Violinist Zukerman hits high note at San Francisco symphony hall

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On Sunday night, world-renowned violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman led London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a rousing performance at San Francisco’s Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.

The Royal Philharmonic and Zukerman put on an entirely Beethoven program, consisting of the overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus,” the Violin Concerto in D Major and Symphony No. 5. Zukerman, principal guest composer of the Royal Philharmonic since 2009, is on an American tour with the Royal Philharmonic, which performed in Newark, N.J., as well as Northridge and Costa Mesa, Calif. San Francisco marked the final stop of its tour.

The start of the concert, Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus,” was ballet music with a strong, brassy introduction that was performed expertly by the orchestra. The string and wind sections played off each other spectacularly, with careful attention to detail and tone. This was to be expected from the Royal Philharmonic, one of the best and most prestigious symphonic orchestras in the world, which rose to the occasion by testing the acoustic limits of the Davies Symphony Hall.

The second piece performed was Beethoven’s sole violin concerto, a notoriously complex piece to perform, especially for the violin soloist. Zukerman, a classical music icon who teaches at the Manhattan College of Music  and currently resides in Ottawa, Canada, played the concerto’s infamous solo, and executed it with the kind of technical expertise and furious passion for which he has long been known.

The concerto begins slowly, picking up speed as the violins drive the piece along with powerful chords that fade into the background as the first-chair violin soloist emerges. The title of this first movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” translates literally to “fast, but not overly so.” While the orchestra constructed a rich and beautiful setting, Zukerman’s violin felt like a technicolor brush on blank canvas at times.

The second movement of the concerto, “Larghetto,” or “fairly slow,” depends largely on the conductor’s pace. For Zukerman, who was both the soloist and the conductor, this instruction meant that he had to rely on the skill and connection formed in practice between himself and the rest of the orchestra. There wasn’t a moment that felt out of place in the whole movement (or in the rest of the show), and the symphony hall setting lent the orchestra a particularly emotive feel throughout.

The final movement of the concerto, “Allegro,” simply means “fast.” A dynamic piece of music that alternates between ferocious volume and playful string interplay, its conclusion is both resonant and powerful, and on Sunday night left the crowd starstruck before intermission.

The second half began with what are perhaps the four most famous sets of notes in classical music: the opening chords to Beethoven’s Fifth. The symphony moves between a kind of savage beauty and slow decadence from the first movement to the third and final — its final movement is the longest, incorporating both brass-heavy melodies and fine-tuned string instrumentation. The Royal Philharmonic’s interpretation of this part was among the most memorable of the evening, accentuating the brass tones while elevating the strings at some of the softer or down-tempo moments.

Zukerman, an Israeli who achieved international acclaim after finishing at New York’s Juilliard School in the mid-1960s, is, trite as it sounds, one of the best living violinists in the world. Similarly, the Royal Philharmonic is one of the top collections of musicians in the world, and it was a rare spectacle to see them perform with someone of Zukerman’s caliber.

For students, a limited number of “rush tickets” are available to symphony performances at Davies Symphony Hall, priced at $20 each.