Mostly Mozart (7): Zinman is Welcomed  Back to the States After 19 Years as Conductor of Tonhalle in Zurich

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival 7: Boyce, Mozart, Beethoven, Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 19.8.2014 (SSM)  

Boyce: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major (1760)
Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major for violin and viola, K.364 (1779-80)
: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) (1803)

English music had somewhat of a heyday starting in the mid to late 16th century with the music of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and John Dowland. It continued with Henry Purcell in the late 17th century and Handel in the early 18th century. Although some of my fellow English reviewers on this site may disagree, there wasn’t another composer of substance in England until the late 19th and early 20th centuries with Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius. Thomas Arne, an almost exact contemporary of Boyce, is best known by crossword players as the four letter word for the composer of “Rule Brittania.” There were few composers of note in the England in which Boyce flourished. The Continent fared a little better with the sons of Bach, W. F. Bach and C.P.E. Bach, Gluck and Stamitz. Born in 1711, Boyce had few competitors when he was offered the job as Master of the King’s Music in 1755.  He continued in that role for over 20 years.

Boyce was not a major player in the development of the incipient classical period  as were his continental counterparts. C. P. E. Bach was writing Sturm und Drang music well before the “official” beginning date of that artistic period; Gluck was reforming opera; Stamitz was creating the modern symphony orchestra. Boyce and later the youngest son of Bach, Johann Christian, were writing music that was in reaction to the thick, heavy music of the Baroque. Although Mozart had met the youngest Bach and wrote musical transcriptions of some of Bach’s music, this is music for the dilettante, fluffy background music that requires little effort to understand.

Zinman instilled life into this short Boyce symphony by sharpening the attacks and speeding up the tempi. Well played by the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, the tiny movements, even with the repeats, took barely 10 minutes.

What a difference in talent between Boyce and Mozart. The double concerto known as the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola is one of Mozart’s greatest accomplishments. It is a work that gives considerably more pleasure live then recorded. Because the sound from the solo violin and solo viola mix and blend with each other, it’s hard to know which instrument is playing what at any given time.  I believe Bell was playing the infamous “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius.  It had a wonderful sound and Bell played as if it were made for him. Its depth and warmth would make it even more difficult to know what instrument is being played, the low notes of the Strad having such a rich “viola” timbre. I wasn’t thrilled with Lawrence Power’s performance: his cavalier approach never sounded convincing.  He accompanied the orchestra when not soloing. It was not just this look-at-me performance of the orchestral viola part but it was the superficiality of his interpretation itself that disappointed me.  Granted he clearly had mastered and memorized the work’s ritornello viola part, but the result was that he  continued in the solo parts as if he were still a member of the orchestra. It also was a bit unkind to Joshua Bell, standing there while his fellow soloist was soaking up all the attention. I am sure many in the audience wondered why Bell wasn’t playing along with the orchestra like Powell. Bell has nothing to worry about.

Zinman came through with a powerful and well structured BeethovenEroica“.  He never settled for the automatic pilot that many conductors turn on when they play a work time and time again. From the opening chords and timpani drum beats, I experienced a kind of energy I hadn’t felt from this symphony in quite a while. This was no rote performance. Zinman brought specific orchestral groups to the forefront so that they were heard above the usually dominant string section. This gave clarity to musical lines that are often buried beneath the strings.  Zinman took the huge crescendos of the first movement and made them huger. Starting at a very low pianissimo he cranked up the volume to the loudest fortes. This never seemed artificial but rather appeared to come organically from what preceded it. The second movement was less a funeral march than an heroic march not towards death but towards life. The dominance of the tympani as it was played in the middle of the second movement was chilling. The brass was brazen in both the second movement and the hunting horns of the trio section of the third movement Scherzo stood out clearly from the background. The finale was a bundle of energy, nonstop whirlwinds with cascading runs that I can’t remember hearing as clearly and with such speed since Toscanini recordings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Filled as it is with false codas, the final movement often seems endless. I never felt that here. The music raced to the finish but it never felt rushed.

 I’m sure Zinman will be missed by the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra and audience, but it’s nice to know he will be back in the States as an itinerant conductor or, perhaps,  conductor of an American orchestra. There are many orchestras that would benefit from his leadership, but I’d best leave that topic for another time.


Stan Metzger

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