By R.M. Campbell
One often does not know how a particular symphony program comes into being. Take what the Seattle Symphony Orchestra is calling “Viola Spectacular with Pinchas Zukerman.” The first of three concerts was Thursday at Benaroya Hall. Does the idea belong to SSO music director Gerard Schwarz, the soloist or was it a collaboration of the two men? The end result was Zukerman as viola soloist in two works and conductor in one.
Zukerman, as violinist and violist and conductor, in that order, has been plying these waters for several decades. He is now in his early 60s. He has always been a musician of effortless grace, full-bodied technique, a virtuoso in any sense of the word. He was among the first of major instrumentalists to seek the podium. He still plays dozens of concerts every year in a good share of the world. leads his own chamber ensemble, is principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic and guest conducts a fair number of others.
Zukerman is at ease on stage. There is little fussing one way or the other. The concert opened with Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G. Historical facts about the work may be in short supply but as a vehicle for the viola it is not. It offers two slow movements for the solo instrument of which Zukerman took full advantage. He has a gorgeous tone, rich and deep, seamless phrases. Beauty of tone just flows from his instrument. It made one wonder why so few composes have written anything of consequence for the viola. The fast movements were brisk, but Zukerman seemed to fudge just a little.
In between the viola sandwich were Brahms and the premiere of Robert Beaser’s “Ground O.” The Serenade in A isn’t much of a piece, rather second class Brahms. The reason it was on the program was that the violins were left backstage, putting the violas front and center. What a mellow sound that made, easy and resonant. Schwarz conducted. “Ground O” is a very simple piece but an attractive one, written in response to Sept. 11, 2001. There is an inevitable melancholy to it, but nothing gratuitous or sentimental. Just long, lingering phrases that give the listener time to breathe and time to think. Schwarz’s conducting was just so, and perfect.
The evening ended with Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” an odd combination of viola concerto and symphony. Zukerman was given many opportunities to do a bravura turn, which he did with relish and panache. It was very good to hear the viola in such a setting.