Review: Itzhak Perlman and the UK Symphony

Lightning has struck twice for the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.

A couple years ago, when university representatives contacted violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman’s management to see about getting him to come play with the student orchestra, they were told it would never happen. On Sunday night, has happened for the second time in as many years.

After bringing a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto to the Singletary Center and the UK Symphony in March 2011, Perlman returned Sunday night with a stunning performance of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, rivaling even his recordings of the work, which generally are the first to appear when you search the Internet for the concerto.

The man is an icon of his instrument, and that was lost on no one in Sunday night in the Singletary Center for the Arts. Graduate student concertmaster Jessica Miskelly and her stand partner, William Ronning, had smiles during Perlman’s solo passages that were visible all the way back to row W, and giddy student fans snapped curtain-call photos on their cellphones and iPads. The really impressive thing was how Perlman, 67,  handled the adulation.

He took the stage on crutches, which he has had to use since contracting polio at age four, and received a whooping, hollering ovation. He turned first to the student musicians and then acknowledged the applause from the audience with a small nod and wave. He took his seat on a podium, laying a crutch on either side of him, accepted his violin and bow from conductor John Nardolillo, threw a cloth on his shoulder, tucked the instrument under his chin and went to work.

If you were going to hear Perlman play only one piece live, the Tchaikovsky concerto would be an excellent choice. Written in 1878 from both a state of depression over a failed marriage and zeal for the instrument, it offers the musician a chance to show a wide range of emotion, and it carries the legend of being declared unplayable by some of the finest violinists of Tchaikovsky’s day.

Perlman certainly had no problem offering the interpretation of an artist who mastered hitting the notes decades ago but approaches the piece as fresh each time he plays it. The solo passages at the end of the first movement were flurries of inspiration and technique that drew the first standing ovation between movements that I have ever seen. Despite what some traditionalists say, applause between movements is fine when it is earned, although generally it is best to keep your seat until the end. In this case, the impulse was hard to argue with. Perlman’s work was that stunning.

He then turned to the second movement, Canzonetta: Andante, offering a performance reminiscent of his aching work on the Schindler’s List score. This was the point where we could see that if the concerto is Tchaikovsky’s story, Perlman was telling it to us through his instrument.

Throughout the performance, he was supported by an enthusiastic, well-prepared orchestra.

And since Perlman was the soloist in an orchestra concert, the UK players did have other pieces to offer. The concert opened with Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which seemed to be driven by enthusiasm for the man waiting in the wings.

A pleasant surprise was that even though Perlman’s evening was done by intermission, most of the audience hung in for the second-half performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” It seemed that a lot of the preparation for the evening went into the Tchaikovsky concerto, because the New World Symphony needed work. The performance stumbled hardest in the second movement, Largo, which demands nuance and succeeded in the most bombastic passages, including the cinematic final movement.

Ultimately, it was the unlikely story of a student orchestra in flyover country making beautiful music with a violin legend who carried the night, and it’s a story that the student musicians will tell their children and grandchildren for decades to come.

Read more: Partnerships help UK Symphony Orchestra land Perlman, others

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