Itzhak Perlman, violin
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (without Itzhak Perlman)
Itzhak Perlman, conductor
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (featuring Lynn Harrell on cello)
“1812” Festival Overture, Op. 49 (with live cannons)
Without a doubt, Itzhak Perlman is likely the greatest violinist alive today. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1945, to parents that moved from Poland to British Palestine in the 1930s, Perlman began playing the violin at a very early age. He skyrocketed to fame at the age of 13, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Not surprisingly, he continued his studies at Juilliard. At the age of four, he contracted polio. He recovered, but he has had to walk with crutches ever since. Today, he plays the violin and conducts while seated.
Listening to Itzhak Perlman play Beethoven on Saturday night was an honor and a privilege. After the orchestra took their places (they had the A team out both nights), Perlman drove his motorized scooter out to center stage, grabbed his crutches, and without any help from anyone else, climbed the few steps to his seat and sat down – all while the audience gave him a standing ovation. We all knew this was going to be amazing before it had even started. Once Perlman sat down, the first chair violinist handed him his violin. He took it and looked it over before nodding to the first chair. Everyone in the audience laughed, because it was obvious that Perlman was making sure that no one had made a switch with the instruments. This particular violin was a cut above everything else on that stage – it sounded absolutely beautiful. I know that an organization or donor has loaned Perlman a Stradivarius to play for the duration of his life, but I highly doubt they would bring such a priceless instrument to an outdoor venue. Plus, if it had been a Stradivarius, I’m sure they would have brought it out to him under lock and key. Regardless, this instrument sounded amazing.
Watching Perlman play the violin was absolutely breathtaking. The joy he gets from playing was apparent from the beginning. He was grinning from ear to ear the entire time, and his facial features throughout clearly conveyed his emotions. The only other prominent musician that I have seen (either live or on video) that can move their hands as quickly as Perlman moved his on the violin is Dream Theater’s guitarist, John Petrucci. If you know his style, imagine hands moving that quickly on a violin. Yeah. Pretty amazing.
Perlman played half the concert (Violin Concerto in D Major) with the CSO, and the CSO played the second half without him. The whole concert was wonderful, and I will cherish the memories of watching the greatest violinist of our day play live.
On Sunday, August 21, Perlman conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for an all Tchaikovsky program, with the “1812 Overture” slated for last on the setlist. The weather was clear, and the temperature was just right, with a cool breeze off of Lake Michigan, mere blocks to the East. Not surprisingly, Perlman drove his scooter onto the stage to a thunderous standing ovation.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky truly was one of the greatest composers of all time. Few have been able to match his brilliance, and I doubt that few ever will. I can’t think of anyone more perfect to conduct the piece than one of the world’s greatest violinists (and equally talented conductors), Itzhak Perlman.
As I am still acclimating myself to the world of classical music, every new exposure to it is a learning experience for me. Listening to Symphony No. 5 in E Minor made me think of how closely related classical music and progressive rock really are. The symphony goes through four stages: Andante, Andante cantabile, Valse, and Finale. I’m sure it was originally meant to tell a story, especially considering the way the music flowed.
For Variations on a Rococo Theme, Lynn Harrell joined the orchestra as the solo cellist. He was brilliant, and it was really interesting watching him nod and smile to Perlman as a cue for the orchestra to start playing its parts again after his solos. They were both obviously enjoying themselves.
And now, the moment everyone was waiting for. Except, everybody was yapping, for some reason. After applause for Harrell, who left the stage after Variations on a Rococo Theme, the crowd got a little chit chatty. So, in an effort to silence the audience, Perlman, who was sitting with his back to the crowd, motioned both of his hands behind him as a signal to shut up. This didn’t work the first time, so he tried again. When that still didn’t work, he shrugged his shoulders and began. After the first few notes, I heard a loud “SHHHHHH!!!” come from behind me, and the audience finally quieted down. Thank you to whoever shushed.
The 1812 Overture may very well be the best piece of music ever composed. I’m not kidding. It is astonishing in its depth. It was written to commemorate the Russian victory over the French in 1812. As such, throughout the song are themes based upon the Marseillaise (French national anthem) and the Russian national anthem. The song was originally written to be played outdoors, complete with live cannon fire and church bells. Since Ravinia is an outdoor venue, we were treated to live cannons as well! Of course, they weren’t battle cannons firing cannonballs, but rather they were smaller signal cannons. However, they sound like regular battle cannons, and they make just about as much smoke.
As the music rose and fell in its majesty, the stupid grin on my face grew wider and wider. By the end, I was smiling more than I have in a long time. The 1812 Overture is one of my favorite pieces, and I often listen to the Telarc digital recording by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, which features live cannons from the US Civil War and church bells from a church in Europe. Thus, I was fully expecting loud cannon fire at the appropriate moments. Most in attendance were not, despite the camera moving to the cannons and displaying their firing on the screen. You should have seen them jump when those went off, and when they did, it was like someone pounding on your chest. It was absolutely perfect. From my seat, I had a perfect view of the cannons, and I laughed hysterically when the force from the blast started knocking small branches off of the overhanging trees. The smoke from these cannons was incredible – you couldn’t even see through it. It made the song truly come to life, as I imagined the foggy, loud, Russian battlefield of over 200 years ago. Needless to say, the cannons were tuned and fired perfectly to the song. Right before their firing, I saw someone sprinting towards their general vicinity to make sure that they were set to fire correctly. Thankfully, they were.
Instead of church bells, there was a lady playing upright chimes, but I’ll be darned if they didn’t sound exactly like church bells. The resemblance was uncanny. If you know the 1812, you know how amazing and epic this song is. And, like a lot of progressive rock music, it tells a story. While most prog tells stories through lyrics, Tchaikovsky tells the story through musical motifs. While the Marseillaise is dominant early on, referring to the early dominance of the French over the Russians, the Russian national anthem (of the time) gradually rises and conquers the Marseillaise, symbolizing Russian victory. The cannon fire and church bells are icing on the cake of already soaring music. The brass fanfare to close the song sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.
On top of all of this, hearing it performed by one of the world’s greatest orchestras, conducted by the best violinist in the world was truly an experience to remember. At the end of it all, Perlman and the orchestra received a well deserved standing ovation, which lasted for quite a while. Perlman left the stage and came back out a few times to gracefully bow from his wheelchair and acknowledge some of the musicians. This performance marked the end of a fantastic weekend of classical music, and it stirred in me a desire to learn even more about this great genre of music. This music was meant to last, and as long as there are people intelligent enough to acknowledge its greatness, it will endure.
Please check out the Telarc digital recording of the 1812 Overture. The full resolution copies (and vinyl) of this recording have been known to destroy audio equipment. The cannons are so loud that they have destroyed speakers, and if the weight isn’t heavy enough on the turntable needle, it will actually skip once it hits that spot in the song. You can actually see on the vinyl grooves where the cannon fire is. Anyways, this Youtube version shouldn’t do any of that, but it gives a great idea of the grandeur of this song. Enjoy!