ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra strings obviously enjoy playing with Pinchas Zukerman, the guest conductor and violin soloist on Saturday night at Mahaffey Theater. With Zukerman in front of them, the string players seem to have more bravado, more gallantry than they do under the baton of conductors who don't happen to be violin superstars.
Zukerman, making his second appearance with the orchestra since leading an all-Beethoven concert in 2005, knows how to program to his strength. Saturday's agenda included Elgar's Serenade for Strings, Schubert's Fifth Symphony and the Mozart G-Major Violin Concerto, featuring Zukerman as soloist. These are all works that show off the strings, with only a smattering of winds and no brass or percussion in the reduced orchestra.
With his handsome profile and bushy crop of silver hair, Zukerman brings some glamor to the orchestra. (Remember, this is a man who was once married to the movie star Tuesday Weld.) He's part of that long line of violin virtuosos from Paganini on down who mesmerize audiences with their sparkling technique and presence — not to mention the opulent sound of Zukerman's priceless Guarneri violin.
The concerto was a joy to hear in his hands, the perfect mix of youthful freshness (Mozart, a fine violinist himself, was 19 when he wrote it in Salzburg in 1775) and effortless technical command. There was a singing quality to Zukerman's playing of the long melodic lines of the melancholy Adagio, with unerring intonation in even the most dauntingly exposed passages.
Zukerman got the orchestra started in the Mozart by conducting with his back to the audience before turning around to address the solo part. From then on, communication between violinist-conductor and orchestra was subtle, with a nod of the head here, a flick of the bow there during a rest for the soloist. The ensemble held together beautifully all the way through.
The Schubert was one of his little symphonies, a 27-minute gem full of seamless, flowing melodies, performed with sublime restraint, more in the style of Mozart than Beethoven. Opening the evening was the Elgar Serenade, whose slow movement Zukerman milked for every last bit of emotion.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.