Leos Janáček's The Fiddler’s Child (1912) was the first of the Czech composer’s tone poems, and presents a macabre piece of folkloric fear. The story portrayed involves an old woman entrusted with an orphan boy, who has a nocturnal vision of his dead fiddler father coming back for his son, playing the violin alluringly all the while. In the morning, as such a narrative will always dictate, she finds it was not so much a vision as a preternatural harbinger, for the child is dead, and the violin gone. The potential of the story could make for pretty gothic music and eerie violin playing and plaintive oboe (representing the child), but Janáček’s idiom perhaps fails in convincingly dramatizing the narrative (despite his own tragic personal losses of two children at about the same time); at any rate, it would have taken more finesse from the orchestra to make it into an especially memorable evocation of a nightmare-turned-reality. They could, for example, have maximized the creepiness of their tremolos, the muted sounds, the pauses, the changes in voice and volume rather more than they did. There are some ‘strange’ colours here which I thought needed more daring exploration. The absence of the concertmaster’s violin at the end should have been the most strikingly real absence, to give one a frisson of terror, but it didn’t really.

Pinchas Zukerman
© Cheryl Mazak

The orchestra warmed up into Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, K543, after something of an insipid start. The opening, which ought to be so alive in marked contrasts between the majestic and the lithe sounded a lot less dramatic than it should. But by the Allegro later on in the first movement, they seem to have settled into their Mozartian groove, and there were crisp runs and nuanced rises and falls of sound. The contrasts in the Andante were also somewhat underplayed, but the lilting rhythms of the Minuet and Trio were well evoked, and the fourth movement Allegro was energetic, rhythmically controlled.

Lastly Pinchas Zukerman brought Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major to the stage. Zukerman has a close connection to the Stern family, and his presence as part of the Beethoven/Stern celebration year marked that. His talent was discovered by Isaac Stern (born 1920) in Israel in 1962, who then arranged for him to come and live and study in New York; Pinchas befriended Isaac’s son, Michael, now the conductor of the KC Symphony. It’s always endearing to see an old personal friendship play itself out in intimate musical connections. The upper ranges of Zukerman’s playing were particularly sweet and alluring, and I found this especially true in the way he caressed the notes in the second movement Larghetto. There was a lot of finesse and an intelligent understanding of the work. It was plush, assured playing, but lacking a little in excitement.