The last time we caught the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2004, the ensemble was touring with its current music director, Daniele Gatti, and sounded solid and dynamic in the clearly etched acoustics of Royce Hall. On Saturday night, the orchestra appeared in a different, not quite as acoustically flattering venue down the rain-soaked 405, the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall -- this time primarily as a showcase for the baton and bow of Pinchas Zukerman.
Zukerman has had decades of experience at simultaneously juggling the functions of conductor and soloist. This in itself is not exactly a rare feat. What was unusual here was the vehicle, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a massive undertaking in which the violinist almost invariably leaves the conducting to someone else.
Zukerman probably has played the Beethoven more times than he wants to count by now, yet he still makes it sound like a fresh exploration -- with a large dynamic range and a few rhetorical surprises. Like his contemporary and fellow Ivan Galamian student Itzhak Perlman, Zukerman continues to play very naturally, with no audible sense of forcing or scraping, his big steely tone acquiring some sweetness in the slow movement. No matter how idiosyncratic his physical motions and phrasings seemed -- at times, the piece resembled a series of imposing, elegantly crafted, self-contained sentences in search of the whole -- the orchestra followed right along without a hitch.
Zukerman's ideas for the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 were mostly a throwback to another age when big-orchestra, Big Statement Beethoven ruled the stage. He kept it moving, even managing a rollicking tempo in the Scherzo, but he couldn't get things to jump, didn't let the rhythm take over and sweep us away in the finale.
Weber's overture to "Oberon," always a sure-fire curtain-raiser, had plenty of snap and spirit down the stretch, with a rich, plummy string tone dominating the broad introduction at a low volume.
The biggest, maybe decisive, hang-up of the evening, though, was the sound the Royal Philharmonic was producing in Segerstrom when things got loud -- a thick, soupy texture in which the brasses easily obliterated some principal string lines. Perhaps these hard-working London musicians were not used to playing in a new (for them) hall near the end of their U.S. tour. Or maybe Zukerman prefers a heavy, overripe sound. Or maybe it's the hall, period. Whatever the reason, that's what came through, even from the advantageous perspective of the box seats.