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.