The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 132nd season with an all-Beethoven program. Superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman did double duty as soloist/conductor in Beethoven’s two Romances for Violin and Orchestra and as conductor in the Symphony No.7 in A, op. 92. Last night’s opening gala reflected the BSO’s post-Levine searches for a music director and a musical direction in some safe choices as well as in some unexpectedly sensational results.
Beethoven’s two Romances are relatively early works: the second Romance, op. 50, was composed first in 1798, the year of the op. 10 piano sonatas and op. 12 violin sonatas. The first Romance, op. 40, hails from 1802, the year of the op. 31 piano sonatas and the Symphony No. 2. Neither Romance has the sharp dynamic changes, harmonic tension, or rough humor that is typical of later Beethoven, and so they are odd choices to usher in a new music season, and they show Perlman’s weaknesses to worst effect. As a violinist, he can be guilty of a violin tone that is uniformly impeccably produced, technically flawless, but sweet, inoffensive, and without much sharpness or contrast. There’s a lovely cadential moment near the end of Romance No.1, where the strings hold on a dominant seventh chord, waiting to resolve to the home key. In moments like this, the soloist can delay the arrival by teasing with the phrases and flirting but putting off the consummation. The foursquare way that Perlman plowed through that moment left me cold.
Perlman’s conducting was the most impressive element of Opening Night. For the romances, which began the program, his podium was placed alongside the concertmaster’s chair, in front of the first violins rather than at the center of the orchestra. He used head nods and shoulder wiggles to cue the orchestra when he played the solos, and used the bow to mark time when he wasn’t playing. The BSO strings responded with a lovely, balanced sound, with inner details popping out of the texture that other string sections sometimes gloss over.
The two Romances were played as a set, with Perlman remaining seated. Thereafter, he left the stage, but there was no intermission, rather a brief shuffling as the orchestra nearly doubled in size and a proper conductor’s podium was set up in the usual place. I braced myself for a safe, inoffensive, predictable performance of the Symphony no. 7, and was pleasantly surprised by what I got instead.
Perlman has made a serious commitment to conducting (YouTube interview here); he spent several years as the principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony and has led the BSO while they were on tour in the past. He brings a wealth of experience as a soloist and teacher, which paid dividends in a thrilling performance of the symphony. The wind and string choirs provided a smoothly balanced sound, with the winds in particular melding into a sound with one thought and one breath. Cello lines that often get muddied in Beethoven’s thick textures sprang out with incisive clarity, and the sections exchanged motifs and played alongside each other with such precise lucidity that you could take musical dictation from them. Particularly impressive in the slow introduction to the first movement was the execution of the forte-piano markings. Beethoven uses fp markings extensively in his scores, and they are a challenge to bring off properly. Last night, the BSO strings were exemplary, providing a crisp loud attack, but backing off quickly to a hushed sound without losing energy or intensity. Perlman showed masterly dynamic control, getting the orchestra to play softly with an attentive burnished beauty, and making the most of Beethoven’s slow-burn crescendos into full-throated fortes. The only sour note was that at the loudest passages, the horns stuck out of the texture in an unblended, indelicate fashion, and sometimes with wonky tuning to boot, though they joined in many of the softer passages with exquisite control.
The second, slow movement began at a relatively fast pace (though the movement is marked Allegretto, implying a moderately fast tempo). Here, the BSO shone with gorgeous, hushed, but energized pianissimo playing, bringing the repeat of the B section of the theme to barely audible levels with no loss of detail. In the third movement, Perlman observed all of the written repeats (as he did with the massive exposition repeat in the first movement), helping to give the Scherzo segment a sense of contraction as everything is repeated in the first go-round, half of it is repeated the second time, and none of it is repeated the third time. And the threatened third return of the Trio segment was milked beautifully for its pregnant-pause humor. The Finale started at a brisk gallop, with a strong rhythmic pulse generated from all of the scrupulously observed sforzando markings in the score. Despite an aggressive pace, the lines were still delivered with impressive attention to detail, with every 16th note in the initial figure cleanly articulated by strings and winds alike. Perlman whipped the orchestra into a full blown frenzy by the end, and a sold out Symphony Hall erupted into cheers.
In some ways, I’m not sure what to make of this concert — on the one hand, so much of it seemed unambitious, with a crowd-pleaser like Perlman on the podium, leading a startlingly short concert of the most over-programmed composer. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for Symphony’s willingness to entrust the baton to a man respected and adored as a soloist, but not known as an A-list conductor. Perlman delivered an impressive performance of the Symphony, better than a lot of Beethoven symphony performances that I’ve heard from more widely known conductors. I can’t imagine he’s on the short list to take over as the BSO’s music director, but it will be interesting to see if he’s asked back to take on more ambitious fare. The BSO returns with Porgy and Bess next week, and Perlman returns to Boston in March for an appearance with the Celebrity Series.