Concert review: Itzhak Perlman and Rohan de Silva

Itzkah Perlman performed at Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall January 19. Photo: Akira Kinoshita

Itzkah Perlman performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall January 19. Photo: Akira Kinoshita.

By JANA HANCHETT 

Halfway into Itzhak Perlman’s performance at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last Sunday, at the magical point in the third movement of Cesar Franck’s famous violin and piano sonata, an audience member laughed quietly in awe and whispered, “There it is!” Like the rest of the listeners in that moment, he leaned forward to better soak it in.

As the 69-year-old violin legend came on stage to tumultuous applause, I wondered how the  rich musicianship connected with every individual in the audience. Perlman’s Portland performance was filled with people of all ages seeking the kind of transcendent experience expected from this music celebrity’s ability to emotionally connect across all boundaries via musical language. While Perlman is not the powerhouse of technical skill from twenty years ago, clearly parents and grandparents felt the importance of bringing their children to hear this cultural icon.

Perlman and his collaborative pianist Rohan de Silva performed Beethoven’s Violin-Piano Sonata no. 3, César Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, and Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G Minor  (nicknamed “Devil’s Trill”) arranged by Fritz Kreisler. After these three pillars of standard violin repertoire came a smattering of encores announced from stage, the best of which were a transcription of Gabriel Fauré’s After a Dream (Après un rêve), because of Perlman’s masterful vibrato and de Silva’s ingeniously fluid accompaniment, and Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 1 because of Perlman’s youthful vivaciousness.

César Franck’s violin sonata is as vital to the repertoire as Perlman himself is to the world of violin performance. In the first movement, Perlman’s darker tone color and slower vibrato communicated a desire for greater tenderness than de Silva’s flighty textures at first allowed. In the second movement, de Silva was a true collaborative master. He started the galloping figurations with a lingering sforzando  on the beginning bass note before roaring into full velocity. It’s easy for the pianist to take over on this piece and shove the violinist’s sound backstage. But with clear pedaling and an emphasis on melodic lines instead of the thick harmonic textures, de Silva never attempted to overpower Perlman who, in return, seemed to relish the whirlwind created by de Silva and swooped exultantly above it; his indulgent note bending at structurally important moments were reminders of the old school music culture informed by the likes of Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe, Artur Rubinstein, Wilhem Kempff, and Jascha Heifetz. Ysaÿe was the first to perform Franck’s violin sonata, which Franck composed as a wedding present for the violinist.

Of course the audience applauded after the second movement, which meant that Perlman and de Silva had to reset before beginning the third movement. This refocusing was to everyone’s benefit as Perlman’s first phrase felt suddenly and incredibly concentrated. The violinist’s opening phrase begins with a trill defiant against the pain of the piano’s heavy footsteps. After justifying its anger, Franck’s violin line questions its own defiance and ends in a tiny cry. Within this movement, the concert hall, filled with over 2000 people, experienced moments of absolute stillness, reinforcing personal beliefs in the universality of classical music. Perlman and de Silva communicated effortlessly in this movement.

The Schnitz, with its massive interior, is not the ideal venue for chamber music, “chamber” denoting a small room within a home environment. Perhaps due to the acoustics of the vast hall or the quality of the piano itself, it was rare to hear de Silva indulge in the organ-like sonorities composed by Franck; while this clarity worked in the second movement, the third movement needed more meat. At the end of the third movement Perlman perfectly resonated the C-sharp within the f minor chord, capturing all the pain of an ending relationship. Perhaps there weren’t enough broken hearts in the audience that night, as the listeners clapped thoughtlessly after the third movement, which in this piece is like guffawing at a very tense moment between chapters in a book. Perlman showed his annoyance by shushing the audience with a flapping hand.

After this disruption de Silva performed a miracle of musicianship by managing to begin the fourth movement at the same dynamic level as the third movement’s ending; the first two notes echoed the emotional intensity of the third movement before magically dissolving into the warmth of A major. De Silva took parts of the coda a bit slower than the rest of the piece, and I was thankful to hear a professional take artistic time with the cumbersome jumping in both hands.

Pianist de Silva’s insistent tempo and crystalline runs kept the performance of Beethoven’s Violin-Piano Sonata no. 3 tight, while the Tartini sonata afforded opportunities for Perlman to play astoundingly long phrases, particularly in the Grave section of the third movement. Like an opera singer who you think must die any minute from oxygen depletion and yet who keeps singing with ferocity, so Perlman continued to draw out the musical line.

Over the years Perlman’s down-to-earth performances…

and interviews…

…have served to rejuvenate classical culture. In his Portland performance, the Perlman moments that shone through despite the grandiose Schnitz smacked my heart awake. The Perlman sound, though difficult to articulate, is concretely identifiable. I experienced the sensation of stumbling across a lone redwood and, upon seeing the base of the tree, feeling the eyes pulled up, up, up into the canopy.

The audience’s multiple calls for encores felt a bit contrived, but behind the applause was an obvious appreciation for Perlman’s lifetime commitment to sharing music. The choice of standard repertoire coupled with Perlman’s educational and convivial banter was a small taste of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.

Ultimately, Perlman is a master at his instrument because he is fully human, fully engaged with the world around him and his unique calling, which he has fought with humility to discover and embody. Perhaps his fight against polio taught him to live life his way, teaching himself violin at age three, performing on the Ed Sullivan show at age 13, attending the Juilliard school, winning the Leventritt competition, performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and promoting classical music via popular television broadcasts. Few people are able to connect with their calling, and even fewer to connect their calling to the surrounding world; those that do, like Perlman, are a magnetic force to the culture around them.

While Perlman is certainly a musician unto his own, I hope that the audience’s delight in Perlman’s sound will encourage further exploration into Portland’s own rich classical music scene.

Were you at Perlman and de Silva’s concert? What did you most appreciate? How has Perlman impacted your musical life, either as listener or performer? Leave your comments below.

Jana Hanchett is a Portland pianist, writer, and teacher.

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3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Although Perlman generally leans a bit heavily towards schmaltzando, he is a fine musician & a superb geigenspieler.

    That said, I have long been dismayed by his endless recycling of the same repertoire & virtual ignorance of & interest in music a tad closer to our time. Given Perlman’s cred, imagine what he could accomplish via commissioning new works &/or spreading the vibrant joy of less over-played music!

    But, quibbling aside, the music world IS richer thanx to Maestro Perlman’s evident immersion in the grand old tradition that he so clearly loves.

    • Dr. Greg A Steinke says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more Bob. Perlman’s ignorance of the contemporary repertoire is unforgivable in spite of his superb musicianship on the violin.

  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    My big regret about not going to this concert was missing the Franck. But thanks to Jana’s detailed and perceptive review, I almost feel like I was there after all!

    I think that final shift to f-sharp minor at the end of the slow movement is one of the saddest moments in the whole 19th century repertory. Considering the intense quiet reported in the hall up to that time, which suggests people were totally into the music, it boggles my mind that they were able to get into a mood to even think of applause before the last movement started. I’ve got nothing against people applauding between movements when they’re excited about a slam-bang finish*, but there are times when silence is the highest tribute of all.

    *case in point – the March in Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. It’s gonna happen, maestri, get used to it. Sure, if it sounds tentative at all, plow right ahead, but thanks to the way Mr. T wrote it, people often go nuts. Relax and bask in it a little!

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