With the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall
In Toronto, Saturday
The annual ritual of opening the cottage on the Victoria Day weekend didn't deter a large crowd from attending the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's concert at Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday night. No doubt the TSO was aware it was up against stiff competition from the lure of Muskoka, so the orchestra put together an enticing program comprised of works by Mozart and Dvorak. And at the centre of it all was violinist-conductor Itzhak Perlman.
That the 65-year-old American musician is a brilliant violinist is beyond all dispute. (And the fact he has triumphed despite a crippling bout of childhood polio makes his accomplishments even more impressive.) As well, he has earned the musical world's respect as a conductor. But things went slightly awry when played and conducted at the same time.
The two pieces he chose for this double-duty were by Mozart: the Adagio in E Major for Violin and Orchestra and the Rondo in C Major for Violin and Orchestra. Both are slender works, and the Adagio is really just a fragment, with an inconclusive ending.
Perlman led the orchestra from a chair at the front of the stage. He played with a sweet yet solid tone - his magnificent 1714 Stradivarius easily penetrating the orchestra - in long, singing lines. And whenever Mozart accorded him a few bars of rest, he conducted the orchestra broadly with his bow.
It was impressive, but it was not quite enough. While there are a few orchestras in the world that have successfully cultivated the ability to play without a conductor standing before them, the Toronto Symphony isn't one of them. The TSO responded to the absence of conventional direction with a tepid reading, most notable for its aversion to risk.
So when Perlman ascended to a chair on the podium to conduct Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G Minor in a more conductorly manner, things took a turn for the better. At once, the orchestra was bolder and more decisive - and the winds, in particular, made exciting work of the first movement.
The second movement was played with the strings muted throughout, producing a subtle transparency of tone. The third was an effectively rhythmic minuet. And Perlman brought the symphony to a decisive conclusion with a reading of the finale that emphasized its angular phase structure.
Dvorak's contribution to the program was his ever-popular Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, "From the New World." After hearing the TSO and Perlman working together so successfully in the Mozart symphony, it was disappointing to hear the Dvorak get off to a lacklustre start.
To be sure, the first movement had its moments, but it also had perfunctory quality, born of missed opportunities for effect. It was as though someone was holding someone else held back - although it was hard to tell whether Perlman was reining in the TSO or the TSO was less than fully committed to Perlman.
Happily, all this changed in the second movement. English hornist Cary Ebli's solo was a turning point: His haunting and languid rendition of the famous "Goin' Home" theme opened a floodgate of musical expressiveness.
The third movement was a flurry of excitement, bursting with scampering, energy - and also a lilt that reflected Dvorak's Central European sensibilities. And the last movement was glorious: shot through with dramatic tension from beginning to end.
It's said that all's well that ends well. This concert certainly ended well, even if there were some uneven patches along the way.
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