Our cultural life over the past half-century would be unimaginable without Itzhak Perlman. Like Yo-Yo Ma or like Toscanini, Heifetz and Rubinstein of early generations, his name is a symbol of the highest accomplishment and celebrity in classical music.
Now almost 70 and in his twilight as a virtuoso violinst, Perlman is turning more to conducting. His Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program Thursday at Strathmore was a typical example; he opened with the two amiable and lyrical Beethoven romances (Opp. 40 and 50), leading the orchestra from the soloist’s chair, and then conducted an early Mozart symphony (No. 27) and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” The results were intermittently inspiring.
Perlman’s baton has nowhere near the sophistication of his legendary bow. You don’t sense that he’s thinking of the work as a whole when he conducts; everything is just what’s going on at that moment. He doesn’t deal well with simultaneous contrasting events and couldn’t be troubled with the somewhat complex six-beat pattern in the slow movement of the Berlioz, making do with two three-beat patterns. This is familiar repertoire, and the BSO wasn’t thrown by any of this. However, it is a little startling to think of “Perlman” and “limitations” at the same time. The Mozart, I’m sure, got only a quick read-through before the concert, but even inferior Mozart doesn’t have to sound as routine as this.
On the plus side, simply being onstage with an artist of this stature would be energizing for any musician, and the BSO responded to his rather generic conducting with its most concentrated, committed playing in the Berlioz. There were moments of fuzzy ensemble in “A Ball,” and the strings struggled a bit with a complicated bowing idea Perlman gave them in the first movement’s development section. But winds, brass and percussion played superlatively. The outpouring of love from the full house must have been gratifying all around.
Battey is a freelance writer.