Violinist Itzhak Perlman is an icon of classical music. His Thursday appearance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was a lesson in why that is the case as well as an example of how personality can change the chemistry of a performance, injecting life into a less than ambitious program, despite a few awkward musical moments.
First up were “Winter” and “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” with Perlman playing and conducting the ASO strings. Perlman is beloved for his folksy charm, and here he engaged in a bit of banter before each of the “season” concertos, illustrated by the playing of excerpts. Unfortunately, he kept putting down his microphone, so that much of the chat was inaudible beyond the first few rows – Symphony Hall is especially unforgiving when it comes to speech.
Perlman has a signature tone, sensuous and solid, and he is not one to make concessions to period performance styles. So we got more of a Romantic approach, with string vibrato and sometimes languid tempi, from both the soloist and the orchestra. At its best, as in Perlman’s own multiple recordings of the same piece, this works remarkably well. “The Four Seasons” is one of those chestnuts that responds to a variety of approaches. Here, however, Perlman’s performance was marred by the intonation issues that have become more pronounced in recent years. That said, this was a reading with a nice pulse, and the audience was in no mood to carp over details.
In the last decade or so, Perlman has dedicated much of his prodigious energy to conducting, and for the night’s second act he put aside his violin to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, called “The Titan” after a now-forgotten novel that served as its inspiration.
This is Mahler’s least “Mahlerian” symphony, sunny and optimistic as opposed to the exquisite darkness that followed. The first movement includes cuckoos, oddly linking it to Vivaldi’s “Summer,” and other rustic themes. Then we progress through charming peasant dances, some hauntingly sweet passages, and a huge banging finale that presages what was to come from the composer.
Under Perlman, we got an introspective and well-behaved approach. This was not the burning fire of Leonard Bernstein, who brought Mahler into the mainstream almost single-handedly. Nor was it the weeping sentimental approach now heard only on old recordings under dead European conductors. The orchestra seemed unusually responsive, and the performance could have been recorded in one take. For example, the brass section, very exposed here as always in Mahler, turned in one of its best performances I can recall.
It would have been nice to hear Perlman play one of the big pieces that best show off his famous dynamic range and supple sound. Still, he’s become a fine conductor, and perhaps his charisma helps him to connect with the orchestra on some deeper level. The result was both a memorable performance and a nice celebration of a great, still-growing, musician.
Additional performances Saturday April 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday April 28 at 3p.m. $23-67. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree Street, Atlanta. 404-733-5000. www.atlantasymphony.org .