Pinchas Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic give Mozart his regal due


Ah, Mozart. You don’t hear major orchestras performing it on tour that much these days, let alone an entire concert of it with the final spot, usually reserved for heaven-storming, standing-ovation-producing apotheoses, dedicated to one of the master’s symphonies. But here they were Wednesday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall in a performance for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, violinist/conductor Pinchas Zukerman and the London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, founded by Thomas Beecham in 1946, playing Mozart and nothing but, and the famous stuff to boot.

What could have been a routine night of hum-along hits proved instead a most refreshing and deeply satisfying one, if not quite revelatory.

Zukerman, who served for 17 seasons as the music director of Canada’s National Arts Center Orchestra, and who has been the principal guest conductor of the RPO since 2009, was an eloquent Mozartian. He led a slightly reduced contingent of Royals (though there were still plenty of strings to produce a plush richness) in a wondrously graceful and rhythmically vibrant account of the Symphony No. 40 to end the concert.

Profound it was not. That, apparently, is not Zukerman’s speed. Where others have found melancholy and even tragedy in the work, Zukerman seemed to plumb the depths of the composer’s bad cold. And yet there were compensations, not least a gentle, communicative expressiveness, brisk tempos in the outer movements and lithe playing from the strings. The woodwind choir was luminous.

Mozart is hard to get right. That’s what any musician will tell you. It can seem near impossible to balance the perfection of execution required with the human warmth inherent. Phrasing is best kept firm, but not too firm. Articulation must be just so.

Zukerman, 67, opened with the Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish,” serving as both soloist and conductor. His playing had a freedom and ease that allowed the music to bloom of its own accord. His tone gleamed with a silvery vibrancy. He shaded phrases without calling attention to himself. If, occasionally, his vibrato sounded a trifle too generous, it was no big deal. The orchestra supported him with dynamic sensitivity and nimble suppleness.

The highlight of the concert, though, was Jonathan Biss’ performance of the Piano Concerto No. 21, sometimes known as the “Elvira Madigan.” Biss, 35, a member of a distinguished musical family and a student of Leon Fleisher, gave a wonderfully singing account of the score (Mozart’s piano concertos have been called operas by other means), combining clarity and warmth, ebb and flow, dizzying speed with probing details.

The tempo changes made were sometimes startling, but he never lost sight of the music’s momentum. His fingers flew in the virtuoso demands of the outer movement, without blur. The famous Andante – the musicologist Alfred Einstein called it “like an ideal aria freed of all the limitations of the human voice” – was taken at the proper speed, and attained the serenity of a glowing fireplace.

Zukerman’s accompaniment was attentive and elegant, but perhaps a little on the light side, the chains of dissonance in the slow movement decorative rather than troubling.

After the performance of the symphony, the audience stood (as usual), and the musicians in the orchestra got music ready as if to play an encore. But Zukerman, after a few words with the concertmaster, pulled his musicians off the stage, an old hand leaving us wanting more.

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