Itzhak Perlman Shines in Return to Symphony Hall
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Itzhak Perlman Shines in Return to Symphony Hall

In his return to the stage at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual Gala Concert, the violinist offers his masterful interpretation of Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1.

Itzhak Perlman’s appearance with the ASO came after two years of avoiding public performances because of the COVID pandemic. // Jeff Roffman/ASO
Itzhak Perlman’s appearance with the ASO came after two years of avoiding public performances because of the COVID pandemic. // Jeff Roffman/ASO

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, a favorite with Atlanta audiences, headlined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual Gala Concert in Symphony Hall on Saturday evening, May 21.

The concert was highlighted by Perlman’s transcendent reading of Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, a standard in the violin repertoire from the Romantic era and one of the few works by the German composer that’s regularly performed. Sometimes described as the best 19th century example of a one-hit wonder, Bruch is best known to Jewish audiences for his Opus No. 47, “Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Violoncello and Orchestra,” a Kol Nidre composition sung in some congregations on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Over the years, Perlman has made the Concerto No. 1 his own. His Symphony Hall performance was distinguished by a delicate balance between the elegant and lyrical elements of the early passages and the crisp and energetic drama of the later measures. Nicola Luisotti, the Italian conductor who led the symphony orchestra, was so taken by the beauty of Perlman’s performance that he spontaneously kissed his hand at the conclusion of the concert.

For those who were not able to attend the pricey concert — Ticketmaster was selling tickets for up to $380 by curtain time — an EMI Classics recording that Perlman made 38 years ago, when he was 39, will give listeners at home some idea of what they missed. As late as last year, Perlman’s performance with the late Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra was still being applauded by Britain’s prestigious Gramophone magazine.

In its 2021 review of all-time best recordings of violin concertos, Gramophone wrote that “sweetness and poetry characterize this likable performance by one of the fiddle’s greats.” If anything, Perlman’s maturity and flawless technique have only served to polish his masterful interpretation of the concerto.

In 2018, Perlman received the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival’s Icon Award. // Vaughn Gittens/AJFF

His return to the Symphony Hall stage was, in part, an effort to make up for his last-minute cancellation as soloist for the ASO’s 70th anniversary concert in early March 2020. The concert was performed on schedule, with Yoel Levi, the music director who did so much to solidify the orchestra’s reputation from 1988 to 2000, and Pinchas Zuckerman filling in for Perlman. Until he resumed touring earlier this year, Perlman had not performed in public since 2020.

He was still cautious during his latest appearance. The violinist, who contracted the polio virus in Israel in 1949 when he was 4 years old, used a compact scooter to zip across the stage before and after his performance.

Perlman also mandated that audience members show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance. There were no exceptions. Those who did not bring proof of vaccination were tested onsite by a health care technician. Needless to say, both the orchestra and the audience were required to be masked at all times.

Two years before the pandemic began, Perlman charmed at a 2018 performance at the Sandy Springs Performance Arts Center’s Byers Theater co-sponsored by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. He received the festival’s Icon Award for his contributions to film the same year that the AJFF screened “Yitzhak,” an intimate and revealing American Masters/PBS documentary.

Perlman’s latest performance received a standing ovation that brought him back to the stage three times to acknowledge the applause. But there was no encore and no remarks before or after his performance of the Bruch concerto. Neither did the violinist make an appearance at the ASO’s Gala Dinner fundraiser at the High Museum following the concert, for which orchestra supporters had paid $1,000 a plate.

The event raised funds for the orchestra’s education and community outreach programs, but it honored outgoing board chair Janine Brown. Also honored was Azira Hill, widow of Jesse Hill, a leader in Atlanta’s African American business and political communities. Hill has been a longtime volunteer in the effort to develop African American audiences and talent for the ASO.

Perhaps Perlman was just preserving his legendary store of energy. The next morning the violinist was up early to catch a flight back to New York, where he was preparing for a May 23rd concert for medical relief in Ukraine at Carnegie Hall. Forty-eight hours after he finished his concert in Atlanta, Perlman took the stage to join a star-studded cast of performers that included singer Michael Feinstein, classical violinist Midori, opera star Isabel Leonard and NPR’s Chris Thile, among others.

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