The Community Arts Music Association of Santa Barbara kicked off its 101st season on Monday night when Great Britain’s national orchestra filled The Granada Theatre with refined performances of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Led by conductor and violinist Pinchas Zukerman, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra delivered ninety minutes of music bookended by the latter composer’s works, while a concerto by the former comprised most of the show’s first half and simultaneously showcased Mr. Zukerman’s two biggest talents.
The mostly older local crowd filled into the theater shortly before 8 p.m. and were followed onstage by the musicians and Mr. Zukerman shortly thereafter. The ensemble greeted the audience with “Polonaise” from Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin,” a triumphant, upbeat opening and at around five minutes, by far the shortest piece of the evening. Its brevity struck one as an effort to start the evening on an accessible note before venturing the more daunting tour de forces that were to follow.
Much of the orchestra departed the stage after the opening and left almost an entirety of string instruments remaining. Although some light wind instrumentation could be heard during the evening’s second piece, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major,” from the front of the auditorium no wind players were visible on the risers at the back of the stage. As the unneeded players exited the stage, Mr. Zukerman departed momentarily before returning with his violin so he could play the concerto’s solo sections. He made playing and conducting at the same time look easy and displayed a virtuosic command over his instrument throughout the piece’s three movements.
From a casual music listener’s perspective, the piece’s first and third movements had the most immediate impact. During the former, Mr. Zukerman squeezed as much vibrato out of his violin as possible and the section’s recurring nine-note riff would have sounded familiar even to someone who doesn’t like classical music. The third movement was memorable for the orchestra as much as it was for Mr. Zukerman’s playing, as both exchanged call-and-response passages and the string section produced one of the evening’s most striking sounds: A deep, swirling buzz. The violinists and violists even seemed to move their torsos in circular unison as their bows drew the whirring sound from their lower strings.
Following a twenty minute intermission, the show continued with a far louder and more ostentatious tone. The 50-minute Tchaikovsky piece “Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64” started with a quiet, dark mix of stately woodwind and string notes that gradually built to the booming, full force of strings, woodwinds, and brass. The brass in particular was far more apparent than during the first piece and added a bombast not apparent in the concert’s first half. While it certainly had its quieter sections in the first three movements and all were impeccably played, one walked away from finale remembering it for sheer power and volume.
In an interview with the News-Press for a preview of Monday night’s concert, Mr. Zukerman remarked that “Symphony No. 5” was poorly received by contemporary critics when it first premiered. Critic opinions can’t prevent standing ovations more than a century later, however, because the whole audience was on its feet an applauded enthusiastically after the Royal Philharmonic delivered its final, stinging notes.