Violinist/conductor Itzhak Perlman enjoys a rare freedom in classical music: His relationship with audiences is such that he needs only to show up, and adoration is assured.
What's frustrating is that Perlman doesn't do more with that status, especially since his string of subscription concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week features four performances, rather than the usual three. This program stands to reach more listeners than perhaps any other this season.
From a repertoire standpoint, Perlman has never been terribly ambitious as a violinist. That carried over into his Friday concert at the Kimmel Center, which comprised mostly lesser works by major composers - and in a season whose programs are predominantly middleweight.
The concert began with Beethoven's Romances Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Orchestra, which sound like the composer was on mood-stabilizing meds. Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 - a step backward from the Symphony No. 1 - dominated the second half. Dvorak was represented by his nothing-more-than-pleasant Serenade in E major (Op. 22).
Early works by Beethoven and Dvorak certainly should be heard, but with both composers, their lifelong creative trajectories were a process of remaking compositional techniques of the past in their own image. With so many early works heard together, one's ears must turn back the clock, in works with only glimmers of the composer we would later know. That's just not good programming.
As for the performances, Perlman was soloist on the Beethoven romances - another point of frustration since recent shoulder surgeries have brought back his trademark sweet-but-husky tone. He left you wanting more.
Perlman the conductor is another story. As is often the case with instrumentalists turned conductors, a different personality emerges on the podium.
In his best moments, his moderate tempos take on a monumental gravity, not unlike the late Otto Klemperer. This quality was most apparent in the first movement of the Beethoven symphony, though elsewhere in the piece his tempos tended to start at a purposeful clip and wind down a bit by the end. Luckily, the Philadelphia strings were customarily radiant.
The one piece that was thoroughly absorbing from start to finish was the last: Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. The brass chorale at the beginning felt like serious stuff, and let's face it, the piece was the only mature one on the program.
Also, there must be a better way for Perlman to mount the Verizon Hall podium. Intermission chatter was often about fear for his safety as he mounted the steps to the rostrum.