Promoting a concert that featured two symphony orchestras playing together on the same stage conjured the image of a circus barker luring patrons into a tent to see the bearded lady or a two-headed dog. Fortunately, under the baton of guest conductor Pinchas Zukerman, the combined performance of the San Diego Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra easily avoided the pitfall of an exotic stunt and provided instead an unusually powerful, moving account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor.
The musicians from these two ensembles filled every available inch of the Copley Hall stage, however, requiring Zuckerman to delicately thread his way through the thicket of first violinists in order to reach the podium. But once ensconced in front of this admirable phalanx, he wisely used the larger number of players to deepen the emotional impact of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth rather than simply ramp up the decibel level.
For example, the 12-member cello section burnished its grandly arched themes in the Andante cantabile with ardor to melt the stoniest heart, and the room-shaking unison pizzicato motifs from the entire string section in the opening movement suggested a cosmic heartbeat.
Zukerman gave the Jacobs Music Center audience a more classically balanced Tchaikovsky Fifth, which meant the stirring sonic climaxes achieved greater impact because of the contrast. It was surely a luxury to have a brass choir of eight trumpets, eight horns, and eight trombones (I believe there was but one tuba because space limitations dictated a second tuba would have been forced to sit on the first tuba player’s lap—now there’s a circus side show I’d pay to see!), but Zuckerman used their prowess judiciously.[php snippet=1]
His take on the third movement Waltz was graceful, even balletic, and its bustling trio proved surprisingly nimble for such a large ensemble. I might have wished for more dramatic urgency at the climax of the finale, but the overall shape of this Fifth Symphony was so satisfying, that lack was a small price to pay. Perhaps the next time these two ensembles get together (the last time was in 2008) they will program something truly roof raising like Mahler’s “Titan” Symphony.
Zukerman opened this concert with just the Royal Philharmonic performing Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto, an
ideal solo vehicle for himself as violin soloist and his wife Amanda Forsyth as cello soloist. He did not make a convincing case for the violin soloist doubling as conductor in this work, however. Unlike a Baroque concerto grosso, in which consistent motor rhythms keep the ensemble both energized and focused, the Brahms’ Double Concerto requires the conductor’s vigilant attention to keep its subtly changing moods in a clear forward motion.
The opening movement struck me as becalmed, almost tepid. Beautiful themes floated by, but the orchestra never came into sharp focus. In the final movement, the Vivace non troppo, the tempo was lively, but I sensed a curious lack of energy driving it.
As soloists, Zukerman and Forsyth proved nonpareil, he of the elegant silvery timbre in the stratosphere and she of the velvet warmth in the depths. Immaculately balanced, their shapely contrapuntal lines danced gracefully at every turn.