While numerous conductors have helmed orchestras as soloists from the keyboard, it is a rare violinist who can perform double duty in this capacity. Thomas Zehetmair fulfilled the latter category with the Seattle Symphony in their weekend program: as soloist and conductor in Beethoven’s formidable Violin Concerto and as conductor in Mozart’s lesser-known Minuet in C major, K.409, and the highly popular Prague Symphony.

Thomas Zehetmair
© Julien Mignot

Zehetmair showed great courage in starting the program with Beethoven’s only violin concerto. The multitalented Austrian-born violinist and conductor, who led the entire performance without a score, is a fine conductor, of that there is no doubt, and he proved that the dual roles could be accomplished; but not without sacrificing the quality of the performance from a violinistic standpoint.

To most listeners who are not violinists and have never played the Beethoven concerto, the work may not sound as difficult as it is; certainly it doesn’t have the technical fireworks of the Brahms or Tchaikovsky concertos. But its subtleties and nuances are intricate and challenging. Zehetmair’s attentions were divided between leading the orchestra and executing the complexities of the violin writing; thus, both the technical and interpretive needs of the piece were somewhat compromised.

To make up for this division of labor, Zehetmair performed a fiendishly difficult and lengthy cadenza in the first movement. While innovative in its use of the solo timpani as an accompaniment (perhaps in deference to the all-important first four timpani notes of the introduction to the first movement), and challenging in its technical virtuosity, the showpiece seemed more appropriate for a Paganini concerto than the work for which it was written. At 42 minutes, this version of the concerto exceeds the usual length of most of Beethoven’s symphonies. 

Numerous musicologists, among them the great Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein, theorized that the K.409 Minuet, also named “Minuet for a Symphony in C major” was written for an alternate version of the composer’s Symphony no. 34 K.338, which is lacking a minuet. Upon hearing this delightful work one can well imagine its fitting into the scheme of the 34th, although its great dignity may actually be a bit too noble for that work’s vivacity. Zehetmair’s crisp tempi and graceful gestures brought out the piece’s nobility, charm and stately elegance. Though the orchestration allows for what was in Mozart’s time considered a full complement of winds, the conductor's delicate touch emphasized the intimate, aria-like feel of the solo oboe and flute in the Trio section and produced a clarity and transparency that made the piece feel as if the instrumentation was half its actual size.

Mozart loved Prague and Prague loved Mozart. “My Praguers understand me,” he declared. He chose to premiere his operatic masterpiece Don Giovanni, as well as his Symphony no. 38 in D major, in the city that loved and appreciated him more than any other. The Prague contains all the beauteous melodies and bouncy rhythms for which Mozart had become known, and the compositional style demonstrates the composer’s mature powers of sophistication. Its notable numbers of passages for the woodwinds recognize the outstanding skill of Bohemian wind players of the time.

Like the Symphony no. 34, the Prague does not include a minuet. However, the richness of harmonies in its three movements more than makes up for this lack, and Zehetmair made sure these qualities were accentuated. Indeed, the Seattle winds proved up to the challenge of achieving the virtuosity of their Bohemian predecessors, and overall the orchestra responded well to Zehetmair’s leadership.

The second movement showed great sensitivity in a berceuse-like tempo, with fluent transitions between phrases. Though the lively tempo of the Presto finale was almost too fast for the strings to execute their rapid sixteenth notes, Zehetmair displayed great dynamic contrast between exuberance and delicacy. The effect was invigorating and provided an exuberant ending to the evening.