Concert by Perlman and students makes for uneven start to Arsht series

By Lawrence Budmen

Itzhak Perlman

The Arsht Center’s Masterworks Series opened on Thursday night with “Perlman and Protégés,” a chamber music concert featuring Itzhak Perlman and alumni of the Perlman Music Program. Familiar scores of Schumann and Mendelssohn framed a fascinating rarity by the young Dmitri Shostakovich.

A legendary violinist, Perlman is a beloved figure whose every appearance is guaranteed to draw a large and enthusiastic audience. Perlman has attained iconic status, his career spanning nearly five decades. His dedication to training and nurturing the next generation of musicians through teaching at the Juilliard School and his summer music program is admirable, and he  clearly takes great pride in displaying the talents of his current and former students.

The problem with this type of program is that most of the participants are students with varying degrees of performing experience. Despite Perlman’s coaching, the ensemble performances were highly uneven, often even within individual movements of scores. With the notable exception of the Shostakovich work, the music-making did not rise to the consistently professional level of the New World Symphony’s chamber music programs.

Perlman played first violin in performances of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major and Mendelssohn’s Octet. Time has taken its toll on his once formidable technique. There were moments when the old Perlman shone through, the tone sweet and caressing, the music lovingly shaped. At other times his playing was scrappy. The performance of the Schumann score was definitely rough around the edges. Pianist David Kaplan was agile and incisive though, at times, overly percussive. Violist Cong Wu’s tone was hollow, lacking warmth and focus in his solos. In the second movement Marcia, Perlman captured the passion and yearning of the secondary theme winningly, his colleagues struggling to match his interpretive insight. Cellist Thomas Mesa, a native Miamian, was technically accomplished and musically incisive.

In the remarkable Octet in E-flat Major, the product of the sixteen year old Mendelssohn, Perlman’s sound turned wiry in the opening movement but regained much of its luster as the work progressed. Perlman strove to bring some fire to the overly deliberate, low-intensity reading of the first two movements. The famous Scherzo had the requisite lightness and élan, the players rejuvenated for a final Presto replete with energy and spirit. Their obvious joy in music-making was palpable as the performance gathered steam.

Between these two repertoire staples came the Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, the remarkable work of the nineteen year old Shostakovich. This rarely heard score illustrates what a boldly adventurous and original composer Shostakovich was prior to the Stalinist crackdown on artistic freedom that forced him to adhere closely to Soviet cultural orthodoxy. The unmoored harmonies and tonal ambiguity of the Prelude cast a swirling, eerie spell, setting off the agitated fury and spiky dissonance of the Scherzo.

Led by the virtuosic Sean Lee, Perlman’s teaching assistant, the performance resonated with fire and gritty exuberance and cellist Jia Kim’s big-boned solo was strongly realized.  Violinists IhnSeon Park, Michelle Ross and Erno Kallai, violists A.J. Nilles and Wu and cellist Mesa all played with razor-sharp projection and spiky intensity.

While the evening was a worthy showcase for some talented young musicians, whether this is the kind of program that should be presented as part of a major concert series at top ticket prices — even with Itzhak Perlman as the drawing card — is debatable.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Concert by Perlman and students makes for uneven start to Arsht series”

  1. Posted Nov 22, 2011 at 3:12 am by Charles Salgado-Gouker

    That performance of the Octet by Shostakovitch was nearly perfection. It was an extraordinary and incredibly moving performance I will never forget. What a terrific pleasure!

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Fri Nov 18, 2011
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