The Sarasota Concert Association recently presented the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Van Wezel in a program of favorites by Beethoven and Sir Edward Elgar conducted and played by Pinchas Zukerman.
The RPO is a well-respected and much venerated ensemble for many reasons. First, it’s still — in that oddly British tradition that lauds legendary apparitions — associated with Sir Thomas Beecham. Its patron is none other than His Royal Majesty, the Duke of York (aka Prince Andrew), and its artistic director and principal conductor is the esteemed Charles Dutoit. More to the point, it’s an orchestra with a lush, gorgeous sound, especially in the strings and, when the musicians perform the music of their landsman, Elgar, it’s authentic, exhilarating and, many times, breathtaking. But we’ll come back to that later.
I wish Dutoit (or even Beecham) had accompanied them on their journey to Sarasota, because Zukerman, who’s straddled the lines between violinist, violist and conductor throughout his career, wasn’t (in plain English) up to the standard of the ensemble in front of, or in the case of the Violin Concerto, behind him. There has always been a pitch problem with Zukerman-the-violinist, and, I’m happy to say, that has diminished over the years. But his skill with an orchestra, whether in the singular role of conductor or the dual roles of leader and soloist, is simply not where his legendary abilities lie.
What was fascinating to watch was the way the RPO genteelly ignored Zukerman’s gestures and relied on the subtle body language of the concertmaster (known in British orchestras — with good reason — as the leader), as he nodded, breathed and, on occasion, gave downbeats and cutoffs with his bow. This was particularly evident in the Beethoven Violin Concerto, during which Zukerman was waving and bowing to little effect, musically or artistically.
Still, although the orchestra’s fine musicians held the ensemble together, the concerto was very much Zukerman’s baby, and it was an intellectually mild-mannered, rather than an emotionally vibrant performance with an exceptionally slow larghetto and a not very inspired reading throughout.
The opening Egmont Overture was more effective, and the orchestra’s massive strings presented mellow, but brilliantly colored, sounds.
Now, as promised, back to Elgar’s phantasmagorical “Enigma” Variations. Once in a while there’s a performance that sweeps you off your feet and sends your ears to heaven. This was one of them. The RPO seemed to take flight on its own (or perhaps Beecham dropped by to add his fabled humor), and the result wasn’t an enigma at all. It was the kind of great playing that makes the Royal Philharmonic royal, indeed.