Monday, March 16, 2009

Music review: Perlman does credible podium work in crackerjack Boca Ninth

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- Perhaps Itzhak Perlman is better known for solo and chamber work as a violinist than he is as a conductor, but Sunday night he did a more than credible job at the podium leading one of the great canonical works of Western musical history.

In an all-Beethoven evening at Mizner Park featuring the Ninth Symphony (in D minor, Op. 125) and the overture to the composer's incidental music for Goethe's Egmont (Op. 84), Perlman offered good readings of both pieces that were quite traditional in tempo and interpretation, and very enjoyable for being so. His baton technique was also very straightforward, and he used his free left hand in an expressive gesture that looked much like it was about to park itself on a fingerboard.

The Beethoven Ninth was the much-anticipated closing event of the third Festival of the Arts Boca, which featured Perlman, the Russian National Orchestra, other soloists including Joshua Bell and Nina Kotova, and major literary figures such as Salman Rushdie and Jamaica Kincaid. On hand for the Ninth were the Master Chorale of South Florida (led by Joshua Habermann) and soloists Layla Claire, soprano, Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano, John Tessier, tenor, and Kyle Ketelsen, bass.

The Russian National Orchestra is a formidable group, as it has demonstrated throughout the festival in shattering performances led by conductor Mikhail Pletnev of Beethoven's Second and Fifth symphonies. On Sunday night, they showed in full measure the distinctive features of their sound: Rich, precise string ensemble, excellent wind soloists, sonically brilliant brass playing, and an overall forcefulness and aggressiveness of attack that turned the merely exciting into the truly thrilling.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the otherwise laudable historically informed performance movement has been its effect on tempos in the Ninth Symphony, which has led to many a lickety-split reading of the work, particularly in the fourth movement, that may have been faithful to the composer's metronome markings but that sound antithetical to the music itself. Music heard live after being heard in the head -- and Beethoven was essentially stone deaf at this time (1824), and had been for years -- often is a surprise to the person who wrote it, and it's only in performance that the music takes its true shape.

In the case of the Ninth, tradition has been kind to it, creating sensible tempos that are logical and serve the drama of the music admirably. Perlman is solidly in this tradition, as he showed from the outset, establishing a pace that was businesslike but one that still allowed for the mystery of those all-fifths passages to come through. Ensemble was a little off in the tricky unison 32nd-note passage that leads back to a recap of the initial bars, and more could have been made of the bleak little march in the coda: a little softer, a little more ominous.

But otherwise it came off very well, as did the second movement, for which Perlman set a fine tempo, not too fast, but speedy enough to keep its shock factor high, especially with the timpanist giving his three-note solos such a tremendous wallop. And Perlman kept the contrasting middle section at a good pace, where others find themselves trying to rein in a runaway horse, no doubt so that the big welling up in the strings could breathe properly, and the horn, oboe and bassoon solos -- all played beautifully -- could stand out.

In the rapturous slow movement, one of Beethoven's finest, the tempo was a shade too fast, when what's needed is a feeling of total, shielded calm that gradually begins to awaken but not burst out. There was much to glory in here in the sheer beauty of the sound the RNO produced, especially the strings, and the solo moments such as the expertly played horn passage before the recapitulation added just the right feeling of chamber music inside a larger structure. But it was still a little too fast to escape a feeling of being pushed.

The mini-cantata that is the finale of this symphony is very difficult to conduct, as it presents numerous tempo and mood changes as Beethoven recalls the first three movements and tries to match the Masonic-inspired ecstasy of Schiller's poem with music that reflects it. Perlman handled them nicely, again setting good standard tempos for the movement, most importantly in the chorus beginning Seid umschlungen, Millionen, which had the breadth it requires to stand out from the music that came before and prepare the listener for the big Freude, Tochter aus Elysium coda. Bass Ketelsen has a strong, wiry voice that commanded attention, and tenor Tessier sang his Turkish march with verve, though his high B-flats were hard to hear in the uprush of chorus and orchestra underneath.

The soloists all together had a very pleasant blend, and it would have been nice to have a slightly slower tempo on their final appearance. Soprano Claire was a bit flat in the treacherous high Bs at the climax of the section, but in general the quartet did its job nicely, as did the Master Chorale. Perlman went with the time-honored way to hammer out the last Freude, schoner Gotterfunken, which works better than the way it's actually written, and overall he led a crackerjack reading of this monumental piece.

The opening Egmont Overture also was impressive for its vigor, power and polish. Perlman made sure to draw out the huge opening cadence with broad strokes and great weight, and the celebrated five-note motto that distinguishes this piece was crisp and bluff, and the closing martial coda suitably heroic.

What Perlman lacks in bringing explicit detail to his conducting he compensates for by a very good understanding of the big picture. He is an older-fashioned conductor, more of a time-beater than today's fashionable choreographers, but his understanding of the music, which he is able to communicate clearly through the medium of the orchestra, cannot be gainsaid. He would be well worth seeing again on the conductor's chair.

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