Zukerman, Dallas Symphony bring warmth and intuition to Beethoven, Elgar

Fri Jan 20, 2023 at 2:43 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Pinchas Zukerman performed with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center. Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

Thursday night’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra performance was shorter than usual but unique: a program of Beethoven and Elgar with a celebrated guest conductor and soloist, Pinchas Zukerman, in a hyphenated dual role that is seldom seen at Meyerson Symphony Center. 

And for all of Zukerman’s technical prowess — and the Dallas orchestra’s — it was the assembled musicians’ artistry and heart that made the performance a success, and an occasion warmly embraced by the Meyerson audience.

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with a particular soloist, Franz Clement, in mind. The work embodies — and complements — Clement’s lyrical grace and elegance with lots of technical bravura. Yet its premiere in Vienna in 1806 was no great triumph, likely in part due to the work’s hasty preparation. Beethoven later went back in: The final printed version, which is most commonly performed today, contains revisions to the solo part that are more violinistic — more interpretive, and arguably less technically difficult. 

Zukerman, leading the way as both guest conductor and soloist, navigated the concerto ably. In some contexts, emphasizing expression over precision can produce less cohesion among orchestral voices. Here, it produced a celebration of all things chamber, with music-making that relied on players’ experiential feel and artistry informing the execution. 

The unusual opening of the piece, marked by five soft beats of the timpani, set a tone of temperance that carried through the whole concerto. The slow middle movement saw beautiful renderings of scoring for horns and winds, Zukerman the conductor ornamenting the soundscape on violin with lean embellishments. His abrasive bowing in the cadenza was striking and attractive.

The energetic rondo of the finale was exuberant — reading at times as spontaneous — as orchestra and soloist spun out episodic variations on the theme. A muscular solo cadenza announced the concerto’s conclusion before a brilliant coda that set up a strong finish.

Without a clear ictus to anchor the concerto, the tether tying soloist to ensemble was Zukerman’s ability to be clear in his phrasing. At moments those phrases felt a bit rushed, but overall this was a well-coordinated, polished and compelling performance. The Israel-born Zukerman, 74, demonstrated no shortage of athleticism or elasticity in the bold, intricate passages, while evenly maintaining a clarity of tone down to the soft hushed passages.

Edward Elgar’s Enigma, a theme and variations, made up the evening’s second half. Although the composer’s theme is of his own invention, history says the “enigma” is that another, even larger theme hides inside. It is never heard explicitly, but is said to be a well-known tune. This has led to a frenzy of speculation and musical detective work, and various theories positing “Auld Lang Syne,” “Rule Britannia,” and even Mozart’s “Prague” symphony as inspirations.

Regardless, Enigma is widely acknowledged as Elgar’s masterpiece, a dedication to family members, friends, colleagues and one pet whose identities were made public after the composer’s death. The first of the 14 variations serves as a portrait of his wife, followed by expressionistic depictions of people including his music publisher friend, Augustus Jaeger and a viola student of his named Isabel Fitton; and a galumphing bulldog named Dan who belonged to a friend. The last variation is Elgar’s self-portrait.

Zukerman, through operating with baton only this time, again favored impression over precision. The orchestra, now at full force, adeptly followed Zukerman’s lead, turning out gorgeous dynamic swells and maintaining a lovely balance of color and texture.

The well-known “Nimrod” variation (a Biblical word play on his friend Jaeger’s last name) was a particularly compelling adagio, with lush, eloquent phrasing. The vivacity of the fifth variation (dedicated to the son of English poet Matthew Arnold) blended smoothly into the cleverly buoyant sixth (Fitton’s ode) before reaching the alarming, stormy seventh—which depicts Elgar’s friend, artist-architect (and would-be pianist) Arthur Troyte Griffith. 

The self-portrait finale was replete with narrative, conjuring notions of struggle before reaching a shimmery, triumphant finish.

The program repeats 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 20 and 21; and 3 p.m. Sunday, January 22. dallassymphony.org

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