Last Wednesday I attended the first of a series of subscription concerts by the New York Philharmonic with Pinchas Zukerman as violin soloist and conductor. For the first half of the program, Zukerman played the solos in violin concerti by Bach and Mozart. After intermission, he conducted the orchestra in Stravinsky's Concerto in D and Mozart's Symphony No. 39.
Attending a Zukerman concert always gives me a nostalgic pull, because one of my earliest concert reviews, from 1970, was about a Pinchas Zukerman violin recital at Cornell University, where I was reviewing concerts as a freshman for the Cornell Daily Sun. I was duly cynical about every minor technical flaw in his playing… I hope the intervening 40 years have taught me to be more concerned with the musical message and less concerned with technical issues.
In any event, Zukerman's technique is well up to the challenges of J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Wolfgang Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5. Both were really quite beautiful, but there is where my criticism creeps in, because I think Zukerman would have benefited from having a conductor on the podium, especially in the Mozart. I thought the orchestral contribution to the concerti was undercharacterized and overly smoothed out. I wouldn't describe Zukerman's playing of the solos that way, but the orchestra seemed to be on "auto-pilot" at times. Especially in the finale of the Mozart, which includes some really exciting "exotic" stuff, I thought the playing lacked guts.
The Stravinsky after intermission benefited from Zukerman's full attention, and I found the playing much sharper and more focused. I have to confess that I have never been overwhelmed by Stravinsky's Concerto in D, a product of his "neoclassical" phase that has always struck me as lacking in the kind of inspiration that made his Violin Concerto – also a work of the neoclassical period – so memorable. Here I get the feeling that the orchestra is just spinning its wheels at times without getting anywhere.
That's not the case, of course, with Mozart's Symphony No. 39, the first of that miraculous trio of mature symphonies written a few years before the composer's death, and here I though Zukerman did his best work with a really ship-shape performance from the orchestra and plenty of loving attention to detail.
The back-story to this programming, calling on a reduced string body and a handful of wind players (tympani only in the symphony) - which did not call on a large part of the orchestra – was that the other musicians were busy last week preparing for their Contact programs on the weekend, including music by Boulez and Carter (a world premiere) led by David Robertson. Unfortunately, because I was out of town for the weekend, I was unable to make it to the Contact concert. But it was pleasant to hear some Mozart from the Philharmonic — they don't play so much Mozart these days, the large orchestras having apparently cut back on 18th century music that is now more the province of chamber orchestras — and at least including the Stravinsky was a bow to novelty.