Itzhak Perlman, exceptional still
Itzhak Perlman made every note of Beethoven's Violin Concerto count with the Milwaukee Symphony and conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. New: Backstage photo.
In Itzhak Perlman’s hands Wednesday night, the extravagant passage work at the start of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto did not only display enormous violin technique. Perlman, playing with the Milwaukee Symphony and conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, made this virtuoso episode expressive in a way that few violinists can. The roiling scales and fitful leaps spoke not only of hours of practice but also of volatile emotions.
Nothing about this is mystical. We share, in Western music, a language of emotion. Certain intervals and harmonies, by consensus, express happiness and sadness. The way a player swings a phrase or lingers over a sub-phrase or a single note affects the emotional climate and local weather in the music. Perlman can think of all that while his fingers fly through the most difficult stretches of music. That’s the difference — he does not merely impress us, he draws us into a drama no less gripping for lack of words.
Thousands of details contribute to this drama, but I’ll share a striking one. Much of the passage in question lies very high in the violin range. On the highest of these high notes, Perlman landed flat enough to make me wonder whether he’d simply missed. He did not. He held it as long as he reasonably could, then slowly slid up to the bull’s eye. The dissonance hurt and the consonance soothed; hearing it was like feeling a sharp pang in the heart. Such nuance became even more potent in the much slower and more lyrical second movement, where both the ache throbbed and the balm of resolution calmed more expansively. The jolly dance impetus of the finale drove home the obvious: how very much about singing the concerto had been to that point and how Perlman made the violin sing with such stirring depth and commitment.
Perlman is Perlman, and any conductor in the world — all the more the MSO’s young assistant — would follow the violinist’s lead. That’s not easy, given Perlman’s broadly interpretive ways. Lecce-Chong paid close attention and picked up on his star soloist’s cues and sense of the phrase and conveyed them to the MSO confidently and accurately.
Perlman, naturally, got a far bigger ovation. The crowd, anticipating his usual parade of encores, cheered and cheered. Perlman, a polio survivor on crutches, emerged just a little way from the wings for his curtain calls. The Beethoven Concerto is taxing, and Perlman wasn’t up to encores. But he did leave us with a little joke: He quelled the applause by literally throwing in the towel — from off stage.
Next Up for the MSO: Stephen Beus will be the piano soloist at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 18-19, in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Milwaukee Symphony. with Lecce-Chong conducting. Also on the program: Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, with Mayor Tom Barrett narrating; Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5; and Jeffrey Mumford’s a dance into reflected daylight, commissioned by the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium.
Danielle McClune has Milwaukee’s arts and culture weekend all wrapped up right here.
And now, a gratuitous backstage picture: