At the Buffalo Philharmonic’s pre-concert talk, National Arts Centre music director Pinchas Zukerman—ever the champion of public discourse and increasing resources for music education—stated “I don’t know how Schumann wrote his music, but if people knew of his suicidal end, they’d be more likely to come and hear it.” But, for the next two hours as Ottawa’s Maestro put this remarkable band through its paces, (appearing as both guest conductor and soloist), his actions belied his words.
As violinist and violist, Zukerman is certainly one of the finest talents before the public today. His choice of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, the “Turkish,” seemed ideal for the cut-down string complement and Kleinhans Music Hall’s magnificent acoustics. The problem was the dual role: from the opening tutti—despite much eye contact and body movement—the accompaniment never settled into its task of declaiming the themes and providing support. Inner voices were ragged, wind entries tentative, and phrase endings too often left to wither into the stage.
Throughout it all we were treated to a solo line that effortlessly soared above the fray with many sublime statements and a technical ease that only could have benefited from a greater variety of bow strokes, particularly off-the-string.
Being soloist and conductor is near-impossible; conductors need to be at least one beat ahead in order to prepare and release the music, while the soloist is, necessarily, “at the moment.” In my experience, pianist Murray Perahia has come closest to successfully managing this artistic schizophrenia.
Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, which followed, was two rehearsals short of greatness. Baton now in hand, I found myself wishing that Zukerman could find his way to drawing a full and heady tone out of the twenty-three string players before him in the same manner that his bow arm had done moments ago. His penchant for punching the air for pulse or volume and index-finger poking cues was returned in kind. The deeply personal essay on the senseless destruction of war (a kind of thirty-minute The Pianist—cross-reference below) makes incredible demands on the players and listeners alike. But as heroic as the effort was, the numerous pitch-lapses and uneven attacks deemed this reading to be left as a work in progress.
Beethoven’s C Minor Symphony had many moments of glorious, unfettered sound (particularly in the “Andante” and the “Finale”) but precious little substance. To purport to be an advocate for the ideas, subtext and emotion that are hidden under the notes of any masterpiece demands a background in composition as well as instrumental prowess. This vanishing breed of conductor (Bernstein and Kubelik being stellar examples) has lowered the bar of interpretation at many, many performances.
Zukerman got us through the notes, but didn’t let the music breathe at the dozens of pauses or unlock the harmonic magic of the transitions. The horns were often a nickel short of the pitch and the piccolo’s sixteenths rather the eighths made me giggle.
Overall, the appreciative audience was impressed—not moved. And that was a shame, for experiencing a great truth will fill future seats far better than knowing the gossip, trials and tribulations of those whose lives were devoted to its search. JWR