Dual Triumph for Itzhak Perlman

It has been said that at the time of his birth in Israel in 1945, Itzhak Perlman was “born with a fiddle in his hand.” At the very least, we know by the age of three and a half he was showing interest in the violin. Even a childhood bout with polio that would leave his legs paralyzed did not prevent his beginning violin lessons at the age of five. The rest, as they say, is history!

There is something almost amusing about finding one’s self in the position of  “evaluating” a performance by one of the world’s finest musical geniuses. It is a good time to remind myself of the answer I always give when people ask me how I chose my column’s title, “The People’s Critic.” At such times I try to explain that the premise of my column is the notion that all kinds of “just plain folks” enjoy attending the wide variety of performing arts. I always felt that this “silent majority” of most audiences came away with very valid reactions and views about what they had seen on stage. It was often my impression that these views were not well represented by the intellectual elite that sometimes brings an excessively negative approach to performing arts criticism. My goal is to hopefully do a better job of speaking for “the man [or woman] in the street.” With that in mind, I dared to enter the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion for last Saturday night’s Houston Symphony concert.

Perlman came to this country in 1958 at age 13 and gained popular attention with a dazzling performance of the finale from Mendelssohn’s Flight of the Bumble Bee on the Ed Sullivan Show. He studied at Julliard, and then later at the Meadowmount School for Strings where he met his wife to be, Toby Lynn Friedlander. They are the parents of five children.

When Perlman first came on stage to join the orchestra, he made no attempt to disguise his handicap as he entered through the usual side door and made his way on crutches to the podium. It was a poignant moment, and the audience knew it. They escorted him across the stage with warm applause which was not at all a reflection of pity for this brilliant star, but rather a sign of deep respect for both his talent and his courage in the face of his own adversity. Perlman is noted as an important spokesman for not only causes of the handicapped, but also for the Jewish heritage of which he is very proud.

What had been a warm, sultry afternoon with leaden skies had suddenly given way to a pleasantly cool and breezy Texas evening with such a dramatic drop in humidity that it seemed the fates had smiled on performers and audience alike. Audience member, Ruthellen Hinton remarked, “You couldn’t ask for a better night.”

The program opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2 in E Major. The first movement began with a stately grace and elegance that transported us back to the courtly days of its composition circa 1720. The crisp precision of Perlman’s sensitive performance combined beautifully with the superb ensemble work of the strings to create a rich river of sound that embraced the audience on this sumptuous evening. The work was frequently as gentle as the comforting breezes that circulated the theater. And always, the musical accents and ornamentation lead us back to the star of the evening with his literally bouncing enthusiasm.

The second movement is more somber and meditative. Here, the rich clarity of Perlman’s instrument and performance are very much in evidence as the focus shifts more to the soloist. We begin to see his additional skill as conductor as he directs the orchestra during passages in which he, himself, is not playing.

The third movement opens with a vigorous return to the stately qualities of the first. It was highlighted by still more of the conducting skill of the maestro. Under his direction the piece is brought to a very satisfying conclusion.

Next on the program was Beethoven’s Romance in G Major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 40.

Perlman gave the audience and orchestra a chuckle by pretending to wring the perspiration out of his handkerchief. It seemed he had discovered he was in Houston after all. Again intermittently conducting, Perlman presides over the calm, ensemble skill of the orchestra. This serves as the backdrop to his dazzling display of rich use of vibrato.  The participants are weaving a luxurious tapestry. The extraordinary dexterity of Perlman’s fingering technique is clearly evident at the close of this selection.

As the concert continued, Mr. Perlman seated himself on the podium to conduct Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde. The piece opens momentarily full of suspense and intensity and quickly recedes to softer melodic lines. It builds with bursts of mysterious energy, subsides softly, and then takes off at a crisp gallop with rich passages full of power and passion. The vast variety of the piece and the skill of the musicians easily kept the audience’s attention while maestro Perlman presided skillfully over the complexities of this conductor’s challenge. The powerful finale seemed almost symbolic of the remarkable power of this gentle giant.

The concert concluded with Perlman conducting Brahms’ Symphony # 4 in E Minor, Opus 98. The first movement began like the gentle opening of a flower in slow motion. It is a work of vast contrasts, at once a pulsing, pounding heartbeat, and just as suddenly drifting, as though to fade away. Its vibrant and ever building power is peppered by strong brass accents suggesting approaching royalty. It is a piece of great grandeur, beautifully realized by both conductor and musicians.

The second movement opens with a sweet calmness that seems to offer respite to musicians who gave so much during the first movement. But again we see Brahms’ ever-building power as the movement progresses. Mr. Perlman was well equipped to navigate his musicians through the movement’s many subtle changes in direction.

The third movement opens so powerfully that it rings of a finale. It was nicely punctuated by percussion, and featured dazzling string passages perfectly executed under Perlman’s skilled baton.

The great passion of the fourth and final movement seemed, at times, to border on frenzy. Flute and clarinet passages provided especially pleasing solo moments. A crisp, intense and shimmering atmosphere began to overtake the stage and audience, and at last the strong conducting arm of this virtuoso violinist guided us to the work’s thrilling conclusion and the much deserved ovations that followed.

The assembled began to drift happily toward their cars. Woodlands residents, Joe and Emily Colgan, greatly enjoyed the concert, though Mrs. Colgan regretted that Perlman never addressed the audience from the stage: “He is so interesting to listen to!” As HSO violinist, Deborah Moran left the stage, she remarked how “…very gratifying…” it had been to work with such an “ …interesting conductor and musician.” She also appreciated Perlman’s generous use of humor saying: “He was always joking!”

(The Courier    6.23.99)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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