Without a music director at the start of another season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is again turning to a superstar violinist to lead its curtain-raising gala next Saturday. Last year it was Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist and conductor in Mozart’s five violin concertos. This year, the BSO’s guest is violinist Itzhak Perlman, who will play Beethoven’s two Romances for violin and orchestra, then lead the same composer’s Seventh Symphony.
The choice makes sense for the orchestra, which is about to embark on its second opening night since James Levine’s resignation in 2011. Perlman’s presence clearly carries the ceremonial weight that an opening-night concert calls for. Less obviously, he has a substantial record as a conductor, including as music director of the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra between 2008 and 2011. And there is Perlman’s sound — broad, luxurious, and sensuously beautiful — made indelible on listeners through hundreds of performances and recordings.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, Itzhak Perlman, violinist and conductor
The newest of these is “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul,” an exploration of Eastern European Jewish music made in collaboration with cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. Perlman, who was born in Israel, has visited some of this territory before, notably in two 1990s recordings of klezmer music. On those he was accompanied by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, whose director, Hankus Netsky (a New England Conservatory faculty member), serves as music director and producer on the new project.
What’s distinctive about “Eternal Echoes” is that it goes beyond klezmer to the cantorial tradition — music sung by the cantor in the synagogue. It’s a musical practice with the deepest roots in Jewish culture, and seems to have had something of a revival in recent years. A fair amount of the focus is on Helfgot, chief cantor at New York’s Park East Synagogue, who performed a sold-out concert at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.
Taken together, klezmer and cantorial music — secular and sacred, the street dance and the synagogue prayer — combine here to evoke a more complete picture of Jewish culture than is usually evident from a recording like this. Sometimes the switch happens within the same piece, such as in the folk song “A Dudele,” which begins as a passionate entreaty to God, full of traditional cantorial declamation, and ends as a wild dance. In the CD’s notes, Netsky writes that cantorial music “developed almost like opera — for people who didn’t have opera.” That’s an apt description of “Sheyibone Bays Hamikdosh,” a plea for the rebuilding of the ancient temple in Jerusalem that takes simple musical materials and spins them into a lengthy, quasi-operatic scene. Netsky’s arrangements are deft and tasteful, especially in “Kol Nidrei,” the traditional Yom Kippur prayer, heard here in an especially austere version.
This is a crossover CD, and your level of interest may be determined by how you feel about such projects. Undeniable, though, is the beauty of Perlman’s playing and Helfgot’s singing, as well as the deference they show each other in their effort to grasp the secrets of a lost world.
ArtsEmerson’s screening of “The New Babylon” on Friday offers a rare chance both to see the 1929 film about the Paris Commune — held by many to be the culmination of the Russian silent era — and to hear the score by Shostakovich. “New Babylon” was the composer’s only full-length live accompaniment to a silent film, and it bears traces of the artistic freedom that marked a brief era of Soviet art. A recording of the score will be heard at Friday’s screening.