The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra returned to the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) last week for at least the third time (by our count) in the last four or five years. And again on this visit, the musicians were led by Pinchas Zukerman, who conducted the entire performance and doubled as soloist on a Mozart concerto. In all, it was a great concert, sure to be considered one of the best of the year when the annual lists are put together.
If there was anything to complain about in the program Mr. Zukerman and the orchestra offered (and this would be a most trifling complaint), it was that the full complement of musicians didn’t take the stage until after the intermission. To open the concert, a smaller contingent played Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings in E Minor.” They were then joined by a half dozen woodwind players for the Mozart concerto, with Mr. Zukerman alternately conducting and playing the solo parts.
Elgar’s short three-movement work was reportedly his favorite composition. In it, he creates a true sense of serenity through a series of themes in movements that are noted “allegro piacevole,” “larghetto,” and “allegretto.” The string section of this orchestra is ideal for the nuances in the piece, and concertmaster Clio Gould played the solo parts exquisitely. The overall effect was sweetly sublime. We suspect Elgar would have been pleased.
Mozart’s fifth violin concerto (the “Turkish”) was the last he composed (all five within a two-year period). It is a grand work that Mr. Zukerman mastered effortlessly. While we’ve never been entirely comfortable with seeing a soloist double as conductor, Mr. Zukerman handles the dual chores with ease. And his musicians seemed comfortable with their parts when they were accompanying him.
The concerto contains one major cadenza, towards the end of the first movement (marked “allegro aperto,” which we took to mean “unloosed”). Mr. Zukerman whisked through it smoothly and without great effort. He’s likely played it many times in his career. A shorter cadenza is offered in the slow (“adagio”) second movement, which is actually more sprightly than somber (this is Mozart, after all).
The third movement is offered in three parts: a minuet, an allegro, and a return to the minuet. It’s a delightful turn that allows the entire orchestra to relish in Mozart’s unique flair for the twists on a theme. In all, the performance of this treasure would have been the highlight of the evening, but for the Brahms symphony that followed the intermission.
One way to understand Brahms’ first symphony (in C Minor) is to appreciate that it took him the better part of twenty-two years to complete it. As the story goes, he was so intimidated with the task (having been compared at a young age to the great master Beethoven), that he could not get past a rudimentary stab at a first movement for many years.
Happily, he did finally bring it all together, and it is a true masterpiece, with its most famous melody not introduced until late in the fourth movement. But what leads up to that grand moment and the wondrous coda that follows is really great stuff that calls on all parts of the full orchestra at various points. For this performance we were particularly impressed with the work of several principal players in the woodwinds section (oboe, flute and bassoon most notably).
There are so many moments to savor, but just to mention one, in the third movement (“un poco allegretto e grazioso”) Brahms has the strings play the harmony line in pizzicato for several minutes while the woodwinds take up the main theme. Later, he seems to reverse the roles, with the strings taking the melody. We really didn’t want it to end.
Mr. Zukerman, in both his conducting and his acceptance of applause is understated and unassuming. Modesty, or the appearance of it, becomes him. We sense that he sees himself as just a piece in the full panoply of talent and genius that these great works represent.
The Brahms ended with a flourish of closing chords, and the audience (a packed house on all three levels of the grand Jackson Hall) was quickly on its feet. After he had been called back for yet a fourth time, Mr. Zukerman took to the podium, announcing that the orchestra would offer the Overture from “The Magic Flute.” And with this final gem from Mozart, a nearly perfect evening of performances by a great orchestra of great orchestral works came to a close.
Simply stated, it really doesn’t get any better than it was on this night.