Fans of Pinchas Zukerman should have been in seventh heaven Saturday (March 21) at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, hearing the maestro play two Beethoven violin sonatas on the first half of the program and conducting the San Diego Symphony in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on the second half. And from the crowd’s noisy approval of Zukerman even before he put bow to violin, it was evident the true believers were present in good number.
But the program—one half recital, one half concert—was more than a bit odd. It is understandable that the orchestra, which has been heavily engaged in the Civic Theatre pit playing John Adams’ Nixon in China with the San Diego Opera—and doing a splendid job with that complex score, did not have sufficient rehearsal time to prepare a complete concert for this one available night of the opera production’s closing weekend.
So this unusual hybrid program was devised, a solution that no doubt look perfect on paper, but worked less perfectly in reality. As Zukerman made his tastefully tailored way through Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12, and Sonata No. 5 in F Major (“Spring”), Op. 24, I found myself wishing we were in the smaller Balboa Theatre on the other side of downtown or in the much smaller and acoustically perfect Conrad Prebys Concert Hall at UC San Diego to be able to meaningfully engage with Zukerman’s nuance and the works’ classical proportions.
Nevertheless, even in capacious Copley Hall, we could appreciate Zukerman’s nimble figurations and signature silvery timbre in the opening Allegro con brio of Sonata No. 1, and we marveled at the constantly modulated, subtle shaping of his line in the theme and variations movement that followed it. At the piano, Angela Cheng matched well the contours of his interpretation, although she had at her disposal the brawny sonic resources of the concert grand, which she unleashed occasionally, notably in the sonata’s final movement, perhaps to prove that she was more than a merely subservient partner.
Zukerman’s account of the “Spring” Sonata displayed all the virtues of the First Sonata, although in the Adagio molto espressivo he lifted the espressivo into the realm of the ethereal, another confirmation of his elevated status on that A-list of today’s concert violinists. I also appreciated the duo’s playful account of the final Rondo, which gave the rousing movement an unmistakeable Mozartean sparkle.
Overall, the orchestra’s take on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) expressed nobility and vigorous drive, but I did not feel it came up to the performance standards the orchestra has achieved this season. Perhaps due to a constant rotation of guest concertmasters, the ensemble of the first violins, especially in the extended first movement, lacked cohesion and rhythmic clarity. And I missed a certain depth and the requisite solemnity of the second movement funeral march.
Zukerman held the “Eroica” together, but I did not feel he brought much of his own vision to it. His hyperactive conducting style—arms continually sweeping in wide motions—appeared to be counterproductive. He churned out more motion in two pages of the score than Riccardo Muti produced conducting the Chicago Symphony through a whole movement. I predict less movement more closely tied to the changing moods of the work could produce a greater variety of expression.
But for those who love Beethoven and admire Zukerman, it ws a night to savor and remember.