Mixed elements led to mixed results in the Madison Symphony Orchestra's program at Overture Hall last weekend.
Despite extensive experience in conducting, Pinchas Zukerman remains most readily identifiable as one of the world's leading violinists. It was not surprising, therefore, that he included a violin concerto as part of his guest stint in both capacities. His choice of a 15-minute Bach concerto (A minor, BWV 1041) fitted his wide identification with 18th-century music, in both concerts and recordings. But it was part of a merely 30-minute first half of the concert. And, even with more than half the orchestra sent off the stage for it, the remaining 24 string players (plus harpsichord) were still far too many for this intimate music. Their contributions of minimal substance but high volume regularly overwhelmed Zukerman's delicate, sweet, thoughtful solo playing. Did he just want a quickie concerto not requiring much conducting?
As a conductor, Zukerman is actually perceptive and intelligent, good at illuminating details others miss. The concert opener, the Overture to Weber's Der Freischütz, is a towering landmark of early Romantic music. At least at the Friday performance I heard, it was unfortunately given a rather bumpy reading, with some imprecise entries and rough ensemble at times, for all the interesting interpretative touches. Was rehearsal time stinted for this item and concentrated rather on the main event?
That would be the concert's second half, devoted to Tchaikovsky's powerfully extroverted Fourth Symphony. This is perhaps the most structurally strained of the composer's six - almost more a suite than a symphony. True, the massive first movement, the longest by far of its four, is cast in a general sonata form. Still, it remains a series of sharply differentiated episodes, ranging from delicate lyricism to a wild hysteria that almost seems to anticipate Mahler at moments. A conductor's job in this music is to impose some overall continuity and sweep, to avoid a slip toward incoherence. Zukerman, however, seemed more interested in relishing each episode as a separate study in Tchaikovsky's ever-artful orchestral colorations. The result was a bundle of disparities, each absorbing, yet hardly a totality. Partly Tchaikovsky's fault, to be sure, but not remedied this way.
Fortunately, the remaining three movements - mournful folksongs, whimsical pizzicatos, rowdy celebration and all - presented fewer traps, and Zukerman handled their individualities quite deftly. Through it all, the orchestra's playing was simply magnificent.