Druidic cultures built monuments allowing them to chart their proximity to the summer solstice, and not unlike them, we have Itzhak Perlman's annual Mann Center for the Performing Arts appearance to remind us what time of the year it is. Also like our distant ancestors, the audience respected and feared the ways of nature when brain-frying heat gave way to thunder and lightning.
So Wednesday's Philadelphia Orchestra concert was filled with incident. Perlman was on the hot half of the evening - so you could understand his "phoning in" a performance. But in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto's first movement, the state of his art seemed worse than that. Pitch was often approximate, and during the cadenza, Perlman was so emotionally absent that the rhetorical attacks and releases essential to this unaccompanied showcase were only attacks and releases.
All-weather favoriteThen, for whatever reason, the rest of the movement bloomed with the kind of warmth, as opposed to heat, that makes Perlman an all-weather audience favorite. Though the following two movements never quite hit that mark, they were respectable, Perlman's long experience with the concerto apparent in fingerings that allowed each phrase to go seamlessly into the next, plus beautifully judged downward finger slides.
The cooler half of the concert - associate conductor Rossen Milanov gave an ironic "warm welcome" - featured composers who alternately inspire rapture and suspicion, the former being Georges Bizet and the latter Rodion Shchedrin in the jointly authored Carmen Suite. In the late 1960s, Shchedrin refashioned the Bizet opera into a ballet that wears its years about as gracefully as 1960s fashions. Milanov warned of added percussion, and when Bizet's ominous "fate" motif was concluded with a huge wallop, you realized this was, essentially, Carmen meets John Philip Sousa.
French succinctnessIt's true that Shchedrin had cute effects from tuned percussion that Sousa never lived to employ. But you get the idea: At least the music didn't ask for your respect. And for that reason, one could dislike the vulgarity while perversely enjoying how bad it got. You also appreciated the French succinctness of Bizet's original when the Russian Shchedrin concluded the score with protracted echoes of the "Habanera." Many listeners were dying to get out before the rain hit, and Bizet is the type to accommodate that - in contrast to Shchedrin, who seemed to be having one last drink with Carmen. So we got wet; it's only water.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@
phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/