Violinist and visiting conductor Itzhak Perlman (courtesy of SFS)
Last night Itzhak Perlman returned to Davies Symphony Hall again to perform double duty as both violin soloist and conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). What was most impressive about the evening was the scrupulous sense of balance he brought to his musical resources regardless of the size of those resources. He began with a reduced ensemble suitable for a concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach, scaled up to a full string section for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 serenade in C major, and concluded with the rich instrumental resources required for Edward Elgar’s Opus 36, the set of orchestral variations that the composer called “Enigma.”
Perlman is one of those performers whose presence is guaranteed to fill a house of just about any capacity, and last night was one of those rare occasions when one had to work to find empty seats in Davies. When he was younger, he was not particularly shy about exploiting his “personality” status; but as he has aged he has become much more of a “prima la music” (first comes the music) person, seemingly far more absorbed in the joy of making the music than in the consistently roaring approval that almost seems like a reflex action to his very presence. Last night it was clear that all of the performers appreciated his prioritization and gave their all to respond appropriately to his efforts as a leader.
The evening began with an appropriately scaled-down setting for Bach’s BWV 1060R concerto in D minor with solo parts for violin (Perlman) and oboe (SFS Principal Eugene Izotov). BWV 1060 is the C minor concerto for two harpsichords, which is believed to be a transcription of the D minor version, whose manuscript was lost. The “R” thus stands for “reconstruction,” an attempt to restore the D minor concerto on the basis of the surviving C minor version. Perlman scaled his resources to a size suitable for the Davies space but still intimate: twelve violins, divided equally between firsts and seconds, five violas, and a continuo of four cellos, two basses, and harpsichord (played by Jonathan Dimmock).
The result was delightfully intimate and transparent. Perlman had no trouble ceding the lion’s share of solo work to Izotov, whose tone and phrasing could not have been better. Rather than playing along with the ritornello passages, Perlman focused his attention on the full ensemble, shifting his attention only to the gracefully elaborated passages provided for the violin solo work. It was clear that his priority was transparency of the elegant polyphony Bach had conceived for this concerto, a transparency that was delightfully colored during the middle Adagio movement, which was presented with only a single cello (Peter Wyrick), which was bowed while all the other strings played pizzicato.
Coloration was clearly also of the essence in Perlman’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48. Tchaikovsky clearly showed great interest in writing only for strings, but Opus 48 is his major full ensemble effort. From a structural point of view, each of the movements is almost predictably routine; but the spirit of the music resides in the composer’s sensitivity to the unique colors of each of the instruments of the string familiar and his ability to work with those colors through both give-and-take contrasts and imaginative blends.
Those who know their ballet history know that this is the first piece of choreography that George Balanchine created after having moved to the United States. One can appreciate his choice. Tchaikovsky endowed each of the instrumental parts with its own characteristic personality; and Balanchine knew how to translate that alternation between interplay and unity among the string sections into a vibrantly engaging “social dynamic” among his dancers. Even with his economic approach to movement while seated, Perlman seemed to grasp the nature of that social dynamic and endowed it with a vibrant account, even without the benefit of the added visual experience of Balanchine’s choreography.
Personality also figures significantly in Elgar’s Opus 36. Each of the variations amounts to a character sketch; and each is given an “enigmatic” title that needs to be “decoded” to identify the character. (The eleventh variation requires a bit more decoding. While the initials “G.R.S.” refer to the organist George Robertson Sinclair, the variation is actually “about” his bulldog Dan.) Nevertheless, the music stands quite well on its own without requiring the listener to know very much about the personalities that the composer has “encoded.”
More important is the rich diversity of instrumental resources deployed to endow each variation with its own unique characteristics. In this performance one could appreciate how attentive a listener Perlman could be. He always knew which instruments and combinations were responsible for registering the most salient impressions on the attentive listener, meaning that, once again, the music came first, taking priority over the details of the characters that inspired each of the variations. The result was an account of the score through which one could appreciate the many fine points of Elgar’s own skills, even he had had deployed them for the sake of evoking images of his friends.