When violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman speaks, he always says something worth remembering. He is a storyteller and a teller of tales.
The evolution of his artistry and character over the course of his 65-year career will be on display in concerts at BergenPAC in Englewood, Oct. 7, and NJPAC in Newark, Oct. 8, giving New Jersey concertgoers a chance to catch him twice in one weekend.
At age 3, growing up in Israel, Perlman heard Jascha Heifetz play the violin over the radio and simply understood the instrument was for him.
“Everyone who starts to play an instrument, they always hope for the highest and most wonderful results they can have,” he says. “You know, playing recitals at Carnegie Hall and having a career at the top. That’s always the hope. So with me, it was like that.”
There was no definitive moment that made him say “This is who I am,” though.
“Though I suppose, growing up in Israel … when you grow up in a small country, you always dream about going abroad. So when Ed Sullivan presented me with the opportunity to be on the show, that was an event that was very meaningful to me because it got me to the United States and then studying at the Juilliard School, and so on and so forth. I felt like I was evolving as an artist, and that’s basically what you want to do. You want to evolve as a person and as a musician.
“Even if you do something well, you cannot say, ‘I’ve done it so I’m just going to repeat what I’ve done.’ You always want to grow and you always want to change, and you always want to ask what you want to do with music.
“People ask me what is the difference between the way I play now and the way I played, say, 30 or 40 years ago, and it’s a very subtle kind of difference. But it is a difference. In other words, I hear music in a different way. Not to say that the other way was bad, but that this way now is different. And that’s what you want. You want the difference.”
The BergenPAC concert will be a relatively straightforward recital of classical repertoire to highlight Perlman’s clean-cut technique and exemplary rhythm. Selections will be announced from the stage and will be pulled from his expansive repertoire that influenced generations of classical musicians.
His earlier years were full of Mendelssohn and Paganini. As he became more established, he found his own style, exploring the lush beauties of the Middle European Romantics and the great Russian and Baroque masters.
The NJPAC event, titled “An Afternoon with Itzhak Perlman,” will be a multimedia show tracing his roots and the trajectory of his career. He will intertwine storytelling with performance pieces and personal photos from his archives.
The two approaches inform each other.
“It’s all connected,” Perlman says. “One is a standard recital of classical music while the other one, with all the talking and videos and music, is part of what I do for a living. It contains other things that are obviously connected to what I do as a classical violinist: how I started, the kind of practicing I did as a young kid, and so on and so forth, and other events in my life which basically came as a result of playing recitals and playing with orchestras.”
Both events will feature pianist Rohan De Silva, a longtime friend and collaborator. They have been performing together for more than two decades.
“He’s a terrific pianist, that’s No. 1,” Perlman says. “And No. 2, we’ve been playing so much together so he knows exactly what I want to do and he can anticipate. That’s one of the challenges of a collaborative pianist, you know: to be able to anticipate what your partner does and to give the same kind of flavor to the music. And he’s very good at that, partially from longevity.”
The stylized chronicle of Perlman’s life and career debuted as a touring event in 2019 and was postponed during the pandemic. It was modeled on the success of “Itzhak,” a 2017 documentary by Alison Chernick that followed the jet-setting superstar around the world, captivating audiences as a concert violinist and collaborating with longtime friends and family members.
Like most great storytellers, Perlman uses clear language and communicates in a simple way. He is not interested in making profound or grandiose statements. He tries his best to make himself understood in a clear way, as he does on the violin.
Would he say one influenced the other, or is that just the way he is?
“I guess that’s the way I am,” he says. “Before I started to do this kind of concert, when I was playing recitals only, I always liked to talk about the music. I felt always you should communicate when you play music to the audience. The audience also feels that if you talk to them, it’s an extra element of communication. So I always did that in a smaller way than I’m doing in this kind of concert on Sunday.
“I think I was one of the first people that actually spoke during a normal recital. It used to be, you go on the stage, you take a bow, you play and then hopefully the audience will applaud. Then you take another bow and you leave and that’s it! I felt like this extra element of communicating — not only through music but by talking to the audience — was something that made the event more interesting.
“I remember I got a letter from somebody — and that was a very long time ago when I had just started to talk to the audience — and it was a letter of complaint saying something like, ‘I heard you play the other day and I have a complaint: You didn’t say anything!’ ”
He laughs at the recollection. “So in other words, already at that time, the audience was expecting me to say something.”
Perlman wasn’t known outside of Israel until his 1958 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He was 13 years old and found himself discovered overnight in the United States as a child prodigy.
He studied at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay. Galamian taught in the severe way that only those old school maestros could do. DeLay was more democratic, asking Perlman for his input on selections and interpretations. Between the two extremes, his musical education was comprehensive.
He is now 78, and his life as a performer has gone far beyond the stage. He has achieved world-class, mainstream status that not many classical musicians attain. He also is well decorated, with a Presidential Medal of Freedom among his honors.
There were struggles along the way. He survived polio as a child but it took away his ability to walk unaided. He began performing in crutches in a generation that discriminated against physical disabilities. And as a young Jewish émigré, he was the target of antisemitism.
His determination sustained him through years of bias and doubt. His story is not unlike the Yiddish hero archetype of the proud, simple man who sets himself for the greatest goals, struggles against the obstacles, and maintains his dignity and humility along the journey.
He doesn’t perform or travel on Friday night in observance of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. His wife Toby always makes Shabbat with prayers and meals for the family. Perlman has been married to Toby since 1966 and they have five children and 12 grandchildren.
Emotionally, does he still consider himself a foreigner in America?
“No, no. I know who I am,” he says. “I think I can be both. I was born in Israel and I know that’s my home country. I’ve been in the States much longer than I’ve been in Israel.”
He laughs and pauses momentarily. “Let’s see, now comes my challenge of math! I’m 78 and I was 13 when I arrived, so if you do that math, that’s how long I was here. I feel very comfortable here and when I go there, I feel like that’s my childhood. I can feel my childhood when I’m there.”
Sentimentality runs deep in Jewish culture, and his concert touches on it. Is this deliberate or accidental, or is it just him?
“It’s me!” he laughs. The aim of the show is to entertain and to stir the soul. He avoids gimmicks.
“I think the most important thing is to have a spontaneity,” he says. “That’s not only important in a show, but it’s important in music as well. You don’t want the audience to sort of say, ‘Oh, he’s doing such and such.’ You just want them to say, ‘Hey, I’m enjoying this experience,’ whether it’s a musical experience or an experience in this particular program, so that when they leave the theater, they can say, ‘Well, I had a good time.’ I can’t pretend to do anything else. I have to feel that it’s genuinely me.”
He continues to build and create, using his talent as a force of change. For 30 years, he has been a music educator at the Perlman Music Program founded by his wife in 1993 on Shelter Island in the Hamptons. (She is also a violinist and studied at Juilliard under DeLay.) It offers summer programs to young strings and piano students in a noncompetitive environment with a philosophy that encourages kindness and respect.
It suits Perlman’s attentive teaching style that he learned from DeLay. “On teaching,” he says, “I’ve been saying it to everyone who interviews me, and the sentence is, ‘When you teach others, you teach yourself.’ ”
Has becoming a teacher influenced his style as a performer?
“Absolutely. Because when you teach, it forces you to listen in a certain way. I’ve been very fortunate in that the kids who study with me are wonderful and on a very, very high level. Really, in many ways, it’s more difficult to teach when somebody plays well because there’s a lot of stuff technically that you don’t have to bother with, but you have to try and figure out what they can do musically to make a performance more successful. So it’s more subtle. But it all involves listening.
“So what happens is that after I do that, and then when I play myself, I sort of eliminate the middle man. I’m becoming my own teacher. And then I can actually say, ‘Oh, I have to do this because … well, you know, yesterday I said to do that to somebody else, so why shouldn’t I do that?’ So there’s a lot of different subtleties in phrasing and in sound, and it makes you more of an expert on what makes something work in music.”
Does he find any other art forms that share the same sort of divine music as the violin? “You have the voice,” he answers. Each art form helps the other to express itself, and he finds symbolism in that: We are all one.
“I love singing so I love the human voice. I don’t have, unfortunately, the opportunity to attend too many operas but I always listen on the radio to programs of opera singers, and I’m always fascinated by what makes one singer different than another and the study of the natural voice, which really is very, very much close to when you talk about the tone of somebody playing a string instrument. Each person has a different tone.
“I always compare it to singers: that each singer has a different voice. You can still be a fantastic singer, but the voice you’re born with … you can’t really teach that. I’m always fascinated why singing is so connected to playing an instrument.
“Sometimes you have a voice teacher who is saying to the singer, ‘You know, you should sing like somebody plays an instrument.’ And then you have a violin teacher who says to the violinist, ‘Why don’t you play like you’re a singer?’ So you see, everything is very much connected.”
For more about him, visit itzhakperlman.com.
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