An apology is called for here. In past columns, I have referred to the “total” or “utter mastery” exhibited by soloists who’ve played Spokane. To be sure, we’ve been privileged to hear magnificent playing but, for an example of true mastery, there’s been nothing to match what was heard on Monday evening when Itzhak Perlman played at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
His appearance in our fair city was just the latest example of the wizardry of Zuill Bailey, artistic director of NW BachFest and impresario extraordinaire, who brings to Spokane artists who don’t have room on their calendars for gigs in London or Vienna. Speaking from the stage, Bailey introduced Perlman as “the greatest violinist in the history of the instrument.”
Perlman seemed to wave away such praise as he rode his scooter onstage accompanied by his partner for the evening at the piano, Rohan De Silva. He acknowledged the standing ovation that greeted him with a polite nod and, with no further ceremony, proceeded to play.
Human beings do not need grand gestures to register real feeling. Why then are audiences and performers drawn to lengthy pieces filled with ceaseless activity and melodrama? In part because they are less demanding than music that, because it is more spare and transparent, places every gesture and decision by the performer in full view, enabling and requiring the audience to listen more intently.
It was just such a program offered by Perlman and De Silva comprised of sonatas by Beethoven (No. 3 in E-flat Op. 12) and Grieg (No. 2 in G Op. 13) and a sonatina by Dvorak (in G major Op. 100), along with a generous assortment of encores.
In the opening Beethoven sonata, as throughout the evening, De Silva’s playing was exceptionally fine. When the music called for him to take center stage, he did so without hesitation, exhibiting a refined and expressive command of touch and tone color, always in keeping with the stylistic parameters of the period and composer.
Particularly when taken at the speed chosen by these performers, Beethoven’s writing is especially demanding of the pianist who must play a great number of rapid scale passages in strict tempo. Under De Silva’s hands, they, to borrow Mozart’s phrase, “flowed like oil,” as did the tricky violin writing as rendered by Perlman.
It would be wrong to describe Perlman’s playing as “nonchalant,” though it was certainly physically relaxed. Musically, every grace note and mordant was executed to perfection without ever interrupting the flow of witty dialogue with the piano.
His fabled pitch-pipe intonation, reliable as ever, remains a wonder particularly coming from a left hand that seems far too large to achieve such pinpoint accuracy. Perlman’s variety of tone was a constant delight. Mostly light and transparent, like dry sherry, his tone could blossom in an instant into his celebrated plummy cabernet when he wished to intensify the effect of a passage.
With the movement into the Romantic era, in the music of Grieg and Dvorak, Perlman and De Silva were free to deploy more fully the tonal resources at their command. Edvard Grieg wrote three violin sonatas, one of which, in C minor Op. 45, is deservedly famous. That was not, however, the one which Perlman and De Silva played.
They chose the sonata in G major, written much earlier, and undeservedly unknown. The reason for its obscurity is likely the reason why Perlman selected it, for it is far less conventional and contains folk material that makes interpretation more challenging.
The sonata contains extreme simplicity and subtle sophistication, irregular folk rhythms and tender lyricism, which jostle one another in an order that does not appear obvious. Perlman characterized all voices perfectly, while his ability to spin impossibly long phrases gave the piece the coherence it needs.
Spokane has benefited from Perlman’s influence. Mateusz Wolski, Spokane Symphony concertmaster, credits Perlman with inspiring him to continue violin as a career when he had hit a difficult patch. In watching a Perlman documentary, Wolski saw it was possible to achieve the highest excellence as a musician without sacrificing love of friends, family and life at its fullest.
This blend of easy informality and eye-popping virtuosity was on display throughout the encore. Peppering his remarks to the audience with deprecating humor, Perlman conveyed the tender melancholy of Tchaikovsky’s “Song Without Words” and John Williams’ “Theme From ‘Schindler’s List,’” as well as the fleet virtuosity of Henryk Wieniawski’s “Caprice in A minor” and an allegro by Joseph-Hector Fiocco.
The evening illustrated the true meaning of “mastery” when applied to musical performance, the command of such skill and knowledge as to render the trappings of celebrity pointless and the spectacle of strenuous emotionalism irrelevant, allowing the artist to embrace his audience and bring them to an experience of music at its deepest level.
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