Several years ago, a visitor suggested to Pinchas Zukerman that people had come to regard the popular Bruch Violin Concerto as just a display piece.
Not Zukerman, he asserted. "There is great drama in it. Take the start." Zukerman was then a budding conductor, as well, and he went on to talk about what results from "knowledge of harmony and its overtones. That comes from conducting, not fiddle playing."
Last night, in a stunningly dramatic performance of the Bruch with the National Symphony under Hugh Wolff, Zukerman showed what he meant. That opening G sounded as if it were coming out of the real depths, emphasizing the mystery of where the music was going, and where those overtones would be found.
Zukerman is one of the supreme masters of the notes of a violin concerto. There is no other violinist, though, more sensitive to the musical and dramatic shape of a work. Last night's Bruch was dark and moody, the colors of the violin beautifully juxtaposed to the blended hues of the orchestra.
If Zukerman's interpretation sounds like it could become melodramatic, rest assured it did not. His knowledge of the work's harmonic and rhythmic logic is just too sure. He always knows exactly where he is, and what it is leading to. Nothing is tentative. And if that led him to an exposed bad note near the slow movement's end, it was worth the considerable risks he took in the service of the music.
One fine performance led to another. Next was Wolff's direction of the barbaric suite from Bartok's ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin." This is the kind of music in which the young Wolff, now in his final year as NSO associate conductor, has excelled from the beginning -- relentlessly kinetic, leading to frantic bursts of dissonance only to lapse back to brief lulls and come back stronger every time, ending in an overwhelming ostinato chase. It was very dramatic, though its fine points had not yet been as carefully honed as in the Bruch.
The balm to all this was the more than 50-minute Brahms D-major Serenade, a marvelous piece in its first National Symphony performance. Here is the stuff of the more relaxed Brahms -- of the Hungarian Dances, the Academic Festival Overture and parts of the Second Symphony. It has an enormous range of color and style -- not all fully realized last night, but the performance was well along the way.