Monday, February 17, 2014

Itzhak Perlman: A masterpiece, a missed opportunity

If you attended Itzhak Perlman's performance Saturday night at Belk Theater, you heard a revelatory rendition of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. I couldn't find a recent video of him that would reflect his current thoughts about the piece, but here's a sample of him playing the first movement some years ago:

Before he came, I wished the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra hadn't asked him to play this chestnut. (He didn't propose it.) He was virtually certain to sell out the hall -- as indeed he did -- because he's the most famous classical violinist in the world. Why not let him play something we wouldn't otherwise hear? My choice: Prokofiev's second concerto, because his recording with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting is the best rendition I've heard.

The Mendelssohn had such profound intimacy that I was grateful for the experience; I've never heard it given such depth, even in recordings I admire. It inspired me to order a box set of his albums, including a celebrated Mendelssohn coupling with Andre Previn on the podium, to try to recapture the feeling.

That said, the CSO missed a great opportunity to play a symphony that would have been excluded from the Classics Series repertoire because it was tough to sell. The combination of Perlman and the Mendelssohn E Minor was guaranteed to fill seats. So why put Mozart's Symphony No. 40 on the first half of the concert?

Few people love Mozart more than I do: I once bought a 170-CD set of his complete works, so I could hear obscure organ sonatas and Italian-language operas he wrote as a pre-teen. I think the G Minor Symphony is the greatest in the world up to the time of its composition, possibly excepting half a dozen contenders by Haydn.

But think of all the things that could have replaced it! I'm not suggesting something as far out (for Charlotte's timid ears) as Szymanowski or Hartmann or Tubin. But why not program a Prokofiev symphony or Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin"? If the CSO wanted to keep costs down, because the orchestra needed for the Mendelssohn concerto wasn't a big one, what about a Shostakovich chamber symphony? Or why not have an all-Mendelssohn night and play his first symphony plus one of his overtures?

I thought back to a conversation I had 17 years ago with conductor Daniele Gatti. He was on a national tour of American cities with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing programs anchored by Mahler's Fifth Symphony or Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Carolinas Concert Association, fearful that those works would make Charlotteans stay home, asked him to play Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony instead.

He told me only two cities on the tour wanted him to dumb down his programming: Charlotte and Hartford, Conn. Must we always be the Hartford of the South?


Oldilocks said...

Mr. Toppman,

Re: "He told me only two cities on the tour wanted him to dumb down his programming: Charlotte and Hartford, Conn. Must we always be the Hartford of the South?"

What your article lacked in name and title-dropping, mind-numbing dryness it made up for with rudeness. You certainly put in a full day's work.

Anonymous said...

Is it rude to point out that only Charlotte and Hartford thought Mahler and Bartok were too hard for local audiences to appreciate, while many smaller cities on that tour requested more adventurous programming?

I have lived in the Queen City for 34 years. During that time, audiences (and often programmers) have remained frightened of pieces that the rest of the world would place in the mainstream. This situation will never improve until people address it honestly.