Review: Perlman polishes a shine on his performance of film music favourites

Itzhak Perlman.

Alexander Shelley and the National Arts Centre Orchestra kicked off their 2017-18 season Wednesday evening with a potpourri of popular film music performed by the beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Perlman is no stranger to Southam Hall, thanks to his great friendship with Pinchas Zukerman. This time around, audiences got Perlman the entertainer as well as the virtuoso. His banter with Shelley featured some good-natured teasing about movie trivia, with a few corny one-liners thrown in. Perlman even included Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki in on the fun. Kawasaki held Perlman’s fiddle and bow as the soloist used his familiar arm crutches to move from his electric scooter to his chair. When Kawasaki reverently handed the precious Soil Strad back to its owner, Perlman made a great theatre of glaring at him and inspecting the instrument suspiciously. The undoubtedly well-rehearsed shtick still garnered chuckles from the hall.

Perlman played several tracks from his Cinema Serenade recording project with his longtime collaborator John Williams. At 72, the violinist looked a little more frail than his last visit to the NAC in 2014, but his playing is still all buttery ease and emotional immediacy. Williams’ plaintive theme from Schindler’s List, John Barry’s memorable score for Out of Africa, the old-school Hollywood romance of Korngold’s Robin Hood, and other classic movie tidbits were all expertly crafted to hit the admiring audience right in the feels.

The orchestra seemed inspired by Perlman, and despite the relatively light, pops-style fare the playing was refined, sensitive, and warm. New principal cello Rachel Mercer performed an especially beautiful duet with the soloist (no pressure there), earning her Perlman’s personal applause.

The first half featured two early 20th-century masterpieces that were not written for film, but may as well have been. The Suite from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier exuded brisk energy and narrative concept. But while there were many exceptional solos and excellent section work, especially the woodwinds, the virtuosity and cohesion of the orchestral tutti never really came together. If Shelley has one weakness, it is a tendency to over-intellectualize. He can get tripped up in the minutiae of counterpoint and harmonic analysis, instead of using them as a means to an overall, macro-view effect. The result was a Strauss that sounded stiff, disconnected, and bottom-heavy, like a ballroom full of dancers in steel-toed boots. It needed more voluptuous lines, more glossy shimmer, more Viennese grace and operatic breathing room.

Ravel’s La Valse was much more satisfying, with decadent orchestral colours and dizzying roller-coaster loops in the phrasing. But I thought Shelley’s starting tempo was a hair too fast, and the dynamic tension was allowed to reach its destination too early in the piece, leaving no gas in the tank for the long, final crescendo to Ravel’s slammed door of an ending.

This concert repeats Thursday evening. Join Maestro Shelley and me in the Foyer at 7 p.m. for an informal chat about movies and music.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.