The last time Itzhak Perlman appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a decade ago, he brought only his violin. For his return this weekend, he's bringing along a baton, too.
It's not uncommon for soloists to feel the lure of the podium, but Perlman, one of the most popular violinists in the world, landed there more by chance.
"The conducting bug never bit me," Perlman, 64, says. "My wife [Toby] started the Perlman Music Program for talented young string players 15 years ago. She told me one day, 'They need a coach.' That turned out to be a code name for conductor. I didn't really want to do it. I used a pencil, no baton. I thought that would be more like a teacher, more scholarly."
But the violinist found himself easing into that conducting role.
"I made the kids play nicely," he says, "and people started saying to me, 'If you get such a nice response from kids, why not try the pros?' The first orchestra I had a real long relationship with was the Israel Philharmonic, so I figured if I'm going to fall flat on my face conducting [a professional orchestra], I might as well do it with family. But I kept my balance. And one thing led to another. Orchestras asked me at first out of curiosity. Now I actually get invited back for a second time."
Perlman served as principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony from 2001 to 2005 and was named artistic director of the Westchester Philharmonic in New York a few years ago.
For his conducting debut with the BSO, he has chosen Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. He'll also have his fiddle at the ready to join BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman in Bach's Double Concerto for violin and oboe.
"I grew up listening to his recording of it with the Israel Philharmonic and Ray Still," Needleman says, "so it's a real honor to have the opportunity to play it with him."
When it comes to conducting such an iconic work as Beethoven's Fifth, Perlman says that "the question is, what can you tell me that I haven't heard before about the Fifth? I have a certain way I like this piece. I'm concerned with the tension, the relationship of phrases. It is a challenge to give musicians a sense that they are doing something different."
String players can expect extra attention when Perlman conducts. He's especially attentive to vibrato.
"I know there are some special concerts where no vibrato is appropriate, but I'm a strong believer in vibrato," he says. "It's one of the main tools of musical interpretation, and it's underused today. If you ever watch me conducting, you see my left hand shaking all the time; it's telling [the string section] 'Please vibrate.' There are so many varieties of vibrato, like a palette of many colors. If you're a painter, you don't dip your brush in one color only."
Today's music world tends to frown on liberal vibrato, as well as portamento, a technique of sliding between notes often deemed too romantic, too old-fashioned.
"I believe musicians should have a sense of history," Perlman says. "You should not have blinders on, or cut everything out because 'that was then.' The question is, can I incorporate some of the things they did then, rather than always try to make it so pure, like white bread - with no butter. I don't want to go on a diet when I make music."
Perlman also doesn't want to sound the same when he picks up the violin.
"One of the dangers for someone doing this a long time is that you just do a carbon copy of your playing," he says. There's a pause, then a short, bass-voice laugh. "Wait, what the hell is carbon? I almost said Xerox. No one knows what that is, either. I will try to be much more modern. The danger is that you just make a copy [of your playing] and then paste it. If you do that, you might crash. How's that?"
If you go
The BSO, with violinist/conductor Itzhak Perlman, performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore (sold out) and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. (limited seating). Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.