The Harris Theater, down in the metaphorical catacombs beneath Chicago’s Millennium Park, was the setting for a generous all-Tchaikovsky program Wednesday night given by the Juilliard Orchestra – the eponymous institution’s most prominent performing ensemble – and star violinist-cum-conductor Itzhak Perlman. It began on a solemn note, with dean and provost of the Juilliard School Ara Guzelimian commemorating the sad passing of the incomparable maestro Pierre Boulez the previous day. Although somewhat ironically Tchaikovsky was a composer from whom Boulez kept his distance, it was a fitting dedication as not only has he graced the same stage, but spent much of his career dedicated to young musicians like the ones onstage. In addition, Guzelimian went so far as to say that in the United States it was Chicago where Boulez felt most at home.

The intervening few months since Perlman’s previous Chicago appearance at the end of the summer season have seen him been awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as Israel’s prestigious Genesis Prize. While it is always a privilege to see such an extraordinary artist, as a conductor I often find Perlman to err on the side of rigidity, not quite allowing for the flexibility one might aspire to in this repertoire, which began with the ever-popular tone poem Romeo and Juliet. After the plaintive introduction, the famous main theme was hindered by balance issues between the strings, winds and brass, with the latter a bit too dominant. Still, from a technical standpoint, the performance was an impressive display of the players’ youthful virtuosity, and while the burning passion might have been dialed back a few notches, the drama was visceral.

The Variations on a Rococo Theme followed, featuring the gifted sophomore cellist Edvard Pogossian. The “Rococo” theme is actually of Tchaikovsky’s own device; under Pogossian’s bow it was stately and elegant, radiating old-world charm. In between several variations are interludes in the winds, unmistakably emanating from Tchaikovsky’s pen rather than any rococo antecedents. The extended third variation involved some especially lovely and lyrical playing from Pogossian, and the livelier following variation validated his technique in its striking series of trills. Even more impressive was the cadenza in the fifth variation, and I was especially taken by the sympathetic playing of his colleagues in the penultimate variation, with the pizzicato strings accompanying very fine solos in the winds before the whirlwind finale. Pogossian certainly has an exciting career awaiting.

The finest playing of the evening came in the Pathétique symphony, which Perlman himself dedicated to Boulez, such a touching tribute between these two towering figures. Indeed, it is a work in which the specter of death is ever-present, made all the more haunting by the fact that Tchaikovsky’s own death was just a matter of days after the première. Chicago audiences are a bit spoiled as recent seasons of the CSO have included performances of the Pathétique by both Muti and Dohnányi; while this may not have soared to the Olympian heights of those benchmark performances, it was nonetheless a more than worthy effort, inimitably powerful.

The expansive first movement managed to touch virtually every human emotion from tragedy to ecstasy before its enigmatically quiet ending. While I thought the soaring theme in the strings could have been even more effusive and unbuttoned, most striking were the stirring brass chorales and lush solos in the clarinet. The much lighter second movement was wonderfully buoyant, and even almost danceable although the 5/4 meter would advise one otherwise. The sheer spectacle of orchestral virtuosity in the scherzo was overwhelming, inevitably resulting in a storm of wild yet wildly inappropriate applause. Fortunately, this in no way broke the orchestra’s concentration for the somber finale, one of the deepest outpourings of melancholy ever articulated. While Boulez may now be filling the heavens with integral serialism, down on the ground we were engulfed by the richly indulgent harmonies as this heart-wrenching work drew to a mournful close. If these young musicians are to be any indication of the next generation of orchestral players, the future bodes all good things.