December 3, 2009
Itzhak Perlman — The Incurable Optimist
Itzhak Perlman left his native Tel Aviv in 1958, as a 13-year-old, to perform on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and kept on going. In a career spanning more than 50 years, the violinist has performed with almost every major conductor and orchestra in the world. Awarded a Kennedy Center honor in 2003, Perlman was also invited to perform in January at President Obama’s inauguration. Speaking by phone from New York, Perlman called the inauguration experience “chilling” and said he brought an inferior violin so his priceless Stradivarius wouldn’t be damaged in the cold. He also said the music had been prerecorded.
Perlman has won multiple Grammys. He has honorary degrees from Harvard and Hebrew universities — and that covers just the letter “h.” In “Great Masters of the Violin,” Boris Schwarz wrote that the events of Perlman’s life “read like fiction.” Here indeed is a major musician’s story waiting to be told. But when the subject of writing an autobiography came up, Perlman, 64, gave a quick, decisive response.
“No,” Perlman said. “My life is not very interesting. I’m very happy with my career and my family. Everything is good. That’s not a book. I’m finished in maybe three or four pages.”
When it was suggested that his life has been an inspiration for millions of people all over the world, he said with a laugh, “OK, 10 pages.”
Perlman acknowledges he’s an incurable optimist, and his cheerful but steel-willed nature no doubt helped him triumph over the polio that left his legs paralyzed at the age of 4.
Optimists tend to be forward-looking, so Perlman preferred to talk about his upcoming duo recital on Jan. 23 at the Luckman Theatre on the campus of Cal State L.A., five miles east of downtown. He will perform with pianist Rohan De Silva, an old friend from his Juilliard days. At press time, Perlman said he hadn’t yet decided on the program.
“I can say it will be good,” he said with another laugh. “It’s going to be my regular kind of recipe, starting with something classical — maybe a Beethoven sonata, some Mozart. In the second half, I’ll perform something slightly more contemporary, perhaps Stravinsky’s ‘Suite Italienne.’ And I’ll do encores — Kreisler bonbons, maybe a few Heifetz transcriptions.”
Perlman’s professional story begins when he heard Heifetz playing on the radio when he was 3 1/2, liked the sound and asked his parents for a violin. His family eventually moved to New York, where he studied at the Juilliard School with two great string pedagogues, Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay. He played sitting down, got around on crutches and learned to operate a hand-controlled car.
Perlman recalled being told that a solo career would be out of the question, given his physical handicap. It was a time without wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces or any safety accommodations in public buildings.
“Yeah, some people did not think I could do it,” he said. “People look at your crutches and form opinions. In the beginning, they said it’s really nice to want a concert career, but it’s not practical with all the traveling. But, you know, I managed.”
When he lived in Tel Aviv, his dream was to go abroad. “If you went abroad,” he said, “that was a sign that you were progressing.” Perlman still maintains close ties to his city and homeland, and continues to perform with and conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).
“I always felt that the orchestra was a kind of political barometer as to how well Israel would get along with another country,” he said. “Whenever a relationship would start to warm up, you would know by the fact that the Israel Philharmonic would be invited to perform there.”
Perlman recalled traveling with the orchestra in 1990 to Eastern bloc countries — Poland, Hungary and, most memorably, the Soviet Union. “One of my greatest memories was to be in the Great Hall of Moscow and to listen to the “Hatikvah” being played by the orchestra, with tears running down my face.”
Unlike his old friend, pianist Daniel Barenboim, Perlman isn’t comfortable taking on a direct role as musical-political spokesman for Israel. “I’ve never been political that way,” he said. “You do what you have to do. I go there. I get involved. Anybody can label it, but I’m not looking for labels. The whole business in Israel is very difficult. I have my own opinions, but I keep them to myself. I always believe that things will be better.”
Such an attitude is ideal for a teacher, a role Perlman has embraced enthusiastically. He teaches at Juilliard, using the same studio where he studied under DeLay. “The combination of Galamian and DeLay was interesting, because they taught in totally different ways,” he said. “Galamian was more old-fashioned. He told you what to do, and if you did it, you would get good results. DeLay involved you more in the process, asking your opinion about phrasing or technique.”
In his own instruction, Perlman has gravitated to DeLay’s more individualized, less authoritarian approach. “I believe you accomplish more by being positive and nurturing,” he said. “The use of language can be modified so that you can give criticism while still being supportive.”
Perlman said teaching has changed the way he listens as well as how he plays. “It’s not like I used to play black, and now I’m playing white. I would like to say that I’m playing better, and that I’m looking at music in a different way than I used to. I always say to kids, ‘Just because you did something well yesterday doesn’t mean that’s it and you stop thinking.’”
Perlman said he prefers to teach students in their early teens. “You can give them something of yourself,” he said, “because they haven’t formed certain habits and musical ideas. Then, after two or three years, you hear a student perform and you say, ‘I think I had something to do with this,’ which is very nice.”
With his classically trained violinist wife, Toby, with whom he has five children, he runs the Perlman Music Program in Shelter Island, New York, for kids between the ages of 12 and 18. Last summer marked the program’s 15th anniversary.
“Our summer program is not only about the way you play, but about what kind of human being you are,” he said. “It’s a different philosophy.” He’s taken the program to Israel twice and plans to do so again soon.
As much as he loves teaching, it’s unlikely that Perlman will give up performing any time soon. His latest recording, two Mendelssohn Trios, with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, is due out in January, and in early December he did a polio benefit concert with the New York Philharmonic. He’s also principal conductor of the Westchester Symphony. In March, he’ll be in Israel conducting the IPO in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, with Giora Schmidt on violin, Zuill Bailey on cello, and Perlman’s daughter, Navah, on piano.
No wonder he doesn’t want to take time out to write an autobiography — he’s too busy looking forward.