The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had a very special concert built around the return of former music director Yoel Levi plus a one- night engagement of legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, who is one of the most reliable attendance draws in classical music. The house was sold out in anticipation of these two grandmasters appearing together. In fact, general admission seats were sold on the stage to handle the expected turnout and the program was live-streamed to mark this historic event for those unable to be at Symphony Hall. Alas, as was portended by the presence of hand sanitizer, blue sanitary gloves, and masks, this program was not occurring in ordinary times. The day before a notice went out from Symphony management that Mr Perlman canceled his appearance on the advice of his physician. But, in the face of these challenges, Pinchas Zukerman agreed to perform instead. One superstar violinist graciously took the place of another so that the show could go on, but many patrons chose not to attend, either because of the change or in response to the virus that is just making its appearance in Atlanta.

Pinchas Zukerman
© Cheryl Mazak

It is safe to say that many who attended were excited about Yoel Levi’s return, his first since his departure in 2000 as the ASO's music director, although he held an emeritus title until 2005. Levi has a reputation for demanding precision, strong musical interpretations, and an elegant conducting technique. He lived up to that reputation in this special evening and when he entered the stage, the audience gave him an extended greeting.

The program began with Verdi’s overture to his opera La forza del destino, the ASO playing with tightness and control. As if to call everything to order, the opening three-note “fate” motif was played forcefully by the brass. Levi’s clear and steady beat underscored the inexorable power of fate, a theme so important in Verdi's opera. 

When Maestro Levi and Pinchas Zukerman came onstage to play Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, the audience again gave both a rousing welcome. Bruch’s concerto is one of the most played and most loved in the repertory; it has rich melodies, beautiful harmonies, all contained within a fairly traditional structure. It is the Romantic era in music personified! The first movement contains several solos, each of which seemed no matched for Zukerman’s musicianship and skill. The slow second movement is gorgeous and provides an opportunity for the soloist and orchestra to move from one theme to another in a musically thick and rich concoction. The finale is a showcase for the soloist’s skills, with many lovely double-stops passages, all of which were played by Zukerman with a transparent golden tone. The finale was suitably rousing and the final grand chords were wonderfully together. Zukerman has incredible right arm/hand control, and his bowing remains precise, never hitting or even grazing a wrong string. His intonation was spot-on and he and Maestro Levi were of one accord in their approach. 

The final work was Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major. While the composer attached a program to early versions of the work, he rejected that in later editions, yet it does seem more like a tone-poem than a symphony. Of the work’s four movements, the performance of the first here seemed a bit listless; within the first few minutes, the clarinet played a wrong note, something that is so very out of character. Once the rousing second movement with its Ländler-like themes began, there was no doubt the ASO was again focused and on-point. The third movement, with its Frère Jacques theme, was ominous and ironic. The original presentation of the theme by the principal double bass was flawless. The thunderous fourth movement showcased some great horn playing and the stage-right placement of the bass drum seemed to give it extra punch. 

In so many ways this was a momentous evening with a legendary violist, a conductor of strength and conviction, and the great musicianship of the ASO. To a degree, it is ironic that such a grand performance by a former music director comes during a season when several guest conductors are auditioning to become one of his successors. C'est la vie!