I’m no classical music scholar. I can barely tell an allegro from an adagio. But I do know what sounds beautiful. And last Saturday night in Modesto, violinist Itzhak Perlman made beautiful music at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
Most of that beautiful music came from Perlman himself, who played sonatas from Ludwig van Beethoven, César Franck and Giuseppe Tartini with warmth and verve. But there was also the figurative beautiful music made by his very appearance, the presence of such an icon in the classical music world in our little corner of the world.
Modesto long has had an inferiority complex, and not entirely without reason, when it comes to our place on the cultural ladder. We’re no San Francisco. Heck, we’re no Sacramento. But we hold our own, and when someone like Perlman brings all of his talent and prestige to town, we have every right to puff out our chests. On Saturday night, the Gallo Center did just that.
A capacity crowd dressed up to see the show. The performance sold out seven months in advance and could have sold out another entire show thanks to its robust wait list.
As the house began to fill, even seasoned professionals like Gallo Center Director of Marketing & Public Relations Doug Hosner couldn’t contain their giddiness. “This is so exciting,” he said, watching patrons take their seats.
And it was, it was exciting. While it’s not a word too often associated with classical music by anyone other than aficionados, the show had an electric feel. The audience skewed older (the $59 to $139 ticket prices may have contributed to that). But they were no less enthusiastic, giving Perlman a standing ovation from the moment he drove himself out on stage and acknowledged them with a wave of his bow.
The 68-year-old musician uses an electric scooter to get around. Since contracting polio at age 4, he has used crutches or a scooter to get around. Throughout his career, he has played while sitting down.
His Gallo performance had simple staging – a Steinway played by accompanist Rohan De Silva, a page turner for the pianist, and Perlman’s music stand. Still, his renditions of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in E Flat Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 12, No. 3; Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major; and Tartini’s Sonata in G Minor for Violin and Continuo (“Devil’s Trill”) were dynamic and engrossing.
Also, all that talk of Perlman’s legendary charisma was not an oversell. Seldom do the descriptions violin virtuoso, music ambassador and skilled comedian come together in one résumé. But Perlman was indeed funny, relaxed and conversational with the crowd.
After the Beethoven sonata, he gently reminded the crowd – many of whom no doubt came for his reputation and not necessarily their experience with classical music – to not clap between movements. Don’t feel bad, I did it, too, after the first allegro – but stopped myself after one clap because of long-ingrained memories of my parents giving me the “uh-uh” face at the first pause in the music as we attended classical music recitals.
“We were backstage and got an urgent phone call from Mr. Beethoven,” Perlman joked while returning to the stage for his second sonata. “He was concerned because of the applause between the movements. I said it doesn’t matter to me, but he was concerned. He said please don’t applaud between the movements.”
The audience carefully adhered to Mr. Beethoven’s wishes for the rest of the show.
After the three planned sonatas from the program, and a rousing standing ovation from the audience, Perlman again returned to play select pieces he announced from the stage. One was done in the style of a relatively obscure composer he claimed had “a lot of likes on Facebook.” Another was by “an unknown composer by the name of George Gershwin from unknown opera called ‘Porgy and Bess.’ ”
Then there was the piece Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote for a friend “accused of a minor misdemeanor in Russia who went to jail for a very long time.” And yet another piece written for two violins, with one easy part and one hard part. “I’m going to play the easy part,” he joked. (He didn’t; he played the hard part – of course.)
Laughter? At a classical music concert? You can bet the Stradivarius on it.
Perlman even busted out the Oscar-winning theme from the film “Schindler’s List,” for which he provided the searing violin solos. This is a man who knows how to play to his audience.
When the night was over at 10 p.m. and the echoes of the last standing ovation had faded, the audience couldn’t help but feel special as it filtered out. Being in the presence of greatness may not make you great, but you sure feel great afterward.