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Limited rapport for soloist also conducting

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
05/20/2015 -  & May 21, 2015
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 91 in E-flat major
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

National Arts Centre Orchestra
Christian Zacharias (conductor and piano)

C. Zacharias (© Nicole Chuard)

One of the more distinguished musicians to emerge from Germany during the later decades of the twentieth century, Christian Zacharias has achieved distinction as a concert pianist and a conductor. This week, he appears with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in both roles.

Conducting from a piano (or violin, as Pinchas Zukerman did here last fall) can be a risky business. Even if a performer has a strong, uniquely personal view of a work, conducting an orchestra and being soloist may be perilous. For one thing – obviously... – no one can actually conduct an orchestra while playing the piano or any other instrument. A pianist might manage a few head nods, as did Zacharias during his performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, but little more. And with a demanding overall program, as was the case with NACO this week, it’s doubtful there’s sufficient time to coach independently any orchestra on the sections while the conductor also is performing.

And on top of these challenges there remains the issue of balance between the soloist and the orchestra. Zacharias chose to place the Hamburg Steinway with keyboard facing the orchestra, apparently for an easier view of his players. This, however, means the piano lid must be removed, and its importance in projecting the instrument’s sonority into the hall can be seriously compromised. In fact the piano did project adequately, if not ideally. But without the lid, its sound blends in with the orchestra’s in a way which no composer likely intended. (It’s important to remember that Concertos are showpieces.)

The Concerto got off to a disconcerting start with Zacharias tending to rush and playing his own big opening chords slightly ahead of the orchestra he himself was directing. The orchestra did play well and with clarity and scrupulousness, but connection between the players and their conductor/soloist remained tenuous. The more delicate moments, especially during the second movement and parts of the final Rondo, eluded Zacharias and at best were almost token, even with the beautifully muted strings during the second movement’s opening.

However, the overriding problem with this particular one man band, so to speak, was poor rapport. There were interesting moments, but the Wednesday performance was more like a rehearsal than a genuine, finished version.

Zacharias fared much better earlier in the program, when conducting, and only conducting. Haydn’s Symphony No. 91 was a delight, rhythmically steady from the outset and rich in fine detail such as a brief exchange between bassoon and strings. Players and conductor had a firm grip on the work, and the performance likely prompted more than a few listeners to dig into LP and CD collections to re-explore this music afresh. The two middle movements with their dance rhythms and structure were genuine treasures, the second movement, Andante, being almost a Ländler in quarter time and the third, an exquisite Menuet of elegant subtlety.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 again received a fine, finely graded reading. While the work is among the first completed soon after the composer moved to America, it had been sketched decades earlier, yet strangely it has a decidedly ‘American’ vibe. The explanation, of course, would be the huge influence Schoenberg, even before immigrating to the United States, exerted on American composers, including those who wrote primarily for films.

The opening movement, Adagio, builds through an extended momentum to a huge climax, punctuated by strings and winds conversing. The second movement, in varying tempi and sections, lies somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, with constantly shifting moods and related instrumental choir exchanges: bassoons chattering (rather uncharacteristically), upper strings crying, then lower register ones in more sombre frame.

Zacharias had a firm handle on this demanding work, in technical and mood terms, though when the Chamber Symphony ended, it did seem to leave an impression that Arnold Schoenberg may have been a depressed personality.

Overall, the concert had unfortunate shortcomings (rooted in miscalculation), but there were also genuine rewards. In the Haydn and Schoenberg works, Zacharias demonstrated he is a distinguished musician who has much to offer his listeners, and will continue doing so.

Charles Pope Jr.



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