Pinchas Zukerman Leads a Puzzling Program

Photo courtesy of Robert Torres.

At Symphony Hall on Saturday evening, the violinist Pinchas Zukerman led the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a perplexing journey. With a program as conservative as Zukerman’s, one expects to hear perennial blockbusters, like the BSO’s familiar but well-executed mid-November presentation of Grieg and Mahler. So why was the most substantial piece of music on Saturday evening Haydn’s little-known Symphony No. 49, “La passione”? What was Strauss’s Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, a work of borderline juvenilia, doing next to an arrangement of the Adagio from Bruckner’s obscure String Quintet? These were questions that the music, however much it tried, ultimately could not answer.

It would be unfair to say that the Serenade lacked interesting features. The horn chorales, sweet and mellow, no doubt reflected the influence of Strauss’s father, renowned principal horn at the Bavarian Court Opera. The flutes meandered through the languid closing melody with such a plaintive charm that I was reminded of Dvorak’s Ninth, of all things. Yet these fleeting joys were soured by friction in the ensemble, most frustratingly with a clouded unison dotted figure that muddled the pulse with each recurrence. Zukerman’s conducting style seemed irresolute; the musicians may have benefited from more of his involvement, or perhaps none at all.

Unfortunately, the Adagio represented Bruckner at his stereotypical worst: heavy, plodding, directionless, and much too long. Far from adding symphonic gravitas, the orchestration obliterated whatever fine textural nuance might have existed in the movement’s original chamber form. Only occasionally did Zukerman manage to bring inner voices to the surface, and each repetition of the main theme (and there were many) was exactly that—a repetition—and nothing more. After what felt like an endless purgatory of G-flat major chords, the piece ended and I was almost thankful.

At this point in the evening, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 supplied a refreshing jolt of energy. The violins opened the first movement with appropriately buoyant accents on the downbeats, setting up a strong rhythmic drive that Zukerman continued throughout his solo. What thorny passagework there was he breezed through with effortless dexterity, though I wish he had taken more time to enjoy the cadences and find the humor in certain acrobatic figures. The third movement’s G minor Andante section was the most memorable moment of the evening. As the sunny rondo theme suddenly came to a standstill, creeping orchestral pizzicati provided an alluring canvas for Zukerman’s haunting statement of the extravagantly trilled melody. Alas, it was a singular moment. The concerto’s otherwise restrained and unimaginative harmonies place it squarely among Mozart’s immature works, despite the program notes’ insistence to the contrary. A brief foray into the parallel minor was as far afield as the music would wander. Of course, the performers cannot be faulted for whatever the nineteen-year-old Mozart had yet to learn. On the other hand, surely the violinist-conductor whose repertoire capitalizes so little on his formidable abilities does his audience a disservice.

The latter half of Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 perfectly embodied the evening’s highs and lows. Zukerman’s labored approach to the third movement minuet resembled the soundtrack to an especially stifling funeral reception (the F minor tonality is no excuse; I commend you to Ádám Fischer’s recording with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra for a properly lively rendition). On the other hand, the finale brimmed with excitement and emotional intensity. Zukerman coaxed out every distinct voice, including the subtle dialogue between the violins and lower strings, and at the same time created the cumulative effect of a relentless murmur. I felt a small thrill every time the first violins lingered on the E natural in the main theme against the lower strings’ A-flat, the tensest possible expression of the harmonic minor. Here at last was music-making with a purpose—high drama that knew exactly where it was going. If only the rest of the program had followed along.

Kevin Wang is a producer for the Classical Music Department. You can hear his feature about Baroque dance music on Mondays from 6-7pm. He also hosts Classical Request Nights on Fridays from 6-8pm.