World-famous violinists typically draw big crowds and buckets of adulation, and that was case when Itzhak Perlman stepped on stage to perform with the Oregon Symphony on Saturday (February 28). A standing ovation greeted Perlman, who had appeared in the national broadcast at President Obama’s inauguration just a month ago, but his performance as violinist and conductor with the Oregon Symphony, though it had some fine moments, didn’t have enough shape and verve to make the evening memorable.
The program featured Bach’s Concerto No 1 for violin and string orchestra, Schubert’s Symphony No 3, and Brahms Symphony No. 2. A first-rate conductor would bring out all sorts of nuances in each work and place a personal stamp on it, but Perlman seemed not to have a clue about what he wanted the music to say. The volume for each piece was medium loud, most movements, once underway, cruised along at the same speed that they started with, and, outside of a soaring horn solo by John Cox in the Brahms – which almost startled the audience out of the doldrums – the entire affair was boring.
As a result, the standing ovations that Perlman and the orchestra received were perfunctory. It was sort of like, hey, we’ve got this great artist in our midst and we’re really happy that he stopped by our little town, so let’s shower him with affection. If anyone should receive extra helpings of applause, it should be concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, who used his entire body to help keep the violins together. There were times, especially in the Brahms, when the violins laid down a silky smooth and golden sound that is just pure pleasure, but these pieces needed more than just some beautiful phrases. Even the Bach Violin Concerto, with Perlman sitting on a raised platform where the concertmaster usually sits, didn’t go anywhere in particular despite the gorgeous tones from his Strad. When the ensemble reached the last note, the piece just ended, but nobody was elevated.
One little interesting point in the performance of the Bach was hearing Janet Guggenheim play the harpsichord. Guggenheim was Perlman’s accompanist for many years, but even her presence didn’t alter the final score, so to speak.
Several years ago, Oregon Symphony violinist and Third Angle director Ron Blessinger (who wasn’t playing in the Perlman concert series) told me (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it’s always best when a conductor comes to the orchestra with good ideas for the music, but a conductor with bad ideas is better than a conductor with no ideas, because a conductor with no ideas makes the concert dull as hell.