Juilliard Orchestra makes impressive showing under Perlman at Harris Theater

Thu Jan 07, 2016 at 1:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Edvard Pogossian performed Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme" wIth Itzhak Perlman conducting the Juilliard Orchestra Wednesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Edvard Pogossian performed Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” with Itzhak Perlman conducting the Juilliard Orchestra Wednesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

When Itzhak Perlman and the Juilliard Orchestra were booked to perform at the Harris Theater months ago, one could hardly have anticipated how apt the programmed “Pathetique” symphony would be Wednesday evening.

With the news that conductor-composer Pierre Boulez, a longtime fixture at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had died Tuesday at the age of 90, Tchaikovsky’s valedictory work proved an apt memorial, the performance dedicated to Boulez by Perlman.

If there is one area where Chicago is wanting in terms of classical music, it’s the paucity of visiting orchestras. Perhaps it’s viewed as hauling coals to Newcastle, but Symphony Center Presents has reduced their guest orchestra events to just two or three a season in recent years.

Happily, the Harris Theater, which has been greatly expanding its classical offerings, is filling the void nicely with Pinchas Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra next week and Perlman leading the Juilliard Orchestra Wednesday night.

The event, copresented with Access Living, also marked the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with Perlman personifying a musician’s successful overcoming of physical disabilities.

The all-Tchaikovsky program didn’t explore much untrodden ground, yet the program served as a worthy showcase for the gifted young musicians. With a full ensemble of around eighty, the Juilliard Orchestra produced an impressively rich sonority, with clarion trumpets and polished, gleaming strings.

If his violin recitals have long ago settled into a relaxed ceremonial routine, Perlman appeared much more engaged and energized conducting the young musicians.

The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture made a worthy calling card for the Juilliard students. The introductory bars were lacking in hushed mystery, with the playing too loud and Perlman’s direction rather literal. The ensuing section went with fire and bristling dynamism–trumpets especially fine—reflecting the violent conflict between the Capulets and Montagues, and the strings brought richly upholstered ardor to the soaring love theme.

Variations on a Rococo Theme—the closest thing Tchaikovsky left us to a cello concerto– was the evening’s centerpiece, with Juilliard sophomore Edvard Pogossian as soloist.

The Michigan native was clearly in synch with the Classical grace of Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart, bringing elegance and lilt to the main theme, as well as a vibrant, singing tone to the more lyrical variations. While Pogossian handled the lightning bravura of the final section mostly with aplomb, overall there were more pinched notes, wayward intonation and technical lapses than one would expect from a top Juilliard student. The soloist’s colleagues provided attentive and dedicated support under Perlman’s alert direction.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony closed the program, and received the finest performance of the night. Perlman charted the long arc of the first movement skillfully, the low winds aptly lugubrious in the brooding opening section. Under Perlman, the Juilliard players brought roiling dramatic impact to the development section and full-throated expression to the melancholy yearning of the famous second theme.

Textures could have been a bit more adroitly balanced in the second movement, though Perlman brought out the contrasting waltz-like grace. The third movement was fizzing and energized, eliciting the usual premature applause (and motivating at least two patrons to depart early, thinking that the concert was over). Perhaps partly due to that prolonged interruption, the Adagio finale, while well played, didn’t quite plumb the full tragic dimensions of the music, the score’s terraced degrees of pianissimo in the closing bars rather approximately rendered.

Pinchas Zukerman conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Harris Theater 7:30 p.m. January 13 in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the conductor as soloist. harristheaterchicago.org; 312-334-7777.

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