The Perlman Music Program returned to Sarasota for its sixth annual winter residency and, Jan. 2, presented its Celebration Concert for an enthusiastic and packed audience at the Sarasota Opera House.
Once again, the Perlmans — Itzhak and his wife, Toby, who is the visionary behind this program — brought with them some 35 of the most talented young string players in the world to study and perform over the holidays in a series of classes and rehearsals, culminating in the Celebration Concert.
The highlight of the performance was a lush, rich and resonant reading of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” a work George Balanchine used for his New York City Ballet that has become one of the hallmarks of both the ballet stage and the concert hall. Under the exceptional leadership of Itzhak Perlman, who has become as great a conductor as he is a violinist, this was one of the finest performances — live or recorded — one could hear of this work: sonorous, beautifully balanced and just plain gorgeous.
As always, the ensemble of fervent kids rotated seating positions between each of the four movements, allowing them to alternately play first or last, inside or outside stand. But, no matter where they sat, the sound remained luxuriant and lush, like the strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy.
Perlman’s conducting precision was beautifully balanced by his attention to dynamics and blend, making one wonder why he’s not on the podium more often than he is, with more of the major, world-class orchestras with whom he solos. Many a well-known conductor could learn by listening, for example, to the wonderful transition he made from the slow third movement to the fourth.
But The Perlman Music Program’s Chamber Orchestra is not your “ordinary” extraordinary string orchestra. Every player in it is a soloist, yet each has learned, through experience with chamber music and, yes, choral singing, to blend, breathe and phrase like one organism.
The ensemble and its leader changed gears easily for the Sarasota premiere of John Williams’ “Air on Simple Gifts,” which was first heard last year, played by Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and friends at the Obama inauguration, and then re-arranged by Williams specially for the Perlman Music Program. Its syncopated, jazzy Americana was given energy and animation by the ensemble.
But the real energy came with the finale: a clever arrangement by violinist Stephanie Chase of Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen.” This, like Chase’s arrangement of the “Carmen Fantasy,” used by the PMP Chamber Orchestra in past years, is a blockbuster of a piece and, once again, Perlman broke it up into individual solo turns for everyone in the ensemble, from violinists to bass players, eliciting cheers, laughter and total delight from the audience.
We should mention that this concert was preceded by a week or so of rehearsals and classes that were open to the public, transforming Sarasota into a holiday festival of music-making. One suggestion: Although the choral work is important for the instrumentalists because it teaches them phrasing and breathing, it might be more prudent to move it into a free concert for the public prior to the main celebratory concert.
The Perlman Music Program has always been an inspiration, but this year, between the talented players and Perlman’s great expertise on the podium, it was the best yet.
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