Itzhak Perlman trades one Stradivarius for another

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Violinist Itzhak Perlman talks during an Interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 21, 2016. Perlman, a longtime advocate for the disabled, said he is still seething about Donald Trump’s mockery of a handicapped reporter.

There was a time when audiences would be disappointed that Itzhak Perlman played only one short concerto -- less than a third of the program -- with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But the Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 was just enough on Wednesday for the violinist/conductor, now in his early 70s, in a program filled out by Mozart and Dvorák symphonies -- to the delight of an audience that seems happy with whatever he has to offer. Perlman's tone quality had a dimension of sound that I haven't heard from him in years. He was also immersed in the achingly expressive slow movement with a degree of engagement that has been fleeting of late.

In short, he wasn't bored this time. 

A less-welcome tendency in the Bach concerto bled over into Mozart's Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner"): Tempos that were already just a hair ahead of being sluggish felt even slower at the end of movement. At times, the Mozart work took on an emotional deliberation that suggested the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Clearly, Perlman -- who conducts with a contained Ormandyesque beat -- had worked on a series of attractively evolving textures in the symphony. Primary themes spoke with a highly inflected sense of purpose. But even if the tempos weren't winding down, they were wearing out their welcome, as though Perlman had left extra space to accommodate a musical wisdom he has yet to communicate to the orchestra. (In all fairness, the weather had played havoc with the orchestra's rehearsal schedule.) 

Though Perlman's voice as a violinist was, in his prime, unmistakable, with sweetness balanced by an attractive huskiness, his personality as a conductor is less certain, which in theory is a virtue as conductors are required to accommodate themselves to the voice of the composer. But the deliberation he brought to Mozart might have been more appropriate with the Dvorák Symphony No. 8.

I'm glad, though, that Perlman didn't go that Germanic route with Dvorák, preferring a lean, clean version of the Philadelphia Orchestra sound, and tempos that, though not especially speedy, were sensibly moderate and appropriate to such a buoyant, dance-based piece. Perlman did give a Viennese lilt to the mysterious waltz music of the third movement, which was an incredibly deft touch. And the final movement had the kind of hard-charging manner that makes audiences cheer. 

Within the orchestra, notes were dropped here and there during both symphonies; nothing serious, but enough to remind you -- happily -- how seldom that happens these days. So in putting down his violin and taking up the baton at this concert, Perlman was clearly trading one Stradivarius for another.