United States Vivaldi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky: Itzhak Perlman (violin and conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.4.2012 (HS)
As a violinist, Itzhak Perlman has made a career of playing the great works of the classical music canon with opulent sound and expressive warmth. If sometimes his enthusiasm for the music leaves subtlety in the dust, his sheer virtuosity, personal flair and distinctive sound more than made up for it. Many consider him (now 66) to be the great violinist of his generation.
Those same qualities don’t necessarily translate to the podium, where he has fashioned a second career as a conductor, including a post as principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony. In a somewhat rocky but ultimately invigorating program this week with the San Francisco Symphony, heard Wednesday, the signature moments came not with the two parts of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which opened the concert, but with a muscular, high-octane rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.
One had the impression that Perlman had climbed behind the wheel of a muscle car and couldn’t wait to mash down the pedal. From the opening measures of the symphony’s famous fanfares it was “Let’s see what this baby can do.” Dynamics were loud and louder. Even the famous pizzicato Scherzo found Perlman encouraging the strings to make as rich a sound as possible. And in the finale, every climax crashed like waves in a storm. There was never a moment when one could sense any sort of holding back.
If you like your Tchaikovsky full-bore, this performance qualified. The only moments of subtlety came from some lovely solo work by principal oboist William Bennett in the lovely Andantino, and the follow-up articulations of the tune by flutist Linda Lukas and bassoonist Steven Dibner. Even those were louder than they had to be.
The first half featured Perlman playing “Summer” and “Winter” from The Four Seasons and conducting from his chair. Perlman’s approach here eschewed the rigors of Baroque performance practices. Instead, with tempos slower than we are accustomed to hearing, he went for a fleshier sound in both his own violin playing and the string orchestra. The signature Perlman sound was there, but this music could have been served better with a livelier approach.
The other work on the first half, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major, Prague, bounced along nicely but it proffered broad and generous sonorities over polish, deft dynamics and elegant phrasing.