Review: Pinchas Zukerman Performs Bach at The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

We learned, shortly after 8 p.m., that half the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was stuck on 495. Traffic unites people with weak social bonds; it gives us something communal to commiserate about. “Traffic!” we can say, with that particular aspirated chuckle. “I too have been in traffic! And weather!”

Pinchas Zuckerman. Photography courtesy of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Our 8 p.m. concert started at 8.40 p.m., which happens sometimes, it’s an occurrence whose fault is beyond any one person’s. One can waste time being angry, but it’s unchanneled and unproductive and we’re already where we’re supposed to be, this concert hall, so we find ourselves making the best of it. We are here to listen to some Bach, then some Schoenberg, and, finally, some Beethoven. We are at Strathmore, which is lovely, in a row of patrons that includes a couple who will, in the forty minutes that we’ll wait for the concert proper to begin, walk back and forth in front of us 207 times, like particularly anxious cats with a symphony subscription.

When the night begins, as it finally does, because it has to, we’ve been through so much with this delay but we’ve also been ever so patient about it, it begins with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor and Pinchas Zukerman is our soloist and conductor. He spends little time gathering applause as he quickly makes his way to the front of the stage, violin in hand, bowing curtly from the waist quickly before launching the orchestra into the first movement, an Allegro Moderato. If you aren’t sure if you know this particular piece, here is a baffling YouTube video of Zuckerman et. al., performing it. I suggest either watching it with the sound off, which is a ridiculous suggestion so ignore it, or listening with your eyes closed, because together, the visual and the audio make little sense. One wonders if the music is played in English, from left to right, but if the video is played in Hebrew, from right to left. But you will have an idea of what I was listening to if you take this moment as a gift.

Perhaps it can all be blamed back on the traffic, and the lateness of everything, but the Bach…wasn’t great. Or, rather, instead what I want to suggest is that there was a tacit battle between Zukerman, as soloist, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as orchestra. Zuckerman, throughout — from the Allegro Moderato, through the Andante, and finishing with the Allegro Assai — was a half- to quarter-beat ahead of the orchestra. Both sounded wonderful in their separate moments — in fact, the BSO has rarely sounded so lush and warm, which is a way I’ve rarely heard Bach, who is usually all crisp mathematics and Baroque syncopation. Zuckerman can, and no doubt has, I’d bet money on it, played this in his sleep. He was, of course, technically proficient, no wrong note or stray screech. But he was too quick, as I say, with his tempo, and played mechanically. It may be that in his younger days he was more eager to explore any mysteries in the piece itself and that now, at 69, there is little left to surprise or delight him in this particular Bach.

The Schoenberg was a complete surprise. My only experience, prior to this evening, of Schoenberg was that piece he wrote about a clown. I saw a complicated performance where an orchestra played on one side of the stage, a soprano narrated on the other, and then someone dressed as Pierrot acted the whole thing out, which felt a bit like watching someone listen to the radio on television: a technical challenge to be sure, but unnecessary. I decided to come to this Schoenberg with beginner’s ears, and didn’t listen to any other version of it before the BSO struck the first note.

I was completely transported.

The piece is called Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4This is early Schoenberg, before he began his great experiment of making music less listenable because who needs tones? All the good tones, those early 20th century composers must have thought, have been used and now the stage is clear for a new kind of music, one that isn’t music, and it will be a revolution, and very important. So much depends on the anxiety of influence, wet with rain, beside the white chickens.

As I said, though, this is earlier Schoenberg — Schoenberg that doesn’t feel constrained by melody. With Zuckerman free from his soloist duties, he conducts with incredible nuance and sensitivity. It also becomes clear that it really was Zuckerman, after all, who was the problem with the Bach because the BSO here is gorgeously in sync, even through musical passages with complicated phrasing. This is an orchestra that listens to each other, anticipating what is necessary. If the whole evening had just been this Schoenberg piece played three times it would have been worth the 40-minute wait. I grabbed my symphony companion’s arm 11 minutes into the first movement and whispered a coarse phrase about how much I was in love with what I was hearing. Later, I emailed my friend Steve, a musicologist, to tell him that “I! LOVE! SCHOENBERG!” Steve told me that I was a high romantic. “Or just high.”

The evening ended with Beethoven’s Second Symphony, which I thought made sense at first — a progression not of chronology, but of intention, where we build on Baroque arpeggios with lush modern romanticism to get us to this early Beethoven — but the more I’ve mulled this around in my head the less sure I am of my conclusion. It’s not a math problem where Bach + Schoenberg = Beethoven. But if it had made sense, then consider the kind of genius I must be to intuit it.

The Second is fine. I think it is dusted off more and more frequently of late because everyone has heard the Big Hits so many times and it’s fun to play with au courant by taking something not great, but little played, and re-discovering it, so one feels an explorer of some sort of important lost city. Again, the BSO was gorgeous, with warm tones and bright staccatos. It’s only, I wish it didn’t sound so much like Beethoven trying to figure out what made Mozart so great. The piece is of interest in that you can hear some rough drafts of pieces to come — especially some early phrases Beethoven would use to much better effect in his Ninth. But if you’re going to hear Beethoven’s Second Symphony, then hearing it at the Strathmore is a good way to do that.

As the concert ended, and as we fought our way through the crowds of people fighting against each other to leave the building — while we love music, we love leaving from where we heard the music even more because it might mean a bite of something, or a quick drink, or, best of all, home, with all its comforts — and as we slip into a cab because Uber was too complicated to figure out at Grovesnor, I hummed more Shoenberg, my head on the headrest of a Kia Sorento, as my driver explained that my address did not exist.

It was a good night.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Pinchas Zuckerman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed for one night only, November 9, 2017 at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD.

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