Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman, conductor and violin
Beethoven Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43
Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61
Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67
Upon returning from Davies Hall last night, in a state of bewilderment which will soon become apparent, I blundered upon an article from the UK Independent devoted to exploring whether British orchestras are now falling from world-class rank. Government cutbacks in Britain and the orchestras’ own budgetary problems, it suggested, appear to be having an impact on the quality of playing — despite increased ticket sales. Sad to say, this was precisely the feeling I experienced, coming away from a really rather badly executed concert by the Royal Philharmonic on tour, under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman.
Settling into my seat, I happened to overhear one of the senior SF Symphony staffers sitting near me remark that “At least It sold well”, as she rubbernecked the hall. This was, indeed, true. Davies Hall was just about full. But she sounded worried, and with good reason.
If you read a biography of Sir Thomas Beecham, one of the first things that strikes you is the nearly complete inability of symphony orchestras and opera companies in Britain to achieve any financial stability over a period of more than fifty years. This once unimaginably wealthy man, founder of the Royal Philharmonic, died in 1961 worth less than a hundred thousand dollars, after innumerable crises and frantic efforts on his part to keep British musical institutions afloat.
I first heard the Royal Philharmonic at Festival Hall, under Hans Vonk, in 1976. With a certain imprecision, the under-rehearsed players managed to deliver a good performance of the Tchaikovsky Little Russian symphony. Nobody sight-reads better than a British orchestra. And Vonk knew how to conduct. But a look at the programming for that season made it clear that this was about as adventurous as the repertoire dared to be, tied as it was to ticket sales in a cooperative endeavor. In those days, one made allowances. The per-capita GDP of Britain before Margaret Thatcher represented only about 59% of the American living standard at the time. London was shabby and smelled of bad cooking grease. That number is now closer to 85%, in what by almost any measure is an extremely wealthy country. So it is doubly disappointing to witness with the RPO a continuation of this struggle. Even today, the orchestra has no proper hall. Cadogan Hall, where it usually plays, is too small and acoustically flat-sounding — a converted Christian Science Church. And still, programs tend to be played only once. It is hard to feel you are creating immortal art under the circumstances.
I was in the seventh row, as the orchestra filed onstage and took its seats. The players looked both extremely tired and, I thought, a bit cynical. Another gig…? Usually, orchestras from overseas will occupy the Davies Hall stage with the same pleasantly bemused faces as tourists. San Francisco has that effect on visitors. The German orchestras will, it is true, sometimes sit there almost at attention, with a slight attitude. “Just who are these people?”, they will seem to suggest. But at least most visiting musicians give the impression of wanting to be here in the beautiful weather and sample the charms of our cultural mix.
The Royal Philharmonic, as is still the custom in Europe, were garbed in traditional white tie and tails as they sat down Sunday evening. Pinchas Zukerman, though, in what seems a lapse of judgment, sidled out from the wings wearing a black tunic suit with a satin stripe down the front. It made him look both too comfortable and, because of a certain midriff expansion, slightly pregnant! He seemed more camp counselor than conductor, as though cheerleading a troupe in lanyard-making.
I get nervous, when an orchestra receives that kind of encouragement, as though it needed a group hug to get through the evening. And indeed, Zukerman never stopped beaming at the players, no matter what emotion was occurring in the music. His face and body seemed useless when it came to the sort of expression one normally expects from a conductor. He did not dance well with the music, nor mime it. He just beamed. And the energy level suffered, as a result.
There was nothing utterly wrong with the Creatures of Prometheus Overture, which began things — except for the fact that entrances never seemed totally together. The effect was a bit easy-peasy. And at the beginning of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the principal oboe was so out of tune, the proceedings nearly halted. I’ve never heard a major orchestra make a mistake like that in this hall. Indeed, repeatedly during the evening, the RPO would seem to hit a proper chord and then dissolve away from it noticeably out of tune. Then, in the concerto, Pinchas Zukerman began to scrape and scrape some more. The famous richness of his tone was only intermittently evident. And everything sounded effortful. But he managed to hold things together, at least, both conducting and playing. One also noted, ruefully, that violinists who take up conducting in middle age tend to sound stiff-fingered, whether from the passing years, poor diet, lack of interest or lack of practice is hard to say. But Menuhin and Stern were similarly afflicted at this age, and a lot of allowances had to be made. Now Zukerman…
The Fifth Symphony finally showed some signs of life, but it was not until the scherzo that it finally got off the ground. Later, some interesting work from the timpanist kept things vivid, and the players began to look happy and engaged. The audience was thrilled by everything, I must say, in fairness. But the average listener does not approach a concert of repertory like this with a critical mindset. The Marriage of Figaro overture brought things to a conclusion as an encore, well played. And the orchestra seemed to enjoy our rather unbuttoned way with applause and approval.
Overall, though, it was dispiriting to witness a great orchestra in this condition. At the conclusion, a number of the players onstage engaged in a rather un-British, group hug, as if grateful to have gotten through it. This included some interesting kissing from the third stand of first violinists. The kissee was a gorgeous young Asian woman in a distractingly beautiful pant suit. The kisser was her stand partner, who was wearing a wedding ring. He had hovered over her all evening. There will always be an England. So I shall assume the wedding ring was theirs!