Itzhak Perlman review: Summoning musical memories

by DARYL BROWNE and BRUCE BROWNE

In her journal, in the writings of a child, she has written about her family crying through Thanksgiving after the funeral of the president. In a few years she wishes Atticus’ arms could embrace her and protect her from the hate. Right fielder Rocky Colavito is the ultimate dreamboat – she never misses the Indians box scores. Chaim Potok, not a dreamboat, is soon to make her feel like she is Chosen. But tucked into the pages is another name because of a chance one time sighting on an Ed Sullivan Sunday evening in 1964…Itzhak Perlman, 19 year old violinist from Israel. There is something about Itzhak Perlman and he is writ upon her heart. 

Many in the audience rose to their feet just at the sight of him last Tuesday, at a recital brought to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Hall by the Oregon Symphony. They didn’t wait to hear him; they rose out of love. His eyes twinkled and head nodded his thanks and then he simply began, leading off with the spritely solo notes of the Sonata for Violin and Piano (continuo) in D Major (Opus 9, No. 3) by Jean-Marie Leclair.

Itzhak Perlman played with a lightness, ornaments hung with such care on the fluttery Baroque melodies. Standard violin literature, this Leclair — probably the best known of the French Baroque composer’s ouevre. The first two movements settled into the major key, gave way to the minor for the third, a Sarabanda, before returning to major for the Tambourin, named for the unadorned continuo reiteration, like a drum beat. Not so for pianist Rohan De Silva, whose appropriately continuo-style interpretation made us realize, from the beginning of the piece, that he is an equal partner on the Perlman-De Silva program. Adjusting the balance of piano to the early French Baroque violin writing is a challenge in this 1743 piece. The two artists successfullly made that adjustment, thanks to their psychically synchronized nuances.

Perlman and De Silva performed in Portland.

Perlman and De Silva performed in Portland.

Violinist Joseph Joachim must have been one special guy to have three composer friends (Schumann, Dietrich and Brahms) co-write a sonata for him as a coming home gift. They set out to write around the tones F-A-E (Joachim’s personal motif). Brahms copped out on the F-A-E but wrote a jewel of a scherzo movement that Joachim cherished, and finally allowed to be published in 1906. (The entire four-movement work, which is rarely performed, was published in 1935.)

The scherzo was performed beautifully. The piano part has the richness of Brahms’s piano Sonatas (written around the same time), with a grounded four-note unison beginning that cycles back providing drama against the classic Brahms twos-against-threes and hemiolas. Mr. De Silva shone here again. It’s an impressive favorite work that served well as an amuse bouche to the upcoming entrée of Beethoven.

Its hard to take your eyes off of Mr. Perlman’s fingers on the neck of the instrument, particularly in a Presto movement like the end of the Leclair. They dance like the wings of a butterfly until they take off like a hummingbird, blurred, an aerodynamic wonder of nature.

But sometimes, as in Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata in F Major, we noticed the bow arm, the fingers on the frog, the instrument so lightly held, pinkie relaxed. There is conservation of motion in Mr. Perlman’s bowing technique and in each arco (bow stroke), each up bow or down is precision, executed with grace.

Is it this gentleness that keeps him playing so well? He is 71 years old, an age at which arthritis and general achiness keep the healthiest of us supporting Big Pharma. He seems youthful of spirit; perhaps this is the magic of agelessness that he has always had, even back then….

She didn’t even notice that Mick Jagger and the Stones were also on that Sullivan episode. Only Itzhak. But the ’60s went on and more mockingbirds were killed and Rocky got traded (curses) and Itzhak appeared each year with the Cleveland Orchestra just up the freeway but she could only read the ads and listened on radio. He got married (sigh). She became a musician. He appeared as a guest on Sesame Street in 1980 and he talked with Telly Monster about hard and easy things in life.

The Beethoven Sonata (1801), one of eight he wrote for violin in about a five-year period, is generous to both instruments and thus made us realize the intimacy of Perlman and de Silva’s stage relationship. It also emphasized the degree to which Mr. Perlman is willing to step back, become “second fiddle” in the partnership. Passages are harmonically bold, and then melodic. The most fun was the transition from the expressive Adagio second movement into the playful Scherzo. The off-kilter rhythmic exchange at the beginning got our attention and then kept it all the way through to the race toward home.

Mr. De Silva plays exquisitely and matched the violin master’s signature nuances, one of which deserves special mention. Pay attention young musicians. Mr. Perlman knows how to breathe life into the music; he has a way of ending and beginning the new phrase – not with accents or emphasis but with a seamless respiration. He’s had it since he was so young…back so many years….

His violin was alive in his hands, at least it seemed so on TV. She is able to see Gregory Peck in his 80s and Chaim Potok: he signs her copy of The Chosen at a book tour. Itzhak Perlman’s concerts and recordings continue. Spielberg pours his heart into a movie called Schindler’s List and invites John Williams to cue our emotions with a violin solo and when she hears it — of course it’s him; who else would it be? 

The Ravel Sonata No. 2 in G major is a terrific example of the French composer’s post-World War I style, when he was past his musical Fauvism of blended colors and impressions. Ravel enjoyed American jazz and the second movement shows it. Mr. Perlman bent some of the notes like Ella Fitzgerald singing “Summertime,” and other occasional Gershwin-isms popped. Oh, that final movement. Textures abounded, with Mr. Perlman plucking and strumming. Melodies were fragmented and lobbed between the two performers in a sprint to the finish and those fingers flew again – on the piano and the violin.

Itzhak Perlman.

Itzhak Perlman.

The final moments of this visit with Mr. Perlman were like sitting in a living room. Light conversation and jokes, a few of his favorite pieces picked from the loose pile of possibles. Fritz Kreisler, Martini….and (the audience gasps) the Schindler theme. Time is suspended. And then he goes. Few of us can be touched by grace to do the spectacular, but it is our true fortune to recognize it when we see, or hear it, as was the case last Tuesday night.

She can hardly believe it’s happening, after 50 years. The Arlene Schnitzer Hall is filled and considering that Ringo Starr is playing the Keller Auditorium a few blocks away, that’s a real tribute. Seniors, children, entire violin studios on field trip, first timers, repeat Perlmanites. They come to see him because to them, as to her, he is a tzaddik – a most human of human beings with whom we are connected and are, therefore, connected to a higher power. 

She clasps her ticket to see Itzhak Perlman – a long wait for a little girl. Fulfilling a dream – just as it should be. Now maybe the Cleveland Indians will win the World Series.


Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer. Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. The Brownes met 42 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. 

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