The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”
A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”
For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.
Instrumentalists who are “naturals” as conductors are few. One example is Peter Oundjian (born 1955), former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, now Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of New York’s Caramoor Music Festival. Oundjian has proven a passionate maestro with a real sense of symphonic line, who motivates both orchestral musicians and soloists to surpass themselves artistically. A decade older than Oundjian, Perlman may have left playing for conducting a bit late in his career.
Music fans will always rejoice in the best of Perlman’s sweet-toned, dazzlingly effortless playing, which can be heard on a recently reissued 1965 New York recital with pianist David Garvey, and in the delightful camaraderie of Isaac Stern’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, starring the so-called “Kosher Nostra” of Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, et al. Perlman is joyously virtuosic in a 1976 Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, in delightful miniatures by Fritz Kreisler, and in a program of rare Romantic works usually only played by students, Concertos from my Childhood.
Itzhak Perlman has won the hearts of a vast music-going public with his emotional playing, indomitable spirit, and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Westchester audiences surely will give him the benefit of the doubt and cheer his on-the-job training as conductor. Yet by the evidence so far, his main achievement looks likely to remain, first and foremost, as a violinist.