Few musicians generate the affection that Itzhak Perlman has enjoyed from the public for the better part of four decades. That bond is still going strong, as was evident the moment he made his entrance at the Music Center at Strathmore Thursday night to begin a dual concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as violin soloist and conductor.
The sight of the 68-year-old Perlman making his way on crutches to his chair understandably seemed to worry the audience, and the initial, hearty ovation subsided long before he could get situated. Later, the ever-witty artist, who contracted polio at a tender age, turned to the packed house and said that there is "nothing lonelier" for a musician than to walk onstage to the sound of silence.
"Just because I'm a bit slow, doesn't mean you should stop [clapping]," he said with a big smile.
That did the trick. No more awkwardness. For the rest of the evening, plenty of applause to accompany his every step. Plenty of applause, too, for the music-making.
Perlman's guest-conducting gigs typically include some fiddling. Not big concertos that would require another conductor, but more modest, intimate pieces. In this case, the two Romances for violin and orchestra by Beethoven, relatively slender, youthful works that only hint at the composer's genius.
The violinist phrased each with a certain lyrical flourish and, cuing with his bow when not in use, had the orchestra more or less in sync with him. Both performances may emerge with more profile and tightness when the concert is repeated in Baltimore.
In his 2012 BSO visit, after Perlman put away his violin, he continued the program by conducting Mozart's Symphony No. 25. This time, he turned to Mozart's Symphony No. 27, which benefited from buoyant, but never pushy, tempos in the outer movements and a good deal of gentle shading in the Andantino.
There was occasionally spotty playing from the ensemble (the wrap-up of the opening Allegro, for example), but expressive finesse as well.
The big event came after intermission -- Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique." Perlman may not be to the podium born, but he takes conducting seriously. You can't approach this tricky, eventful work unless you do.
It is possible to find more atmosphere in the score, to insert more surprise or tension, but Perlman's straight-ahead approach proved rather refreshing. If he had to move slowly to the podium, he sure took off once he got there.
This was a decidedly propulsive reading that never dawdled, even for the reflective "In the Country" movement. The "March to the Scaffold" became more like a race, and the "Witches' Sabbath" bounded along in crackling style.
Other than some oddly tinny sounds in the violins, the BSO did vibrant, polished work. The brass and percussion sections had an especially vivid night. Solos by Katherine Needleman (oboe) and Jane Marvine (English horn) emerged with considerable tonal beauty and poetic nuance.