The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, under the directorship of Pinchas Zukerman, concluded its three-day stand at the Kennedy Center yesterday afternoon with a program well suited, if not especially challenging, to its customary, immaculately wrought musicianship.
From start to finish, the orchestra exhibited the best attributes of a small chamber ensemble and a full-size symphony; the delicate interplay between sections was handled as discreetly, for example, as an exchange of melodic ideas between piano and violin in a piano quartet. Yet, when the scores dictated forceful tuttis, the players collectively lent a muscular presence, well defined and with surprising subtlety.
Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" seemed a worthy opener to test the mettle of both orchestra and conductor. Composed as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima, the work calls for intimacy, amid the sweep and grandeur of the expansive themes. Though it stands out as one of Wagner's few ventures into purely instrumental music, the idyll is not "Liszt-less"; dramatic echoes of Liszt's tone poems, in the form of thematic excerpts from Act III of Siegfried, create a dreamy atmosphere alongside the other motives. Strings, winds and brass blended effortlessly; gentle gradations in dynamics were carefully attended to. Zukerman presided with an economy of gesture, and a clearly marked beat.
As soloist in J.S. Bach's second violin concerto in E Major, he set the initial tempo before joining the orchestra in an energetic reading. Bach ascribes double duty to the violinist, who is as active in the ritornello sections as in the solo passages. Zukerman's tone was full-bodied and sweet, while the orchestra soared through the fleet, contrapuntal sequences. The audience demanded, and got more; the orchestra gave a glossy rendition of the slow movement from Bach's A minor violin concerto.
Saving the best for last, Zukerman and players jubilantly unveiled the many moods of Haydn's Symphony No. 85 in B flat Major ("La Reine"). They invested the formal adagio introduction with propriety, before embarking on the sprightly opening theme and subsequent quotations from an earlier Haydn symphony, No. 45, the "Farewell." The Menuetto was especially effective; the main melody, humorously exaggerated by grace notes, bracketed bassoonist Charles Ullery and the strings execution of the graceful Trio theme.