I was elated when I learned that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was scheduled to play in San Diego, but my heart sank when I saw the bland program they were bringing with them. Two over-programmed Mozart staples, his Overture to The Magic Flute and the C Major Piano Concerto, K. 467, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.About as exciting as the list of burgers available at any fast-food franchise.
On Friday (January 22) at the Jacobs Music Center, my jaded expectations about these Mozart works were immediately refuted by Royal Philharmonic Principal Guest Conductor Pinchas Zukerman’s effervescent take on the concert-opening Overture, smartly realized by this highly disciplined orchestra. Their ensemble unity within each section, and especially the bright, suave sounds of the brass and woodwind choirs continued to impress me throughout the concert.
Vadym Kholodenko’s sparkling, supple take on the C Major Mozart Piano Concerto came as no surprise. When the young pianist from Kiev visited the San Diego Symphony in the fall of 2014, this first-prize winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition impressed us with his dazzling yet sophisticated interpretation of Prokofiev’s demanding Second Piano Concerto in G Minor. His Mozart proved every bit as sophisticated and stylish, allowing the composer’s rococo flourishes to bloom gracefully without attempting to pump them up into a show of virtuoso ferocity that belongs to later generations of piano composers. Emanuel Ax gave us a heavy dose of that brand of Mozart performance earlier in the week, and the results were memorable for all the wrong reasons. I was particularly impressed with the elegance of Kholodenko’s releases, which gave the familiar big tune of the Concerto’s middle movement balletic grace.
Khololdenko’s cadences may not have been written to imitate late 18th-century keyboard style–Mozart left us no cadenzas for this concerto–but even with their Brahmsian melodies, he articulated them as if they were in textbook Classical style.
Kholodenko and Zukerman quickly settled into a relaxed, companionable relationship between orchestra and soloist. Zukerman elicited a remarkable transparency, keeping the strings on the quiet side and bringing out the score’s ample woodwind solos that can easily be covered up by the muscle of modern symphony string sections. This was no period orchestra performance, of course, but it was favorably informed by the proportions of ensembles from Mozart’s times.
Unfortunately, the orchestral discipline and equanimity that made the Mozart works rewarding seemed to unduly constrain the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. While it offered numerous delectable moments, in Zukerman’s hands Tchaikovsky’s passionate Symphony lacked persuasive emotional urgency. Given the series of personal crises that prompted the Fourth Symphony, such a matter-of-fact account with T’s neatly crossed and I’s adroitly dotted missed the point.
Kudos, however, to the low brass players, who did communicate the scary edge of existential terror in the fate motif that plays such an important role in the outer movements and to Principal Oboe John Roberts and Principal Bassoon Jonathan Davies for their melting, sweet solos in the lilting Andantino. It would be churlish to deny compliments to the strings for their clean, swift traversal of the extended pizzicato sections of the Scherzo, although those who have heard orchestras like the Chicago Symphony perform this movement know there is yet another level of resonance that a world class orchestra communicates with this special effect.
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This concert sponsored by the San Diego Symphony took place on January 22, 2016, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The San Diego Symphony’s next Jacobs Masterwork Series programs will be offered January 29 and 31, 2016, in the same venue.