When a famous instrumental soloist schedules a play-and-conduct evening with an orchestra, you expect the playing to be great . . . and the conducting perhaps less so.
The current Seattle Symphony program with Itzhak Perlman in those dual roles confounds those expectations. The 69-year-old Perlman, who has spent many decades at the top of the violin pantheon, conducted Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony with revelatory skill and sensitivity.
Of course, his solo work in the familiar and beloved E Major Bach Violin Concerto (No. 2) was pretty impressive, too. Perlman was enveloped in applause from the moment he appeared on the stage, making his way to the podium on crutches (he was stricken by polio as a child). The audience’s standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” greeted his arrival before he had played a note.
His Bach concerto, which Perlman conducted from the soloist’s chair, was very well played, but frustrating in two ways. First, the placement of his chair parallel to the stage sent the violin sound toward the wings, rather than out into the house. And second, a soloist/conductor is often too busy with the solo instrument to do much with the orchestra, which in this case played very responsively but sometimes a bit too forcefully.
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After the Bach, Perlman put down his fiddle and picked up the baton for two standard-favorite orchestral works: Brahms’ colorful “Academic Festival” Overture and Beethoven’s mighty Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”). His conducting style makes every gesture count; no flailing or windmilling are needed when you have that expressive left hand and a clear, incisive beat from the right hand.
The evening’s most gratifying surprise was the “Eroica,” whose second-movement funeral march (sometimes done as a dreary trudge) was so patiently and sensitively shaped that it sounded unusually profound. The long, gradual crescendo of the fourth movement was similarly inspired. Perlman’s sure sense of the symphony’s architecture and its dramatic possibilities were even more interesting to hear than the solo violin that has made him a superstar. The attentive orchestra played brilliantly for him, with several distinguished woodwind solos.
A medical emergency delayed the start of the second half, with emergency personnel removing one concertgoer on a stretcher. Here’s hoping for the best possible outcome.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at email@example.com.