The multi-talented Pinchas Zukerman, master of the violin, viola and baton, displayed his many creative capabilities with panache this weekend in a San Diego Symphony program comprised of a perennial Bach favorite, a lesser known early work by Richard Strauss, and a Shostakovich symphony full of symbolism. During the evening Zukerman evolved from small wind ensemble leader sans baton to violin soloist and Baroque ensemble conductor to a dynamic leader wielding his authoritative baton with full orchestra.

The 17-year-old Strauss burst upon the musical scene while still in high school with his one-movement Serenade in E flat major for woodwinds. When he reached college, Strauss’ prodigious Mozart-like skill garnered the respect of Hans von Bülow, thus earning the young composer a ticket out of his classroom and into the professional music world. Strauss dismissed the one-movement work as mere student effort, but it has remained as evidence of the composer’s youthful charm, foreshadowing his future preeminence.

Both the ambiance of the piece, as well as its scoring for 13 wind instruments, evoke Mozart’s prodigious youthful compositional talents; but perhaps more significantly, the work’s expansive melodies and deep sonorities show the profound influence of Strauss’s predecessor in opera, Richard Wagner.

In this rendering, members of the laudable San Diego Symphony wind section displayed their own considerable abilities. With remarkable SDS principal flutist Rose Lombardo sustaining the musical pulse with balletic body movements and sinuous tone, her fellow wind players added their supple timbres to create a homogeneous wash of sound that flowed like one instrument gliding along a river of silk. With such an extraordinary ensemble to guide, the baton-less Zukerman had but to lead with his expressive arm and hand movements to complete the stunning effect.

To build on this impeccable opening, Zukerman, violin in hand, paired with former SDS Young Artist Competition winner and current Metropolitan Opera Orchestra concertmaster David Chan, to bring to the stage a lively version of J.S. Bach’s Double Concerto for 2 violins in D minor. A fixture of the violin repertoire for student and professional alike, the concerto gives both first and second violinist non-stop opportunities to shine. Zukerman and Chan availed themselves of these possibilities with élan and gusto. Their styles showed great contrast in character of tone and approach: Chan with subtle grace and agility; Zukerman with brio and boldness. Together these two virtuosi plumbed Bach’s incomparable artistry to produce a musical climax to the finish that brought the house down.

Shostakovich chose the key of E minor, famously and gorgeously used by Rachmaninov for his Second Symphony, for his Tenth. At the beginning of this work, Shostakovich extensively utilizes the lower string instruments to portray a darker, more brooding atmosphere than that of his Russian compatriot. However, in broad strokes that symbolize his liberation from the distress created by Stalin’s extreme artistic repression, Shostakovich radically changes the impression portrayed by the largely gloomy character of the first three movements by composing a fourth movement filled with surprisingly upbeat characteristics, as if bursting forth from his Stalin-imposed artistic straitjacket to create a work representing an unbridled expression of deep emotions he had been holding back for years. Thus “48 minutes of tragedy” finishes with a ten minute buoyant ending that belies the weighty ambiance of the previous three movements. Given the nature of these wildly contrasting symphonic techniques set forth in the work, perhaps symbolic of the constant struggles between good and evil, it is hardly surprising that the piece resulted in an imbroglio of conflicting opinions between personages from contrasting camps within the Soviet political spectrum. 

Zukerman showed himself to be a master conductor. He plied the lavish score, reaching deep below the surface to reveal and emphasize the work’s mysterious nature. Overcoming the challenge of working with an immense, thick orchestration, he nonetheless managed to let the work’s inherent delicacy shine through. His command of the full-sized orchestra was total and absolute, his baton technique precise at any given moment. And when it was warranted, he simply allowed the virtuosity of the orchestra to rule, which resulted in a performance that was stunning in its brilliance.

Individually and together, the orchestra displayed themselves as an ensemble to reckon with: the deep sonority of the lower strings in the opening; the penetrating sweetness of the solo piccolo at the ending of first movement Allegro; the superb rendering of a bassoon part that was virtually the equivalent of a concerto; the exceptional execution of the seemingly impossible horn parts, Strauss-like in their challenge; the virtuosity of the strings with Chan at the helm. From top to bottom the orchestra outdid themselves and are sounding better than ever.