Pro basketball hall of famer Bill Walton may have been the tallest man at San Diego’s Jacobs Music Center – Copley Symphony Hall on Saturday night, but he was not the biggest. Instead, it was legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman who was the evening’s star attraction, dazzling concertgoers young and old, short and (very) tall with the first of two masterful weekend performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61.
Perlman’s return to San Diego, where he performed a solo recital in the same building in 2012, came just a month shy of planned celebrations across the U.S. to honor the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the Fab Four weren’t the only musicians to grace the Sullivan stage that year – Perlman also appeared on the program, and like the Beatles is still touting a hefty musical legacy a half-century later. His weekend performances in San Diego were a reminder of why his musicianship – and, based on the standing ovation he received before he even sat down to play, his very presence – is still a force to be reckoned with in contemporary classical performance.
Eschewing the traditional tuxedo for a more casual black Kung Fu shirt, Perlman walked onto the stage following the concert’s intermission, acknowledging the crowd before taking his seat on a riser beside conductor Jahja Ling. Though the San Diego Symphony played the opening section – which Beethoven wrote during his so-called middle period, when his hearing had begun to decline and he felt pressure to push the envelope with his compositions – Perlman joined in after just a couple of minutes, wasting no time taking charge of the piece with his effortless trills and controlled yet fervent exploration of the range of his instrument.
Perlman is such a captivating and wondrous performer that it was easy to lose track of what the other musicians on stage were doing, which was providing a steady accompaniment under Ling’s command. Though not always musically tight, especially coming out of rests in all three movements, the orchestra largely held its own behind Perlman, who flawlessly completed the 40-minute piece before exiting the stage and returning several times to accept the audience’s heartfelt standing ovation.
The ensemble was no less impressive during the first half of the evening’s performance, which began with Ottorino Respighi’s 1932 neoclassical composition Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite III. Though the woodwind, brass and percussion sections were not written into the piece, the orchestra’s string section had no problem carrying the performance, beginning with a fabulous warmth that swept the audience gently out of its seats and on a fantastic ride that featured excellent control of dynamics and seamless transitions through abrupt tempo changes.
As the remainder of the orchestra was getting set up ahead of the program’s next piece, Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, the San Diego Symphony’s pre-concert lecturer Nuvi Mehta took the stage to discuss a few significant elements for the audience to listen for. Though the first movement was a bit loose tempo-wise in places, especially when the orchestra was building to a crescendo, the second – a hybrid of a Japanese-theme-turned-German-fugue and avant-garde bass line that Mehta described as sounding like “Bach had one too many in a New York jazz club” – was very well done, in spite of its complexity.
Likely to be one of the highlights of the San Diego Symphony’s Jacobs Masterworks season (which runs through May), the Perlman engagement showed not only that he is still every bit the performer he was as a teenager on The Ed Sullivan Show, but also that the always-improving and formidable San Diego Symphony has hit its stride and begun to reach heights that would impress even Bill Walton.