ATLANTIC CITY - Violinist Itzhak Perlman's debut Saturday at Resorts casino-hotel, anticipated with both enthusiasm and trepidation, confirmed nobody's fondest hopes or worst fears. The audience left the near-full 1,300-seat Superstar Theater seemingly thrilled; Perlman left with his integrity intact. The concert crossed lines, but without a seismic sense of incident because variations have happened elsewhere.
Musically, he played a medium-weight program - Leclair, Beethoven, Stravinsky - little different from what you'd hear at the Kimmel Center. The experience wasn't unlike hearing classical programs at Manhattan's fashionable, eclectic Le Poisson Rouge - and potentially distracting drinks and food weren't served at Resorts. Preconcert Muzak was Brahms' Symphony No. 1.
The big leap for Atlantic City, however, wasn't pop vs. classical, but singer vs. instrumentalist. Headliners are almost always singers (even if the voice happens to belong to Joan Jett). Nobody could recall a purely instrumental artist headlining recently in Atlantic City.
So who was there? As I learned from chatting up those around me, many were from the immediate area: a local music teacher who has loved Perlman for years, a small-business owner who had caught him on PBS, and people who applauded between movements, suggesting a crossover/fringe crowd, but one that was ultimately more attentive than your typical concert audience.
The idea, according to casino officials, was to attract a different clientele, and what arrived was people who probably would have been just as happy to hear Perlman at, say, the Glassboro Center for the Performing Arts. The difference is that this fringe audience probably wouldn't have known about the Atlantic City event without Resorts' marketing - and all its billboards.
The net had to be cast wide to fill a theater with listeners willing to pay up to $125 for any violinist, and indeed, I talked to those who had driven in from Montgomery County. And rather than traveling through suburban byways, you simply had to navigate the dense thickets of King Kong Cash slot machines between the parking garage and the theater.
So with the right marketing, most any fine classical artist, in theory, could work here. But I wonder if anyone else (perhaps cellist Yo-Yo Ma?) could truly fill the place. Perlman's public identification level is unique among non-operatic classical figures. Though his visibility is nothing close to what it was, the name still has marketing power.
The violinist has long had a particular magnetism that makes audiences meet him more than halfway. Whether he's having a good night or a bad one - he's 64, an age when violinists are well into the winding-down phase - audiences listen to him more closely than they do other violinists, and thus take in more of the music at hand.
And Perlman had a very good night. His playing has been through some bad patches in recent years, but technically speaking, he was secure and fluent. The first half pleasantly consisted of Leclair's Violin Sonata in D major and Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 7 (Op. 30 No. 2), and though Perlman's cultivated musical responses didn't feel so fresh, the ever-engaged pianist Rohan De Silva kept your ears constantly pricked.
Later, Perlman recalled his own glory days in Stravinsky's Suite Italienne (from the composer's quasi-baroque ballet Pulcinella); his gleaming tone with the light sandpaper-ish tang was back in full during Stravinsky's most lyrical sections. His most inspired moments involved expressive fingerslides, usually the province of violinists from the old, old days. Good for him! Fine with me.