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Ionarts-at-Large: A Korean-Zukerman Evening of Weirdness at the Musikverein

It was a strange, strange concert when the Korean Chamber Orchestra (formerly known as the Seoul Baroque Ensemble) took the stage at Vienna’s Musikverein on March 1st for their hyperbolically titled “50th Anniversary World Tour” – a world consisting of Vienna ("Is there anything else that matters?", a true Viennese might incredulously ask), London, Berlin, Moscow and Seoul.

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W.A.Mozart, Violin Concertos 3-5,
A.Manze / The English Concert
Harmonia Mundi

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F.Schubert, Symphony No.5,
T.Dausgaard / Swedish CO

From the get-go of the Mendelssohn Symphony for Strings No.10, performed under the patronizing glares of Pinchas Zukerman (conductor and soloist of the World Tour, although participating only on two stops), there was a weird atmosphere about the place, even as the performance turned out fairly normal: light, detailed, reasonably accurate, bloodless and totally matter of fact. The event got a further push towards the Twilight Zone when Pinchas Zukerman’s wife, nominal cellist Amanda Forsyth, gallivanted onto the stage in a dress that took its cue from an exploded candy factory. Husband and wife (perish the thought of nepotism: Zukerman would never appear with her at his side if he didn’t think she was absolutely one of the world’s best cellists… he’s said so himself, in a pleasant chat we once had on the topic) then gave a rendition of the Vivaldi Concerto for Violin and Cello RV547 that was filled to the brim with passive aggressive energy.

Zukerman—whether you like his bygone-era-style or not—touches the violin and presto: a big, sumptuous tone emerges that forces or elicits or demands envy! All casual assuredness, he made a sound like a thick stream of chocolate, never actually flat but often sounding though he might almost be. Forsythe, despite her heavy rubato, sounded leaner and lighter and very well rehearsed. Together their cello vs. the violin act absorbed all the artistic oxygen  and somewhere behind them hints of Vivaldi and the Korean Chamber Orchestra could be heard.

Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, doubly featuring Mr. Zukerman, was dashed off with the air of the experienced—not to say: jaded—veteran. It’s his kind of thing. Certainly his 2013 Salzburg Festival performance of K.216 was rather good, in its own pinkish way. He’s anachronistically marvelous when he’s on. And although Zukerman looked as though he could barely be bothered on this occasion, goodness he was on, once again: Anodyne and awesome, rich in tone, impoverished spiritually, lovely if loveless, and a few sloppy moments that only increased the air of nonchalant grandeur. Thoughts arose in me if, in a strange way, it might not be a burden to be able to play the violin as easily as well as Zukerman. A hypothetical question without an answer. For everyone who loves the cream of his tone, his indulgence in the caressing (others might say: interminable) slow movement will have brought particular joy. The KCO provided impeccable support, entirely with him and not overly distracted of Zukerman’s occasional attempts at conducting them with moody swings of his bow. A look of polite boredom all around the orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile for Cello and Strings brought back the Zukerman-Forsythe double act of awkwardness; her playing, him conducting. Death-rays shot from her eyes as the aging concert-master and music director of the KCO Kim Min struggled just a little bit in his solo/duet passage. Pleased with the applause between the two movements (the empty Musikverein was especially packed with tourists that day; the Viennese would never applaud between movements nor allow others to get beyond two consecutive claps at the ‘wrong’ note), Forsythe rose and bowed. Then she bowed some more, with her perpetually petulant air… but admittedly in style, artful tone and with a nice flow throughout the Tchaikovsky.

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, with European reinforcements for the brass and winds, briskly hurdled towards the end of the program. Well, at least the first movement hurdled, with a lightness that befit the sunny air of this marvelous symphony… the subsequent movement rather had overtones of barbiturates. After Zukerman had taken his last bows, the orchestra proceeded with encores, led by Kim Min. While they were not the most satisfying fare, musically, the spirit of the orchestra was as if wholesale rejuvenated. All smiles and spunk, they added late fun and further question-marks. 


Anonymous said...

Great review. He's overdue for this kind of scrutiny.

jfl said...

Thanks for the comment. It may have bite, but I really did try to honestly report. (And people present that I know -- which may be self-selecting, granted -- agree that it's quite accurate.) Others found it was "dripping with personal venom" and "condescending". I find myself agreeing with you more than that latter opinion. :-)