No surprise: Itzhak Perlman, the superstar Israeli violinist-turned-conductor, an inspirational figure, has sold out the weekend of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Big surprise: as a conductor, he’s growing on the podium in interpretive heft, even as his technique reveals a maestro-in-training.
He remains controversial. Over the decades, Perlman has taken serious criticism for helping wreck the classical economic model. He does great box office and — so goes the logic — his appeal helps sell season subscriptions and can help an organization’s fund-raising. But along with peers such as Yo-Yo Ma and the late Luciano Pavarotti, he commands sky-high fees for an appearance — fees so high, in fact, that the orchestra scrambles for the rest of the year to get out of the debt he incurred. (Concert photos by Jeff Roffman.)
It’s true that, long before Perlman came onto the scene, almost all classical concerts lost money; tickets still cover just a portion of the overall costs, with donations, hopefully, making up the balance. But where an earlier generation of classical kings, like Rubinstein and Heifetz, demanded 10 or 20 percent more than others, Perlman’s typical fees are often triple or quadruple what other fiddlers earn. It’s a winner-take-all arrangement for the star, and an agent’s dream, but an absurd business proposition for a non-profit arts organization, one that comes with rippling consequences, from higher overall ticket prices to the large staff required in the orchestra’s development department.
The model remains in place because Perlman is a beloved figure, from performing at President Obama’s Inauguration to charity appearances for notable causes, including Jewish organizations and the Stop Polio Now campaign, hoping to eradicate the disease he suffered as a child. Indeed, several people gave him a standing ovation as he trudged his way to center stage Thursday evening. (Concertmaster David Coucheron carried Perlman’s violin.) He mounted the small platform with difficulty but, with maximum charm, put the audience at ease: “This will take awhile … about five minutes.” Everyone laughed and continued applauding.
He started with two brief, lyrical works for violin and orchestra by Mozart, the Adagio in E (K. 261) and the Rondo in C (K. 373). Perlman’s nose remained buried in the sheet music on his stand, as if he were sight-reading. As a violinist, his charismatic style — above all sweet, buttery, devoid of edges and with controlled dollops of schmaltz, for extra flavor — gave everything the distinctive Perlman sound. He played beautifully and sounded bored doing it.
He switched off the auto-pilot to conduct Mozart’s stormy Symphony No. 25, one of the composer’s earliest enduring masterpieces, written when he was 17. Perlman’s reading was his own, with no received wisdom in the interpretation. It was thickly romantic (albeit with a reduced orchestra), slow, chunky and assembled in blocks of harmonies built up from the bass — what might be called a vertical reading of the score — rather than by a more horizontal approach based on melody and rhythm. It was a talented student’s method, and you could hear the sonic scaffolding used to build a great edifice — something a more experienced conductor would have taken pains to remove.
Perlman’s Mozart wasn’t the most thrilling or balanced performance I’ve ever heard, but its honesty and search for gravitas were engaging. He was finding his own way through the score.
For Dvorak’s often-performed “New World” Symphony, Perlman could have simply told the orchestra to saddle up and play it like they did the last time, and he’d offer some general steering. To his credit, as in the Mozart symphony, he started from the ground up, maintaining control, moving at his own (slow) pace and energy level, putting his own emphases into the score. The fundamentals were in place, with a refreshing clarity in some dense passages. He let the woodwinds gallop off on their own, with gorgeous playing as a result, highlighted by clarinetist Laura Ardan and bassoonist Carl Nitchie’s solos in the Scherzo.
Yet Perlman didn’t have the baton chops or perhaps know the psychological tricks that an experience maestro uses to keep the full orchestra balanced and within bounds. The horns and brass, for example, got louder and more unruly throughout the evening, leading to some vulgar outbursts in the finale. One might expect the mechanics to improve in the remaining performances, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. What’s heartening is that Perlman is not coasting as a conductor; his winning personality and musical sincerity, like almost everything else he does, can be a most disarming thing. The question is, was he worth the money?