Sunday, March 8, 2009

Music review: Perlman, Pletnev, RNO impressive in Boca fest musical opener

Itzhak Perlman.


By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- As night fell and concert time arrived Saturday at the third Festival of the Arts Boca, hundreds of ticket-clutching patrons still stood in two slowly shuffling lines along both sides of the streets of Mizner Park, waiting to get in.

But once inside the tent at the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater, they found the music worth enduring the logistical bottlenecks, as violinist Itzhak Perlman, conductor Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra gave an often-sterling account of a program devoted -- as is much of the 11-day festival -- to the works of Beethoven.

Perlman, the Israeli-born onetime Wunderkind who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his American debut, is the featured artist of the event, and Saturday night marked his first festival appearance, which he made to an emotional standing ovation as he walked slowly in on crutches (a polio sufferer, he used a scooter to motor on and off the Kravis Center stage during his recital there in January, but apparently there wasn't enough room at the Mizner bandshell for the device).

He was heartily applauded after the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto as well as at its end, testimony to his ability to continue enthralling audiences after a busy half-century of concertizing and recording.

And in all truth, Perlman gave quite a good reading of the Beethoven concerto, one of the more intellectually demanding such works in the repertoire, partly because of its long, powerful first movement, built of one broadly conceived phrase after another. Conductor Pletnev took an almost too-deliberate pace for that first movement, occasionally letting the tempo stall just a hair too long, adding to the surfeit-of-riches feeling conjured up by the RNO, whose first-rate players gave everything a super-smooth sheen.

Although in other pieces he plays such as John Williams' Schindler's List theme, Perlman can bring big emotion and a generous bow to his tone production, in the Beethoven he opted for a more restrained, classic sound, tightly focused and of penetrating clarity. He handled the prodigious difficulties of the concerto with great skill, and in the first movement sounded most affecting in the hushed minor-key passage before the all-out orchestral recap of the opening bars. He was at his most dazzling, suitably enough, in the cadenza, in which he spun out skirling ribbons of rapid notes with admirable accuracy.

The excellence of the Perlman-RNO partnership was even more evident in the second movement, made up as it is of short, simple fragments, which here were played with surpassing tenderness that beautifully framed the soloist's initial, tentative utterances (and kudos especially to the horns for getting that exposed four-note phrase lead-in just right). Perlman's chaste tone was ideal for this music, and contrasted nicely with the earthier, broader sound he adopted for the well-known Rondo that followed.

If he stood out again most prominently in the cadenza, another feast of tricky stops and cascading notes, still the overall impression he gave in the finale was one of playful good spirits, and it was a feeling magnified by the massiveness of the Russian National Orchestra, which made so much of the movement sound huge.

There is something about the innate bigness of Beethoven's music that goes well with outdoor performances, and that was exceptionally clear in the concert's opening work, the Second Symphony (in D, Op. 36). This was a large-boned, meaty, resonant reading of this early symphonic effort, one that called up in the very best way echoes of the manner in which early 19th-century music was played in the years before the authentic-performance movement.

By that I don't mean that there were passages of high-Romantic vibrato or portamenti, just that this is a large ensemble that played this piece in a titanic way. Pletnev tended to conduct sections of this symphony with almost no beat, merely signaling dynamic changes and details -- such as the delicate little rising flute notes at the end of the second movement -- with scant motion, like a technician making tiny adjustments at the controls of a fine machine humming away in tip-top shape.

This was a gorgeous, brilliant performance in every way, athletic and shock-filled in the opening movement, ravishing and boldly melodic in the second, its gently spinning figurations looking forward to the slow movement of the Ninth. Pletnev's windshield-wiper baton movements in the scherzo as he indicated the theme's jumps from section to section underlined the sense of joyful energy with which the orchestra played it, and the finale, with its great off-kilter theme, ran off at a very brisk pace that was as exciting as it was impressive.

The orchestra played with exceptional precision and strength throughout, proving that this house band is, and has been, one of the Boca festival's very finest assets.

More evidence of this could be found in the opening work of the second half, the Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, which preceded the Violin Concerto. There were some slight moments of less-than-perfect ensemble in the enormous unison notes that are such a striking feature of this overture, but in general this was as bracing, and as thrilling, a Coriolan as you're likely to hear, as Pletnev and the orchestra made no concessions to outside noise and used a full dynamic range from shout to whisper to make a compelling argument for this agitated curtain-raiser.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this first Perlman concert exposed problems with a lack of sufficient volunteer manpower to move the very large crowd (there are seats for between 2,400 and 2,800 people) into the tent at the scheduled beginning of the concert. The opening was delayed at least 15 minutes, no doubt to allow everyone to get in, but one hopes the situation can be improved in the coming days.

Parking was already very difficult to come by some 45 minutes before the concert, and there also were long lines for the restrooms at intermission time. These questions, too, will need to be addressed in the future to make it easier for everyone to concentrate more on the music and less on the hassle.

The Festival of the Arts Boca continues at 7 p.m. Monday with a literary event. Former United Nations Undersecretary General Shashi Tharoor will speak on the topic Globalization, Terrorism and the Human Imagination. Tickets: $25-$40. The next musical event is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, when pianist Jeremy Denk joins Pletnev and the RNO for the Fifth Piano Concerto (in E-flat, Op. 73, Emperor) of Beethoven on a program that also includes the composer's Fifth Symphony (in C minor, Op. 67). Tickets:$50-$125. Box office : 866-571-2787 or visit www.festivaloftheartsboca.org.

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