Itzhak Perlman conducts Baltimore Symphony in classical hit parade
Any musician who achieves fame in one arena and then decides to add conducting provokes instant skepticism, especially from certain snooty types who already tend to frown on anyone who gets too famous for anything in classical music. As Perlman tells it in the interview I did with him for Friday's Sun (how do you like the new Live section, folks?), he didn't go after the podium; it came after him. It turns out that he took to it, and orchestras took to him.
Perlman was principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony for several years; he has been a guest with many other orchestras; he's in his second season as music director of the Westchester Philharmonic. The cynically inclined can ponder how much this is about box office appeal and how much conducting talent. I'll just focus on what happened on Thursday, and what happened was thoroughly respectable music-making in a program that featured some of classical music's greatest hits.
You can argue (someone's bound to) that the BSO could play Beethoven's Fifth in its sleep, or with no on one the podium; that the orchestra's string section could do the same with Tchaikovsky's Serenade. But there was no sign of auto-pilot playing.
And there was one little detail, in particular, that revealed how solidly Perlman's musical senses can operate when he replaces his famous fiddle with a baton. It was the way he handled
Another moment stood out -- the amazing oboe solo that Beethoven placed in the first movement, where it momentarily stops all the tension. I've heard too many performances where conductors restrict the soloist's freedom, and the dramatic potential for this unexpected little pause. Perlman allowed the BSO's assistant principal oboist Shea Scruggs all the time and liberty he wanted, and the result was magical, as much from the exquisite tone and expressive shading that Scruggs produced as for the space that the conductor provided for it.
The rest of the performance was less remarkable, with traditional, safe tempos being the rule, but it was always engaging. A few slips of cohsiveness aside, the orchestra sounded sturdy and involved.
Perlman obviously brought keen sensibilities to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, and he ensured that the music flowed with lyrical intensity. Individual sections of the ensemble sounded thin and not quite smoothly blended at times, but tutti passages swelled richly.
The prorgam started with Bach's Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin, with BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman and Perlman as the soloists. It sounded more like a concerto for oboe, since Meyerhoff's otherwise admirable acoustics don't always flatter solo string instruments. But in the slow movement, the interplay between Needleman and Perlman emerged clearly and elegantly. The soloists enjoyed generally smooth support from a baroque-sized complement of players.
One little oddity of the program -- it had a lot of C in it, C minor being the home key for the concerto and symphony, C major for the serenade. Of course, after all the upheavals we've been through around here this winter, encountering such a firm harmonic grounding might have been just what we needed.
The concert repeats Saturday at Strahmore, Sunday at Meyerhoff; tickets are extremely scarce.
PHOTO (by Akira Kinoshita) COURTESY OF IMG ARTISTS