Even before he had stroked one note on his slight but mighty violin, Yitzhak Perlman received a loud, effusive ovation from the audience that filled Roy Thomson Hall last week in Toronto.
That the renowned artist-musician was performing in Toronto on Yom Ha’atzmaut was a providential serendipity for some in the audience. For it added immensely to the personal celebration of the special day. At the age of 67, how many more visits to Canada lay ahead for the Israeli-born violinist? It was a rare opportunity to see and hear this exceptional individual, perhaps one of the most beloved and respected musicians in the world.
Playing alongside his student, Toronto Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Oundjian, Perlman performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61.
Beethoven was already past the mid-point of his short life when he composed the concerto. And though it was written during a more mature period in the composer’s life, it holds true to so much of the tempestuous, moody composer’s music: rising tides of emotion, boldly expressed feelings, large, broad themes frequently contrasted by gentle lyricism and tender phrases.
Beethoven’s music, this violin concerto included, is as deeply embedded into the canon of western music as the western horizon is to sunset. In both cases, one cannot conceive of the latter without the presence of the former.
As he awaited his cue from the score, Perlman sat patiently, looking out into the audience, violin resting securely between chin and shoulder, his hands not on the precious instrument but indifferently clasped together in his lap. His familiar full head of wavy, curly black hair is indeed still wavy and curly, but the black is now silver grey.
And then it happens.
Some three minutes into the allegro, the first movement of the concerto, Perlman brings the bow to the strings and music flows from the instrument like pixie dust pours from the magician’s chalice in the old Walt Disney cartoons, lifting the listener’s soul in ever-ascending arcs of sparkle and light.
As he plays, Perlman communicates with us, his expressions, his movements and the ever delightful sounds of his music an invitation to travel with him to faraway places of the heart. And if it is true, as Beethoven’s younger contemporary Robert Schumann wrote, “Music’s lofty mission is to shed light on the depths of the human heart,” then the remarkable Perlman is a precious human flashlight shining gold and silver light into the many mysterious corners of the human heart’s profundity.
During Perlman’s solos, the more than 50 other musicians on the stage listened and watched with the intensity of students listening to their master. At one heavenly solo in the first movement, Perlman beckoned their re-entry into the music with delicate trilling by his left pinky. The many “dialogues” throughout the music between solo violin and other solo instruments or full orchestra were like tender-hearted conversations between lovers.
We cannot simply speak of Perlman’s grasp of music because that suggests “mere” mastery of technique and technical requirements. Nor can we simply speak of his searing interpretations of music because that suggests “mere” expertise brought by constant repetition and routine.
Rather, there is very evidently something more, something additional, to Perlman. To be sure, he obviously does grasp the material and he obviously does bring insightful, moving interpretations to music.
In a way, Perlman himself becomes the instrument. And the violin “plays” him. In his hands, it draws out of this unique virtuoso ideas and suggestions, approaches and discoveries that bring us standing fully within what is important, elegant and beautiful in the music. And in so doing, he and his violin, also bring us more closely to the edge of seeing what may be important, elegant and beautiful in our own lives.
When the concerto ended, the audience was on its feet immediately shouting and clapping their thanks to Perlman. They stood without interruption in lusty applause for 10 minutes. Perlman returned to the stage two more times after he had concluded playing.
After the performance, two young people were overheard saying it had been a “privilege” to see and hear the grand maestro. An older individual, apparently more familiar with Perlman, said of the maestro that “he was in the zone tonight.” Reflecting further, he added with a small nod of the head and a wistful smile, “It makes you believe in God.”