Music Review: Itzhak Perlman plays Beethoven with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra

perlman1There are many great things about being Itzhak Perlman. Certainly, the renowned violinist has little trouble filling a concert hall, and indeed, on Tuesday evening, he played to a capacity crowd at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Of course, there are also problems with being Itzhak Perlman, not the least of which is that it’s very  hard to live up to the expectations of being America’s greatest living violinist. On Tuesday, Perlman fell just short of his legendary promise in his performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

perlman2The great man got off to a slow start. His entrance in the first movement – a series of ascending, broken octaves  – lacked focus. For a moment, it seemed as if the violinist was playing at the bottom of a well. His tone throughout the rest of the first movement, though certainly sweet, also sounded a bit gooey.

And yet Perlman never failed to impart a sense of majesty to this music. He played even the most demanding passagework with an easy elegance that all but defied description – his renditions of the first- and third-movement cadenzas were breathtaking. Few violinists can play high notes with as much melting lyricism. Fewer still have the ability to make such deeply personal statements in Beethoven’s music – he approached the second-movement Larghetto, for instance,  as a kind of love duet with the orchestra.

Vinay Parameswaran, the Nashville Symphony’s newly appointed assistant conductor, proved to be an able collaborator. He drew warm, expressive sounds from the orchestra. Moreover, he provided flexible accompaniment, matching the ebb and flow of Perlman’s playing with great sensitivity. Perlman was called out several times for an encore. Of course, he couldn’t top Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, surely the greatest of its kind in the literature, so he basked in the warm applause but did not play again.

vinay1Tuesday’s all-Beethoven program included one other work – Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Like the Violin Concerto, this piece also got off to a slow start. Parameswaran led the orchestra in a rendition of the famous opening movement that seemed more dutiful than dramatic. I wanted more contrast in the dynamics – fate was supposed to be banging on the door, not politely tapping on a windowpane. The second movement fared no better and sounded foursquare.

Parameswaran and the NSO finally took off in the third movement scherzo. The energy and dynamic contrasts in the trio section were especially arresting and at times seemed even earthshattering. Perhaps the ensemble had been saving its energy for that very moment. The finale ended with a blaze of bright C major, a sound of pure jubilation that few of us in the audience will soon forget. Without question, it did justice to this justly famous work.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.