Perlman scolds, cajoles, and charms Kravis audience

By Greg Stepanich

 Itzhak Perlman was part raconteur, teacher and etiquette scold Monday night at his recital before a sold-out hall at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, but in the middle of all that the Israeli-born violinist managed to be a good advocate for an early work of Messiaen.

Perlman played the French composer’s Theme and Variations, written in 1932, not once but twice in the second half of his program. “I’m telling you, it’s a terrific piece,” he said, and then suggested that he and pianist Rohan de Silva might repeat it.

But first he had to gently upbraid the audience for its initial lukewarm response to the relatively brief work, which ends with a long diminuendo that expires at the bottom of the violin and piano registers. “Tell me something:  Was it really that bad that half of you didn’t want to clap?” Perlman said, then advised them on good concert manners, which involves applause even after you hear something you don’t like.

Dutifully chastened, the audience gave the second iteration of the Messiaen a warm reception, and truth to tell the work came off even better in the repeat rendition.  It begins with a theme and mood reminiscent of the late Violin Sonata of Debussy, and at one point in the variations migrates in the piano to a harmonic sequence that evokes the older composer’s Voiles. But the concluding fifth variation, a series of long, slow notes in the violin over clanging, changing chords in the piano, looks forward to Messiaen’s own Quartet for the End of Time.

Perlman’s friendly-ambassador public persona always makes me forget that he does not play with the big, hyperemotional style that sort of PR might indicate. His sound is intensely focused but somewhat narrow, and quite well-suited to French music.  His Messiaen was admirable for its clean lines, its delicately traced passagework, and its sober communicative power. De Silva, a Sri Lankan-born pianist who did first-rate work all evening, was a subtle, elegant accompanist.

The first half of the concert featured an adequate if underwhelming reading of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Perlman obviously knows his way around the piece, and much of it was fine: the very opening bars of this enormous work, and the third, minor-key variation of the second. But he had noticeable tuning problems in the variations, particularly in the high-stepping, bravura second, and was unable to bring off its closing phrase with proper intonation, in any of its repeats.

What was missing here overall was that great Beethovenian sense of breadth, creative surprise and drama. The climbing theme that comes to dominate the second half of the first movement, for example, should in its last violin pronouncements be joyful, expansive,  exuberant.  Perlman played it forcefully, but too cautiously, and without that feeling of the skies opening wide out in front of the music that Beethoven’s narrative demands.

The concert opened with one of George Frideric Handel’s violin sonatas (No. 13 in D, HWV 371), and in this work, Perlman’s tight sound was a benefit, especially in the Larghetto, which came across with a lovely, chaste melancholy. The rest of the work was played with careful control and a modest outlook, though not without a sense of inner vigor (the fugal Allegro and the bustling sixteenth notes of the two fast movements) that helped enliven things.

The violinist played four encores after the two Messiaens, chatting amiably with the audience as he did so. Fritz Kreisler’s Tempo di Menuetto  (in the style of Gaetano Pugnani, “a composer who was a legend in his own home,” Perlman wisecracked) came first, then the Troika of the violinist-pedagogue Felix Winternitz (1872-1948).  In both of these salon pieces, Perlman was more engaged as a player, tearing into Kreisler’s fine little piece with real verve. The Winternitz bagatelle has a seductive folksong-like Russian tune as its centerpiece, and this, too, came off with life and warmth.

Perlman also played the next encore, John Williams’ theme from the movie Schindler’s List, with restraint and beauty, and ended with a Kreisler arrangement of a two-violin etude by the Polish composer and virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski  (Op. 18, No. 4).  Intonation problems were evident in the higher reaches of this familiar saltarello, and it ended up sounding messy rather than sparkling, but there was a roar of acclamation afterward from the huge audience, which in any case Perlman had in the palm of his hand all night.

 Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper at, and writes a personal blog at He also works as a freelance writer and composer.

Posted in Performances

11 Responses to “Perlman scolds, cajoles, and charms Kravis audience”

  1. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 8:16 am by Aaron

    There is no reason paying customers should be scolded to clap if they don’t want to. This is the type of pompous elitism that contributes to the irrelevance of classical music in the 21st century.

    It’s one thing to verbally share your passion for the piece pointing out key aesthetic elements and then to repeat it for a more focused listening. This is wonderful; but to chide people for not applauding is forcing their “appreciation” which is selfish and disrespectful. In Europe, they boo what they don’t like. He should be grateful he didn’t get a more honest reception.

  2. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 10:03 am by Paul

    It is ridiculous for ANY performer to tell an audience it has to applaud even if it dislikes something. That reduces the music experience from a potentiallt life-changing, honest soul experience to the shallowness of telling your hostess at a cocktail party you had a good time, even if you didn’t. What the audience owes the performer is listening to a piece quietly and as fully as possible. That’s it. Perlman’s silly comments remind me of an incident that occurred after Act I of SIEGFRIED at the Met years ago. The tenor singing the title role was truly awful and got a couple boos during his curtain call. Immediately a man sitting behind me jumped up and shouted at the booer: “You sir! If you cannot get up on stage and do a better job singing the role you have NO right to boo. NONE!” That mindset is one reason for the lack of excellence in the arts in the US.

  3. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 10:09 am by Charles

    I’m going to add a second to Aaron’s comments. An audience that shows disapproval of a piece has just proven that they WERE listening and evaluating. An audience that claps for everything has become disengaged. For more proof, just ask any of the top-level orchestra musicians who are dismayed and disheartened by the standing ovations they receive at the end of every concert, regardless of the performance’s value or success.

  4. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 10:13 am by Paul

    i wouldn’t have clapped after the second performance

    there’s no place for elitism in Southern Florida – it’s the sunshine state!

  5. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 10:29 am by George

    I disagree. I have noticed that audiences in the US (since you have made the comparison) view concerts like they do movies and don’t feel the need to show either approval or disapproval.

    Unless you were there, you don’t if the audience members had the same negative reaction to his remarks that you did. But it does sound like you have a chip on your shoulder that has nothing to do with what happened or what was reported.

  6. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 11:27 am by Ernest

    Would he have done this in New York? Not a chance. If this went down as described, Mr. Perlman owes your city an apology. No artist is entitled to applause. At least the audience did not boo when he gave them cod liver oil not once but twice.

    Mr. Perlman’s playing is steadily declining. He is coasting on his reputation for being a mensch and should guard that reputation more carefully.

  7. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 2:04 pm by Larry Murray

    Another enlightening report, but with quite a twist. I’m going to think about this one.

  8. Posted Jan 14, 2009 at 11:45 pm by ariel

    It is arrogant of Mr. Perlman to lecture his
    audience on so called “correct” behaviour
    in musical appreciation, especially so since
    one notices he is not embarrassed to play
    the dreary work by Williams .He should be lectured for that lapse in taste .

  9. Posted Jan 15, 2009 at 3:25 pm by Rudolf Grainger

    Oh, puh-lease. “Insult to city”, “pompous elitism” my rear.

    We don’t know what he said exactly, since it’s not quoted. Yes, I agree that “clapping for something you did not like” doesn’t sound like very good advice. If he said it like that, I don’t agree with it… although Perlman might have just pointed out that there could be a distinction in clapping for the performance and clapping for the work.

    In any case, he seemed to make a case for Messiaen and “listening with open ears”, not for receiving more applause himself. And I think this advocacy, including playing the Messiaen twice, is superb brinksmanship of his art when playing work outside the classical canon. Bravo to Perlman who probably did more in that concert to allow people to listen with ‘open ears’ than any other artist who merely pandered, put in a second rate performance, cashed the check, and cursed Florida audiences to his buddies afterwards. (Because that’s what usually happens!)

  10. Posted Jan 20, 2009 at 9:23 am by David

    I have lived in South Florida for 10 years. People here do not respect 20th or 21st century music. They are extremely ignorant! On the other hand He should have not forced them to clap. The previous comments are correct in that in Europe they boo and express themselves more honestly. And besides what is Perlman doning playing Messian?? He does not have the training to do these sorts of works. He is really known for playing these shmaltzy romantic works that people here some how never get tired of. The same old stuff over and over and over again. Perhaps Perlman forgot just how conservative our audience is.

  11. Posted Jan 21, 2009 at 2:19 pm by DCLawyer

    Don’t these rubes know that piece is better than it sounds?

    In his book on learning to appreciate opera (“Opera 101”), Fred Plotkin laid down what I thought was a superb rule: never boo (his theory is that you never know what’s going on with the performer – perhaps their mother just died). If you don’t like something, don’t feel the need to applaud – the performers will get the message, he wrote.

    That’s the way I’ve approached professional performances (you ALWAYS applaud amateurs of course). If they didn’t enjoy the performance (the composition or the execution) withholding applause is correct.

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Tue Jan 13, 2009
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