HIGHLAND PARK – Violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman and the Ravinia Festival have been going together for 50 years.
Perlman debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and on the Ravinia stage simultaneously in 1966 at age 20, returning at age 70 for a weekend of playing Ludwig van Beethoven on August 20 and conducting Peter Tchaikovsky on August 21.
Between 1966 and these concerts, Perlman has returned to Ravinia 36 times over the years, according to a public address announcement when he took the stage.
He played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major to open an evening of the composer’s music on Saturday. On Sunday Perlman conducted an all-Tchaikovsky concert, finishing with the “1812” Festival Overture complete with cannons fired from a roped-off section of the lawn.
After the intermission on Saturday, the Chicago Symphony finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Before leading the orchestra in the 1812 Overture Sunday, Perlman took the musicians through Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Variations on a Rococo Theme with Lynn Harrell playing cello.
From a Highland Park resident who has a vague memory of attending Perlman’s first concert in 1966 to a Cedar Rapids family who heard him for the first time, it was all about enjoying the talents of one of classical music’s pre-eminent talents.
“He is the best violinist alive,” said Tracy Thoreson of Cedar Rapids who was there with her son Jesse Thoreson, 7, also a budding violinist. “I wanted Jesse to hear him and see him. He is unbelievable to see and hear in person.” They were as close to the cannons as anyone in the crowd could get — to Jesse Thoreson’s delight.
Longtime Highland Park resident Judy Geleerd-Kitzes said she is not sure if she was at Perlman’s first Ravinia concert but she rarely misses an opportunity to see him play or conduct. She was at both concerts over the weekend.
“It’s Itzhak Perlman,” said Geleerd-Kitzes explaining why she was there. “He plays with such passion. You can see the feeling on his face. He is at one with the music.”
Perlman’s face was expressive as he played and conducted. Though there was music in front of him when he led the orchestra, he used no music when he played the concerto. His eyes were closed most of the time except to exchange an occasional nod with conductor Bramwell Tovey.
“It was mesmerizing,” said Matt Siegel of Evanston at the intermission on Saturday after Perlman finished the concerto. “You can see in his face how he is part of the music.”
“He plays with such feeling,” said Civia Tuteur of Chicago at intermission on Saturday. “The music seems to become part of him.”
Peter Knobel and Elaine Knobel of Evanston had seats for both concerts and said they were happy with each, though Elaine Knobel gave more kudos to Perlman as a soloist than a conductor.
“He’s brilliant,” she said.
“He is the best violinist I have ever seen in my life,” added Peter Knobel.
Elaine Knobel said it was hard for her to watch Perlman conduct from a seat. He got Polio at 4, according to a 2104 Wall Street Journal article. He both plays and conducts from a chair.
“It’s hard for me to see him sitting. I understand it’s because of his disability. I like to see a conductor up and moving around,” she said. She still liked what she saw. “The orchestra is following him beautifully and I hope he does more conducting in the future.”
Perlman entered the stage for both concerts in a wheelchair, used crutches to get out of the movable seat and, when conducting, to mount the podium before sitting. He got a standing ovation with cheers both times he came on stage and got in position to perform.