Royal Philharmonic Orchestra fills Zellerbach Hall with international prowess

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Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” announces itself with one of the most dramatic chord series in orchestral music, and Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra certainly did it justice. With vehement downbeats, principal guest conductor Pinchas Zukerman led the philharmonic to fill Zellerbach Hall with sound and fury on Sunday.

After the initial somber yet triumphant proclamation, Zukerman let a violin note hang in the hall for longer than expected, almost as if he was wanting each audience member to take a breath with the orchestra before the next bowing.

The main passage of “Egmont” was something to behold. Zukerman’s conducting matched the fervor of the score, his arms sweeping over the philharmonic and encouraging heightened passion, at times even stamping his foot to emphasize his point. The texture of the piece altered as well, with a textural and emotive contrast emerging. The dramatic downstrokes of the strings provoked intense, ominous sentiments, while the winds yet again acted as light liberation.

Several changes had to be made in order to preserve the integrity of the orchestra’s sound in a somewhat nontraditional auditorium. Most orchestral concert halls use soft materials onstage in order to reverberate sound. With Zellerbach’s stone interior, however, there was potential for the sound to become muffled and the solos lost.

In lieu of this, Zellerbach’s sound system was activated via microphones over the orchestra. Additionally, the philharmonic tactfully placed its mid-ranged violas closer to the audience. Despite these valiant efforts, the annunciation of the solos in the first piece was slightly muffled by the instruments closer to the audience — the piece was devoid of its usual complete passion as the overall volume was obscured by the hall’s composition.

The philharmonic still produced a sensational performance. Stage alterations were made between pieces, with members of the standing bass section talking to the stage managers between songs. While this might be viewed as distracting, it is commendable that both the orchestra and Cal Performances remained attentive throughout the concert in order to ensure the highest quality of sound. This improvement was evident, as Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5” and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E minor” were presented with their expected vivacity.   

The following violin concerto was certainly a surprise, as Zukerman himself walked onstage after the stage change. The collective gasps and light laughter gave way to Zukerman taking a breath and conducting the smaller orchestra with a bow in one hand, the other hand clutching the neck of a violin. The three-part concerto took more than 30 minutes, and Zukerman filled the roles of both conductor and soloist, transforming his mannerisms as he alternated. 

Zukerman played his violin with painless benevolence, evoking a naturally regal sentiment. Many passages presented themselves with delicate upstrokes followed by vigorous runs. The first and third parts of the concerto were the most memorable, as Zukerman found his footing in faster passages. The second movement of the piece was still commendable, but Zukerman’s duality of roles within the orchestra detracted from his concentration on the actual piece. Instead of being dedicated to the music alone, Zukerman’s ability to both conduct and perform garnered more attention than his passion, which lacked during some typically emotional passages.  

After a short intermission and special reception for student attendees, the philharmonic proceeded to play Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E minor.” Masterfully guiding the audience through four movements with four completely different characters, the philharmonic came alive in the finale, each instrumental section coming to the foreground. 

The second movement was held by the French horns as the gentle tone of Austin Larson soared over the string section. Each section held its own, adding texture to the slower movement and evoking different sentiments with each note change. During the fourth movement, true to Tchaikovsky, the brass carried many heavier passages, especially the triumphant finale. By the end of the performance, the trumpet players were justifiably out of breath and looking to each other with beaming pride. 

And this pride was justified as the orchestra’s diverse and complex repertoire maintained its global reputation. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s interpretation of arguably the three most notable composers resulted in a standing ovation in Zellerbach Hall — an incredibly well-deserved send-off.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].