Perlman & the NSO, From The Heart

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, seen here at the NSO's season- opening gala, conducted with surprising intensity, finding new pleasures in a program of standards.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman, seen here at the NSO's season- opening gala, conducted with surprising intensity, finding new pleasures in a program of standards. (Photo By Scott Suchman)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

Plenty of instrumental soloists have become significant conductors: Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Peter Oundjian. But while both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, world-renowned violinists, have also arduously pursued conducting careers, they have never been taken quite as seriously as conductors by the field in general.

Yet Perlman -- who led the National Symphony Orchestra at its season-opening gala and returned with a program of standards last night -- has held positions with the St. Louis and Detroit symphonies and has just assumed the artistic directorship of the Westchester Philharmonic.

Well. There's the rub. The Westchester Philharmonic is a perfectly fine ensemble but hardly a leading American orchestra. The word is that Perlman was happy to have a position so close to his Manhattan home. Why, one would almost think he was doing this for the fun of it.

Fun is actually a hallmark of Perlman's musicmaking: a reason that he's attained such heights and a reason that he sometimes seems insouciant to the point of carelessness. He brings to the stage a sunny temperament and a fluid ease, a casualness that can border on the downright sloppy (certainly the art of the clean entrance seemed to be beyond him). He knows how to make the music go, but he doesn't always lift it a step beyond to make it crisp, incisive, distinctive; and his even temper translated, certainly in the Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony on the first half of the program, into passages that came across as plodding, or even, in the Mozart, faded into a kind of tepid background wallpaper.

But there turned out to be more to the evening than met the eye. For one thing, it wasn't as "standard" as it looked, because neither the Bach nor the Mozart, classics though they be, had been played by the NSO since the late 1990s. For another, despite the patches of interpretive dullness, the orchestra sounded pretty great. The Bach is scored for strings and harpsichord, and while I was prepared to have reservations about the ability of this modern orchestra to play idiomatically in early music repertory, the strings sounded so wonderful at their first entrance as to disarm criticism. I think they may have been inspired by Perlman, though this orchestra's strings are in any case its strength. The cellos, always the heart of the orchestra, were seated to the side rather than in the middle as they often are, and it was all the easier to hear how beautifully they played, though the orchestra sometimes seemed a little unbalanced as a result.

Another unexpected pleasure, and one that made me look at Perlman the conductor with new eyes, was that he stepped his performance up a notch after intermission for the Tchaikovsky "Pathétique." There was real intensity in the first movement, though it sometimes flipped back to a more phlegmatic approach. The cellos opened the second movement arrestingly (even if Perlman didn't seem to get the winds quite in sync with them). And everyone had a great time with the sprightly martial theme in the third, even if there did seem to be rather a lot of it, and the audience actually thought the symphony was over at the end of it.

So architecture is not this conductor's strength. But something was certainly happening onstage, and it kept happening in the more emotionally complex final movement, with the strings enveloping the winds in a ravishing balm and, finally, the whole thing dying away into a beautiful, deathly silence. The best "Pathétique" the world has heard? No. But it offered a lot to enjoy -- which, as Perlman seems most healthily to keep in mind, is the whole point of the exercise.

The program repeats today at 1:30 and tomorrow night at 8.

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