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Last week at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Barack Obama made his entrance to the tune of Hulk Hogan’s “Real American” theme song, the first of a series of jokes at Donald Trump’s expense. (Vice President Joe Biden, who was subjected to a gag reel introduced by Ol’ Dirty Bastard warbling “Ooh baby I like it raw,” fared little better.)
But two years ago at his Inauguration, the freshly-sworn-in president tapped Itzhak Perlman to play a somewhat statelier theme song composed by John Williams, accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero. Playing the inaugural “was one of the greatest events of my life” Perlman said in an interview in Applause, by which he meant pretending to play the inaugural: The entire performance, it turns out, was mimed. The bitter January temperatures made their instruments impossible to keep in tune, so the quartet did a Milli Vanilli routine on stage while pre-recorded music was piped in over loudspeakers.
But Perlman is a performer, and he could fake it pretty convincingly. As one of the few household names in classical music, his presence alone was what counted. Perlman’s longtime designation as “the world’s greatest violinist” is largely honorary by now—-at 65, he is still very very good, but there are others—-Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, James Ehnes, Hilary Hahn—-who are younger and more vigorous. But with the exception of Bell, none have the star wattage accumulated over a lifetime of Sesame Street and Tonight Show appearances as does Itzhak Perlman.
Both his age and showmanship were apparent at yesterday’s concert at Strathmore, with Sri Lankan pianist Rohan De Silva. The Israeli-born violinist was stricken with polio as a child and can’t perform standing up. On stage, he makes up for this with gratuitous mugging. Whether or not he is the best, he is certainly the smiliest violinist in the world. Most musicians would furrow their brows after a flub; when Perlman scratched a note in the opening piece, he grinned and winked at the crowd.
The first half of the program was uncharacteristically wan. Perlman and De Silva opened with Mozart’s sonata in B-flat major, one of the first sonatas Mozart wrote that emphasized the violin over the piano. It’s a playful piece with a few too many melodies that are simultaneously shared by both instruments, like that irritating Violent Femmes song. Yet for such a complementary duet, there was little to no interaction between Perlman and De Silva, who did not so much as glance at each other the entire show until the ovation. At times, Perlman’s touch was so light it appeared his instrument would fall from his hands. For Beethoven’s sonata for violin and piano in C minor, he tightened his grip and brought more pressure to bear, but the resonation sounded flat and suppressed.
Perlman and De Silva finally got into the zone after intermission (and maybe a halftime pep talk). The final program piece, Saint-Saëns’ violin sonata in D minor, was rich and full of verve. It had more G and D string notes that Perlman could really dig into, not to mention tricky changes in time signature (from 6/8 to 9/8) and key (from major to minor). Though the chemistry between the two was still lacking, Perlman at least was back to his old self, shrugging and mugging and appearing to genuinely enjoy himself. The two encored with a pair of transcriptions by violinist Fritz Kreisler (a previous generation’s “best in the world”) and closed with Perlman’s signature parlor trick encore: Antonio Bazzini’s Dance of the Goblins, a jaw-droppingly fast piece played entirely in spiccato, punctuated by plucking and harmonics.
Perlman is reaching the age at which most violinists drop the bow and pick up the baton. Indeed, he’s been conducting more, as guest conductor at several orchestras and director of the Westchester Philharmonic in New York; he’s also building his legacy as a mentor with the Perlman Music Program. But he will always be the violinist who presidents call for fancy functions, and so he’s still got some years of fiddling ahead of him.