After walking out onto stage at Disney Hall, taking his seat and placing his crutches at each side, Itzhak Perlman took his violin from Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Nathan Cole and turned it over in his hands, as if to examine it. He gave the audience a conspiratorial look, shrugged, and had everyone laughing as he got ready to play.
Perlman is a living legend. If I begin, I'll have to go on and on and on: at age 68, he's played with every major orchestra on the planet; won four Emmys; won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; studied with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay; played at President Obama's inauguration; founded of the Perlman Music Program with his wife Toby; holds the Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Chair at The Juilliard School; received the National Medal of Arts; and much more.
Yet in live performance, his generosity of spirit smashes any barriers one might expect from someone so famous, accomplished and revered. His humor as a performer, his ease of manner, and the vibrancy in his sound all make his presence so immediate -- there's no need to feel any stress or intimidation. He's got it under control, and not only that, this is going to be fun. Just enjoy the music.
On Friday morning (at 11 a.m. -- interesting time for a concert, but it was packed!) Perlman performed "Summer" and "Winter" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," then he conducted Weber's "Oberon Overture" and Berlioz's spooky-dark "Symphonie Fantastique." (He'll perform the same program with the LA Philharmonic on Saturday and Sunday.)
For the Vivaldi, Perlman sat alongside the first violins, and when he wasn't playing, he was conducting with his bow. (Serious multi-tasking!) After the flurry of notes and fast bariolage in the first movement of "Summer," the simple themes of the second movement were where I noticed the character in Perlman's sound. Perlman gives his full focus to every single note, turn of phrase and cadence, and he draws his audience into his unfolding creation, the music. This is one reason why a live performance is so much more moving than a recording. The reduced LA Phil orchestra sounded quite good -- who wouldn't play their heart out for Perlman?
"Winter" began with its sul-ponticello shivering, Perlman switching rapidly between conducting and virtuosic Baroque playing, fingers flying right to their precise locations. The second movement provided more clear-voiced singing from Perlman's violin over the rain-drop pizzicato, and some quiet spots that showed off Disney Hall's great ability to vibrate at the smallest of sounds.
In fact I noticed something else about Disney Hall during this daytime concert -- ambient light! It's indirect, even a little camouflaged, but the natural light is there, high in the front and the back of the hall.
To me, Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique was a perfect selection for the day after Halloween, which in Los Angeles (much influenced by our very large Hispanic population) gets combined with "Dia de Los Muertos" or "Day of the Dead." I've lived in Southern California for 14 years and I'm still astounded by the elaborate way people decorate their yards with skeletons and fake graves for this conflation of holidays at the end of October and beginning of November. Berlioz's big dark fantasy fit the bill perfectly.
In the first movement, one early entrance for the violins involves a passage of fast scampering triplets. When the huge, expanded violin section pulled off this dainty thing with tight-rope precision, I wondered, might the fiddles be especially well-prepared, with Perlman on the podium?
Perlman's conducting has the same certainty and decisiveness as his playing (or so it seems to me from the audience), and he seemed to enjoy his fast ride with the well-oiled LA Phil. During the second movement, the "Ball," with its rollicking dance, Perlman seemed to be letting us in on a series of musical jokes.
The third movement can be notoriously long and -- can I say it? Boring! Perlman never let it flag, even in those spots with gorgeous progressions that seem like maybe they should be pushed and pulled like taffy to get their full goodness out. He kept the music going at a good clip. The lower strings sounded fantastic in a section in which they interrupt, then everyone joins in for a big musical argument that turns out to be a heated agreement. The movement ends with the distant-but-getting-closer roll of thunder.
Then, the March to the Scaffold - who doesn't like this bad-ass movement? It's a musical depiction of sneakiness, scary things hiding in shadows, jumping out, then retreating back. After the movement ended in a blast, I heard one audience member say not particularly loudly but with feeling, "All right!" (You can hear everything at Disney Hall!)
The fifth movement is the "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," a nightmare with bells tolling and musical motifs turning to the Dies Irae (adapted from the traditional mass for the dead). Themes from other movements make an appearance, now cloaked in darkness and evil. My favorite today was a quote from the second movement, returning as an evil oboe dance, played with great energy by Marion Arthur Kuszyk. Things get spookier and spookier; the strings take to the wood of their bows with bone-rattling col legno. As the music grew to a level of controlled freneticism, and I realized that I completely trusted Perlman the whole way.
When it was over, Perlman talked with the musicians, laughed a little before getting down from the podium and turning around to accept the audience's standing ovation.
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