Topnotch Tchaikovsky from Juilliard and Perlman

By Sedgwick Clark

Last Monday was one of the best concerts I’ve heard so far this season. Itzhak Perlman led the Juilliard Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky program at David Geffen Hall: Romeo and JulietRococo Variations for cello and orchestra, featuring the impressive soloist Edvard Pogossian, and the Sixth Symphony (Pathétique). I love the commitment and brio of student orchestras, and these young musicians were true to form.

The glory of the evening—surprise, surprise!—was the warm and expressive string tone that Perlman elicited from the orchestra, in a hall notoriously unfriendly to such qualities. Vibrato in unison was the watchword of the night, and the sound bloomed from the stage with unerring beauty. Blindfolded, one even might have mistaken them for the Philadelphia Orchestra, with which Perlman recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto under Ormandy. The love music in Romeo and the often-distorted second theme in the first movement of the Pathétique sang as if one were hearing them for the first time. How fortunate that these young musicians were able to play these melodies so simply and eloquently under Perlman, before maestro X commands them to torture the line with “personal” expressiveness.  And yet Perlman was never impersonal—his love of Tchaikovsky shone through vividly in every bar, with no accelerandos where the score didn’t ask for them, just a natural tightening of tempo that any great musician feels in an emotionally heightened passage.

The sound in row V, directly in the middle of the orchestra section, offered ideal balances, admirably clear details, and a welcome absence of glare. Amazingly, the strings were never overwhelmed, even by Tchaikovsky’s brassy double- and triple-forte climaxes at the height of Romeo’s family feuding and the Pathétique’s third-movement March. I was even ready to suggest that Lincoln Center should forget the renovation until I spoke afterwards with friends in a side box who experienced the same old same old.

Perlman turned 70 this year. I first heard him in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on December 28, 1966, an all-Stravinsky program in which the 21-year-old violinist played the 84-year-old composer’s Violin Concerto, conducted by Robert Craft. I was blown away! Stravinsky, in what was billed as his “final Chicago appearance,” conducted his Fireworks, excerpts from Petrushka, and the 1945 Firebird Suite. Perlman’s birthday was celebrated by Warner Classics on disc by a 77-CD box of his EMI recordings and by a 25-CD Deutsche Grammophon box of DG and Decca recordings. Perhaps his next celebratory release will contain recordings as a conductor.

Comments are closed.