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Holiday for Strings

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
03/27/2008 -  & March 28*, 29
Sir Edward Elgar: Violin Concerto in B Minor, Opus 61
Aaron Copland: Third Symphony

Pinchas Zukerman (Violin)
New York Philharmonic, Michael Christie (Conductor)

“So, El ‘awrence,” declares Sheikh Anthony Quinn to a confused Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, “you are human after all”. Conductor Ricardo Muti may be a superman in bringing out the best in soloists and orchestra, he may be super-human in his travels around the globe. But like Lawrence, the Maestro is human after all. And when he got a “serious flu” in Europe, and his doctors advised him not to travel, the New York Philharmonic had to quickly pull in a substitute conductor for the Elgar and Copland this week.

They didn’t have to look far. Michael Christie has been making a name for himself with virtually every American orchestra, as well as ensembles in Berlin, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and Korea. But this week, he was just across the river in Brooklyn, where he commands the Brooklyn Philharmonic. That in itself is especially challenging, since he took over from the great Robert Spano, one of his teachers.

Besides this, he is well-schooled in music of the last century (and this), so he took to these relatively familiar works with skill and proficiency. And from his published resume, one of the few orchestras listing from his dossier is the New York Philharmonic, so these three days are especially interesting to him. For the record, he did a very creditable job. This was not the front page news when Leonard Bernstein triumphantly took over from Bruno Walter many years ago. But Christie is not that kind of conductor. With his picturesque big broad arm motions, he pulled some find sounds from the orchestra, and gave some satisfaction.

Due to another commitment last night, I heard the matinee, so neither he nor Pinchas Zukerman, nor the orchestra were electrifying. During those mighty fanfares of the Copland Third Symphony, the brass had some bad flubbing. The strings, almost alone in the slow movement gave that balance between meditative and playful. And the finale, based on Fanfare For the Common Man made for a dazzling finale.

The Elgar Violin Concerto brought up a memory when I asked Yehudi Menuhin the difference between his original recording as a 16-year-old lad, and his latest recording when he was about 60. “One,” he said softly, “was the work of a 16-year-old. The other the work of an older man.” Fortunately, he expanded on this, the works going directly to the 60-year-old Zukerman. His Elgar was not the tear-swelling concerto, not the highly emotional lovely performance of Nigel Kennedy. It was rather a “comfortable” Elgar. Appearing without a tie, playing the introduction along with the orchestra, Zukerman seemed almost disinterested. In a way, the playing itself was child’s play for him. No mistake could be heard, the balance with orchestra was fine, the difficult cadenza went like clockwork, the softer nostalgic passages were touching. But in its very restraint, one felt that Zuckerman was holding something back, that he was foregoing all-out emotion for the simply joy of playing utterly perfectly violin.

Harry Rolnick



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