When Itzhak Perlman comes to town to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic these days, expect him to be armed with bow and baton. Such was the case Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Perlman will be conducting through this weekend.
Perlman brought out his violin for two short selections with the orchestra and conducted a relatively compact one before intermission, then came back to lead the big Romantic symphonic standard that is Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.
As with Perlman's 2013 engagement with the Phil, his fans flocked to see him. Disney Hall looked nearly full Thursday, and the weekend concerts are almost sold out.
With Perlman, Tchaikovsky and Mozart on the bill, that's about as sure a crowd-pleasing combination as you can get — and the ovations were thunderous. Fortunately, though, the Mozart selections were just unpredictable enough to pique the interest of those Perlman devotees who wanted something a little bit different from the 70-year-old superstar.
Mozart's Adagio in E Major, K. 261, and Rondo in C Major, K. 373, are not heard often in the concert hall. When played together, they resemble the last two-thirds of an imaginary violin concerto.
Perlman had recorded them beautifully with James Levine and the Vienna Philharmonic 30 years ago for Deutsche Grammophon, and it's a pleasure to report that he has enough left in the tank to make them bloom again three decades later. Perlman's intonation — not always a sure thing in his later years — was spot on. His tone was steady and sufficiently rich, and his conceptions, though basically the same, have gained in expressivity and, in the Rondo, wit. These performances were the closest I've heard to prime Perlman in years.
As for Mozart's Symphony No. 27 — a brief, cheerful, three-movement throwback to earlier symphonic patterns: This piece had never been played by the L.A. Phil. In Perlman's hands, the symphony was a warm and friendly affair, with a robust texture that made the most out of the small contingency of musicians. It had good rhythm, plenty of string vibrato and more than a touch of the conductor's sense of humor in the second movement. One could infer that Perlman and company were blithely and deliciously unconcerned with any period-performance notions.
For Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, the Philharmonic expanded to its full size, and Perlman made convincingly dark and slow work of the gloomy opening bars. From there, though, the performance trudged forward at a heavy, draggy pace in the outer movements, not quite so much in the middle movements.
The violinist-turned-conductor does have a grand, coherent conception of what he wants, and the orchestra played luxuriously well for him. But it is terribly difficult to make the Tchaikovsky 5 sound fresh again. L.A. Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is one of the few who can pull off that feat these days, and this wasn't one of those occasions.
L.A. Philharmonic with Itzhak Perlman
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday