Itzhak Perlman special at the MSO
The audience stood and cheered before Itzhak Perlman had played a note Thursday evening at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. The ovation expressed respect for a lifetime of making music at the highest levels, for a personal warmth that shines through his playing and through his presence, and for courage and perseverance in the face of physical challenge. Lots of people play the violin very well. But this was Itzhak Perlman.
Perlman starred at a one-night special with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor James Gaffigan. He played Mozart’s Concert No. 5 in A, not coincidentally the one with cadenzas in all three movements. Nothing felt quite settled in the opening Allegro vivace, and it wasn’t just the couple of unlikely clams that slipped out of the MSO’s uncommonly reliable horns. I’ve heard Perlman play many times over the decades, and this was the first time I’ve heard little imperfections in pitch and timbre. I’m so accustomed to effortless perfection, that these barely perceptible faults worried me.
But not to worry; he found the groove just before the first cadenza and delivered it with astonishing virtuosity and affecting sensitivity. The transporting, poignant lyricism that is Perlman’s special province came to full flower in the Adagio. He spun out Mozart’s long melodies like so much impossibly delicate and exquisite porcelain filigree. Mozart’s brilliant wit shone through Perlman’s reading of the finale. He deadpanned the first occurrence of the dainty minuet that recurs twice more in this ABACA rondo form. In the speedy B section, he laid down the phrases and rhythms just so, to create a reeling sense of syncopation and cross-rhythm. Those qualities might not be apparent on the page, but they are essential to the comedy of the finale, which has opera buffa written all over it. Perlman burned through the gypsy-fiddle rave-up of the C section and fully realized the final iteration of the minuet as the crazed apotheosis of a staid form.
Perlman is the reigning genius of the schmaltzy violin encore, and that as much as his way with Bach accounts for his popularity. He played the Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) and Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy) with all the buttery, 3/4 Viennese sweetness they deserve. Classical music can be noble, serious and deep, but do not underestimate the value of sheer sonic pleasure. These Kreisler cream puffs, played by the master of the genre, let the ear and brain wallow in it.
During the concerto, Perlman made more eye contact with associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen, in the first chair Thursday, than with Gaffigan. That made sense, as the solo violin spends a lot of time in close harmony with the first violin or weaving around their lines, and close coordination is critical. Gaffigan did a good job of keeping the orchestra right with the soloist.
I very much liked Gaffigan’s rowdy, noisy take on the outer “Turkish” sections of the Overture to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and his explosive yet precise reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”). Gaffigan will be back at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 14-15, to lead the Jupiter, Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3 and the first performances of Geoffrey Gordon’s new Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, written for principal trombonist Megumi Kanda. Tickets are $25-$92 at the MSO website and ticket line (414 291-7605) and at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.