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February 19, 2010

Itzhak Perlman conducts Baltimore Symphony in classical hit parade

Itzhak Perlman brought his still-considerable star power to the Meyerhoff Thursday night for a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, his first appearance with the ensemble in about 10 years, his first as conductor. He was greeted with several standing ovations, cheers and even a few wild yells from the packed house.

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 

the repeat of the exposition in the finale of that Beethoven symphony. A lot of times I've heard that repeat in concerts where it comes off as rather awkward and abrupt (one reason, perhaps, why some conductors skip it). Perlman nailed it by ensuring a tiny breath, if you will, in the phrasing and careful attention to dynamics, so that the repeat came off smoothly and tellingly, with even an element of surprise.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:59 AM | | Comments (3)


It was very unfortunate how the staff of BSO handled the post snowsort situation around the concert hall. It did not show any respect to Dr. Perlman or the patrons who were lining up into the garage entrance for 45 minutes and missed the Bach concerto.

If I had known Perlman was conducting when I ordered the tickets originally, I would have passed. It wasn't worth the premium price to hear him play one concerto, and not even be able to distinguish his playing from anyone else's.

And on Sunday, he chided (with an attempt at levity) the audience for clapping between movements in the Bach Concerto. I had not applauded, but my companion did. She was mortified. This was her 4th experience at the Symphony. I'm not sure she will want to attend in the future.

My impression all in all ... what an ass. I have no interest in him as an artist or a person in the future.

His prodigy David Garrett performed and received two standing ovations in Hartford. Seems like a genuinely nice and humble guy.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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