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Role reversal shows off talent and determination Add to ...

The music was by Mozart, Bach and Tchaikovsky – but the TSO’s concert on Saturday night was really all about two living musicians.

The two musicians were Peter Oundjian and Itzhak Perlman, sharing the stage at Roy Thomson Hall. However, their usual roles were reversed: Oundjian, the TSO’s music director for the last eight years, appeared as a “guest” violinist; and for most of the concert, virtuoso-violinist Perlman served as the TSO’s conductor.

The two men’s lives have intersected over the years – and, to underscore this point, they took a few minutes to reminisce, just before the intermission. Perlman was Oundjian’s teacher at the Juilliard School, and since then they’ve often worked together as colleagues.

But Oundjian and Perlman have something else in common: Both have struggled with physical problems that have influenced their careers.

In Perlman’s case, his disability is obvious and well known. Afflicted with polio at the age of four, he walks with crutches, and plays and conducts seated. He’s admired not just for his artistry, but also as proof of the power of talent and determination over adversity.

Oundjian’s condition is hidden from view. Although he excelled as a violinist in his younger years – spending 14 seasons as first violinist with the Tokyo Quartet – he developed focal dystonia in his left hand in the early 1990s. When the neurological condition made it impossible to continue with the violin, he turned to conducting.

Before Saturday night, Oundjian hadn’t played in public for 17 years. So when he stood next to his old teacher to perform with him in Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (backed by a contingent of strings from the TSO), the anticipation in the hall was palpable. No doubt, some audience-members were hoping for a big comeback.

Indeed, that would have been a fine thing.

In many ways, Oundjian and Perlman were aptly suited as duet partners. In the Bach concerto, both men favoured long lines, a touch of vibrato (in the second movement) and a sweet tone.

Unfortunately, pitch was sometimes a different matter: From the opening, Oundjian’s intonation was not always secure. There was improvement in the subsequent movements – but, overall, Oundjian’s performance was more a tentative testing of the waters than a miraculous return in triumph.

At this point, it’s not clear what – or how much – the TSO’s music director hopes to regain from his former life as a violinist. Last year, when it was announced that he’d once again play in public, he downplayed his ambitions.

“It’s a one-off performance,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m going to make myself practice, and reorganize my left hand. If I don’t force myself to do it, it isn’t going to happen.”

Of course, some people achieve remarkable things in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical obstacles. (We need look no further than Perlman.) But whether or not Oundjian will – or even aspires to be – one of those people remains to be seen.

As for Perlman the conductor, he got the concert off to a good start, leading the TSO in a bright and robust performance of Mozart’s overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio. And with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, he and the TSO brought the evening to a satisfying conclusion.

From his chair on the podium, Perlman lavished attention on the orchestra’s string section, and they rose to the occasion with an ardent and impassioned performance. Also impressive was Neil Deland’s flawlessly smooth rendering of the big horn solo in the second movement.

An Evening with Itzhak

  • The Toronto Symphony Orchestra
  • At Roy Thomson Hall
  • In Toronto on Saturday

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