Performing as a soloist and conducting simultaneously is a job reserved for the strong of heart. Stepping up to that challenge boosts a musician’s profile, but just as readily, his or her vulnerability to error. A string player who conducts while performing possibly has it easier than some: compare Daniel Barenboim, for example, whose back faces the audience from the piano: a comprising position. In Leonidas Kavakos’ case, having both hands busy hardly prevented his giving a cocked head, swing of a hip or a raised eyebrow. What’s more, he always faced the audience whilst actually playing.

Leonidas Kavakos
© Jan Olav Wedin

Here in Zurich, Kavakos’s long-year familiarity with Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major served him nicely at the Tonhalle Maag. He painted a clean, sovereign line, playing a thin filigree thread above the orchestra in the first movement, contrasting it demonstratively in the lower range. His resonant 1734 ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius made the Allegro seem a conversation between two dear friends. 

In the Andante, Kavakos changed registers seamlessly, raising his hand only periodically to signal to the players, and incorporating variations in volume and resonance that oscillated among the melody’s silken threads. In the final Rondo, with its playful melodies inspired by dance and folk music, his virtuoso bow work and perfect syncopation with the orchestra was, as the old adage goes, “alone, worth the price of admission”. Indeed, Kavakos did a stellar job by the concerto, giving us the true highlight of the evening. He proved nicely – he said in a recent interview – that the instrument is neither his tool nor his companion, but his true voice. 

Kavakos returned to the stage before the interval to conduct, rather than to play. In Othmar Schoeck’s Sommernacht, a 1945 pastoral intermezzo for string orchestra, the musicians paid tribute to a Swiss composer who enjoyed a long association with Zurich. Schoeck’s work is marked by renunciation of a continuous meter and a good deal of tonal-break experimentation, characteristics that reflected a willingness to open up to the tenets of new music at the time. For the modern ear, however, the score’s swells and measured chords make it somewhat predictable. That said, it does give run to both a beautifully rendered cello opening, and a solo violin interlude, played here by the orchestra’s accomplished leader. Overall, however, there was something decidedly “film-score-ready” in the work’s effects, and its ending, given its postwar date of completion, was particularly bleak. Lacking any kind of resolution, many in the audience walked into the interval with a sense of “Quo vadis?” 

Last on the programme was Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, the tremendously rousing “Eroica”. Composed mainly in 1803-1804, the celebrated work combines classical symphonic tradition with revolutionary qualities that push the boundaries of form, harmony and emotiveness as they move towards Romanticism. Indeed, conductor David Zinman has cited the “blinding light” of Beethoven’s work as having changed the history of music. 

Kavakos conducted the “Eroica” without a score. That was commendable, given the sum of its rugged parts, but his direction was modest, if not somewhat uninspired. Granted, the score is as familiar as a best-loved novel, and one hardly needs a jumping bean on the podium, but as a conductor, Kavakos came across as decidedly conservative. The second movement’s famous funeral march, long in its own right, was taken even more slowly than usual, moving at a snail’s pace, every note generously weighted. Several of the players, however – I noted the flute and bassoon in particular –  seemed to relish the measured pomp. 

The third movement started out like a Baroque configuration, before the melody was hoisted up by woodwinds and horns. Textures of sound rose and curdled before the great collusion of the tutti fired up the entire stage. But in the final movement, despite the strings’ injection of tremendous dynamism, the effect was like stirring a thick soup, and the symphony drew to its end quite lugubriously.

In April 1929, alluding to the “Eroica” overall, a London music critic wrote in The Harmonium, “if this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.” Given its popularity today, that shows just how time can change assessments. Only time will tell if Kavakos is destined to make a mark as a conductor. Meantime, we well know the merits of his own true voice.