Itzhak Perlman, who contracted polio when he was four years old, has grown into an advocate for artists with disabilities. For recitals, he comes on stage with a motorized scooter, but when he’s conducting with an orchestra – as he did with the Houston Symphony in a concert of Bach, Weber, and Schubert – he walks on stage using crutches. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Perlman jested that his struggle to ascend the steps to his podium adds suspense: “Everyone is waiting for me to fall down.”

Itzhak Perlman © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Thursday nights’ performance saw him perform Bach’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in E major and conducted with a few deft waves of his bow from his chair. A capable string player, Bach used to conduct his ensemble from his seat in the viola section. Installed at stage left just off the elbow of concertmaster Frank Huang, Perlman held court with ease, echoing Bach himself. The concerto takes off from Vivaldi’s concerto structure, with the first movement using both the alternating form between orchestra and soloist as well as a literal repetition of the first section, making the movement a strict ABA form that was highly irregular for a concerto at the time. Although the tempo of the third movement of the Bach wavered outside of Baroque’s steady standards, the overall sound of the lush orchestra supporting Perlman’s assertive solo violin was a sound to be cherished.

Perlman returned to the stage to conduct Weber’s Overture to Oberon. His last opera, Oberon premiered in 1826 to popular acclaim. It begins with a resounding horn – Oberon’s magic instrument – that rang out majestically from the Jones Hall stage. Perlman took the opening slowly, making the contrasting up-tempo later feel particularly lively. As a conductor, Perlman relies on his fingers, long and dexterous. He opened and shut his hands into a tight fist to cut off phrases and wiggled his fingertips to signal rubato.

Another triumphant horn call opened the final work of the night: Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major. All four movements rely on rhythm, energy, and expression, elements that the strings handled adeptly. The relentless and unforgiving unison sections, where notes are practically flying off players’ fingerboards, were smooth and seamless. The first and second violins, sections that in the past have paled in comparison to the lower strings, sounded particularly on target. By my count, Perlman took all of the repeats, and the energy never lagged.

As a whole, the program was a pleasant, if sometimes perfunctory, aural tour. All the works are a part of a divine canon of joyful music. After two hours of the same harmonious cheer, however, the pieces washed together. To see a master like Perlman play and conduct is remarkable, but it was not enough to make this concert truly memorable musically.