Doing Double Duty, Ending Up With Less

Pinchas Zukerman, above in 2006, is an old hand at soloing and conducting at the same time. But Bruch's Concerto in G Minor was the wrong showcase.
Pinchas Zukerman, above in 2006, is an old hand at soloing and conducting at the same time. But Bruch's Concerto in G Minor was the wrong showcase. (Paul Labelle Photographe)
By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 14, 2008

Pinchas Zukerman, known as one of the world's stellar violinists as well as an active conductor, appeared with the Royal Philharmonic on Friday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, leading works by Elgar and Tchaikovsky and taking a solo turn in the Bruch G Minor Concerto. An assistant was slated to conduct the Bruch, but he fell ill. Rather than pick up someone on the fly, Zukerman took the risk of leading the concerto himself.

Zukerman is an old hand at this, having led and soloed in Bach and Mozart concertos for decades. But those smaller works lend themselves well to the chamber music approach. Bruch is an entirely different matter: It calls for a heavy romantic orchestra, with a full complement of winds, brass and timpani and numerous tempo fluctuations. The fact that Zukerman and the orchestra even attempted it was a testament to the professionalism of the musicians. In execution, however, the performance was a mixture of white-knuckle brinkmanship, plodding note-spinning and poor balances.

Zukerman remains an astounding virtuoso; his robust tone and flawless passage work still amaze. Even when at least half his attention is given over to worrying about what the orchestra is doing, he pours out phrases of unruffled beauty. But this performance was little more than a stunt -- interesting to watch but far from what the piece could have been with just a middling conductor at the helm.

If you watch any conductor lead a concerto, much of his or her efforts go toward keeping the orchestra from swamping the soloist, as well as to creating a framework within which he can play freely. Since no one did that here, the Bruch finale, in particular, was a clabbered mess. There were many passages where Zukerman had to play in a rhythmic straitjacket for fear that a tiny nuance would disrupt the ensemble. At one point, he was so distracted by his conducting that he entered on a wrong note, which amused him and his colleagues no end. At the conclusion, the shouts of "bravo" were well deserved in one sense; but for the decision not to bother locating a capable conductor (dozens would have dropped everything for an opportunity to work with such an orchestra), Zukerman & Co. earned a different sound entirely.

The Royal Philharmonic is one of many hardworking London bands; it pays about half what a good American orchestra does (the musicians usually have to take on other jobs), the touring and recording schedules are grueling and job security is tenuous. All of that serves to keep the orchestra young and hungry (if weary), and it played with impressive discipline and cohesion.

In Tchaikovsky's brusque and dramatic Fourth Symphony, Zukerman offered a standard interpretation; other than an unusually brisk tempo in the Scherzo, there was no particular profile to the performance. The oboe solo in the Andantino was very fine (one balky note aside) and the frantic string passages in the finale were dispatched cleanly though not ferociously.

The concert began with a warm, enjoyable reading of the Elgar Serenade for Strings, and the Dvorak Slavonic Dance in G Minor was offered as an encore.

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