It is no surprise that the Washington Performing Arts Society, one of the major players (along with the Baltimore Symphony) in the new Music Center at Strathmore, chose violinist Itzhak Perlman as the featured artist for its inaugural Strathmore presentation on Sunday, and it is no surprise that the concert was a sellout. Perlman could sell out Yankee Stadium and enthrall the whole crowd. But of course the other, and for this once perhaps the greater, draw was the hall itself.
With quiet and unassuming lyricism, Perlman laid his hands, figuratively, on the Strathmore brow and blessed its birth as a venue for solo performance with Mozart, the gentle E Minor Sonata, K. 304, a very embodiment of musical intimacy. I wish I could report that this blessing performed a miracle and that the designers have figured out how to fool the ear into thinking that a very big space is a little space, but they haven't of course, at least not at Strathmore (although maybe tinkering with the adjustable panels might help).
The Washington Performing Arts Society chose Itzhak Perlman for its inaugural Strathmore event.
Perlman's sound emerged cleanly (although the piano sounded much more immediate) but as if from a great distance, even for those in seats quite close to the stage, and the warmth and nuance that Perlman coaxes so lovingly from his instrument and that his followers so admire couldn't be heard. But economic realities have, increasingly, decreed that the finest solo and chamber performances will take place in big and not-always-hospitable surroundings, so we have a conundrum.
The rest of the program was also well suited to the festive occasion. The Beethoven "Kreutzer" Sonata, its intense variation movement endowed with a musical imagination informed by wisdom, unfolded with leisurely but purposeful inevitability. Whether realistically or unrealistically, people expect that Perlman, who has played this so often and for so many years, will still find something new to say in this music, and it is a hallmark of his genius that he continues to do so. What is also expected, however, whether realistically or not, is that the pianist will share this passion and wisdom and that the partnership will create its own powerful dynamic. But on Sunday, instead of taking on the role of an equal partner, pianist Rohan DeSilva chose to be a reliable but rather faceless accompanist, and the electricity that might have been engendered by a joyful collaboration just wasn't there.
A delightfully playful two-movement "Episodes for Violin and Piano" by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (which, as Perlman announced, was receiving "its North Bethesda premiere") found Perlman and DeSilva, this time as more equal partners, trading musical material back and forth and, in the process, revealing quite different possibilities in its personalities. The recital ended with a reflective and gentle reading of Smetana's "From the Homeland."