Review

Itzhak Perlman with the L.A. Phil: Emphasizing the classic in classical

As in his past visits to Walt Disney Concert Hall in the dual roles of violinist and conductor, Itzhak Perlman defined his function here as the preserver of normalcy.

While premieres and spectaculars dot most of the agenda at the Los Angeles Philharmonic this winter, Perlman deals just in standards by the old masters, leaving the pathbreaking to others. And he will probably remain a reliable draw for as long as he wants to perform; Thursday night’s house looked virtually full.

Part of the ritual of a Perlman concert is the way in which he enters the hall. For some time now, he has been using a motor scooter to make his entrance, followed by the arduous task of hoisting himself out of the vehicle and carefully making his way up the three steps to the podium. Always cheerful, he jokingly encouraged the applause with gestures from his hands, and as the ovation gathered steam when he reached his seat, he rolled out one of his quips sotto voce, “For my next performance ... [laughter] ... we’ll actually play the music!”

Yet in contrast to his lighthearted personality and irrepressible urge to entertain, Perlman’s musical outlook these days continues to be weighty, serious and impervious to whatever trends happen to be in vogue.

Perlman’s conception of the J.S. Bach Violin Concerto in A Minor, which he led and played from his scooter, was little changed from his recording with Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra from the 1970s — perhaps a bit faster but still a throwback to the days of hearing Bach through a mid-20th-century filter of heavy textures and broad tempos.

His violin playing remained in shape, with just enough songful sweetness in the slow movement, though recessed in volume within the compact ensemble of just 24 players.

There was programmatic consistency in Perlman’s conducting agenda — two grand sets of variations, one by Brahms (the Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn), the other by Elgar (the “Enigma Variations”). According to the program book, both pieces were first played by the L.A. Phil in the same year, 1925, most likely a fortuitous coincidence.

The Brahms variations went by agreeably; Variations V and VI bopped along with pinpoint work by the wind instruments, the finale had sufficient grandeur, if not a whole lot of energy.

Leonard Bernstein used to say that the real “enigma” of the “Enigma Variations” is how Elgar’s appropriation of the language of Germans like Schumann, Wagner and Brahms still manages to sound like a personal affirmation of the high point of the British Empire. Yet Perlman’s weighty conception reminded me more of the piece’s Central European roots than anything British in feeling, with the long pauses between some of the variations nearly converting a unified piece into a suite.

For anyone approaching these two works for the first time, these performances would have given them a decent, well-played idea of their potential. For more depth and power, though, one would have to turn elsewhere.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

L.A. Phil with Itzhak Perlman

Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $87 to $225

Info: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

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