At McCain, Perlman plays like more than an icon

By Ben Nyberg

Itzhak Perlman, violin, and Rohan De Silva, piano, presented a program featuring works by Beethoven, Grieg, and Tartini for a sizable McCain Auditorium crowd this past Sunday afternoon.

Of course a performance by Itzhak Perlman is no longer just a performance. He’d already gained celebrity status by the time of his last visit over thirty years ago (10-23-81—ah yes, I remember it well!), and the past three decades have only elevated his pedestal further. He’s now officially an icon, unquestionably the best known, probably the most revered violinist in the entire world.

You could sense the specialness of the occasion in the agitated buzz animating exchanges of arriving patrons, some of whom had anted up over $100 to participate in what could only be a uniquely memorable event in Manhattan’s cultural history. How, I had to wonder, does any hero live up to such epic expectations?

Perlman’s answer was perfect. As the house lights dimmed, he sped out on stage aboard his motorized wheelchair (no more of those painfully slow crutch-cane entrances) and after gracious acknowledgement of the protracted applause, he and De Silva went straight to work on their programmed job, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Violin.

In other words, he behaved not at all like a glory-driven icon but like a serious musician whose immediate duty it was to engage all his interpretive skill and savvy in the service of serious music. The message couldn’t have been clearer: Thanks for the personal tribute, folks, but this really isn’t about me, you know. We’re all here to learn what some gifted composers can teach us.

Like Beethoven, yes. And because of concerns brought to my attention about the piano being too loud, I have to repeat that his Op. 12, No. 1 sonata is for piano (N.B.!) and violin, so that the piano’s prominence isn’t accidental but deliberate. (As for that intermission tune-up, it may have rectified some pitch problems but wouldn’t have affected dynamics.) I actually found the balance pretty good. Certainly Perlman didn’t play like one worried about being drowned out.

Grieg’s Op. 45 Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano has a distinctively “northern” character and, though not lacking in global appeal, it does speak in the tone and accents of its region. Accordingly, it asks for a different voicing than that demanded by, say, Beethoven. Arriving at Grieg from Beethoven, as we did Sunday, what most struck me was that Perlman applied to the former pretty much the same all-but-flawless technique as he had to the latter. Beautifully performed as it was, it wasn’t Grieg.

Post intermission, we got our first extended exhibition of Perlman’s mastery of his instrument’s mechanics with an interpretation of Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata for Violin and Continuo (one further status reduction for the piano!) climaxing in that remarkable series of trills, which only Perlman can make seem like a mere cakewalk.

Our substantial three-course meal tucked away, it was time for dessert, a string of virtuoso encores that let our fiddler let his hair down, show off his skills both as off-the-cuff comedian and wand-wielding magician of the flying fingers. Sad to say, I suspect that this musical feast will be remembered by most more for the tasty sweets of its final segment than for the nourishing meat and veggies of its first three quarters.

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