture of self-restraint and charm.

The program repeats tonight at 7 and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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