Text by Martin Steinberg
Images by Joseph Sinnott
Fritz Kreisler. Mischa Elman. David Oistrakh. Jascha Heifetz. Henryk Szeryng. Yehudi Menuhin. Isaac Stern. They’re among the pantheon of the “immortal” violinists of the 20th century.
With Stern’s death in 2001, the torch passed to a new generation, the baby boomers. Arguably topping the successor talent list is Itzhak Perlman. Now, after decades as a highly sought performer, recording artist, teacher, conductor, and humorist, Itzhak Perlman is turning 70 on August 31.
His greatest accomplishment?
“I’m just happy that I’m still around,” he says with a laugh during a recent interview at the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, New York. “But not only that, that I’m still doing what I want to do, which is music. I’m doing music on many fronts. Besides playing, I teach and I conduct, and I’m still doing it, and I’m still loving it. That actually is the most important accomplishment, to be able to have so many years to do what you love.
“So I consider myself extremely lucky that what I do for a living I’m very enthusiastic about, still after all these years.”
Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in British Mandate Palestine in 1945 to parents who emigrated in the 1930s from Poland. Just over three months before Itzhak’s birth, World War II had ended, but the turmoil of the Middle East was heating up. A bullet once landed near his crib, his parents told him.
Perlman displayed an early interest in music, especially the fiddle. At age three, on his own, he picked up a violin for the first time. It was short-lived. He loved the sound of the violin, but not the scratchy sounds he was producing from his eighth-size fiddle.
The following year, he was stricken with polio. He managed to deal with paralysis of his legs and returned to the violin at five. Soon, he started lessons at the Tel Aviv Music Academy, eventually studying with Rivka Goldgart, a teacher of Russian background. She taught him for eight years.
“Basically, [she] told me what to do,” he recalls. “She said, ‘That’s wrong’ and ‘That’s no good’ and ‘You’re not practicing.’ She was one of those very old-fashioned kind of teachers. But she was very good.”
She was so good that her then-ten-year-old student auditioned for Isaac Stern, who encouraged him to play despite advice from others that it would be impossible to have a performing career with his disability.
Not much later, American TV host Ed Sullivan discovered Perlman during a talent-scouting mission to Israel. At bar mitzvah age, 13, Perlman made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York.
Following Stern’s advice to study in America, Perlman and his parents eventually settled in New York. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 and won the Leventritt Competition in 1964 after studying at the Juilliard School.
By the time he was 19, he appeared on Sullivan five more times, including a 1964 show that featured the Rolling Stones.
At the Juilliard School, he started his studies with violinist Ivan Galamian. “Galamian was really more of a straightforward teacher, like ‘If you do what I tell you, you’ll be able to do it,’” Perlman says.
“He had a system, which he applied to all his students. And despite the fact that he had students of different levels of talent, whenever you studied with him you knew that at the end of the day you could actually play the instrument well.”
Galamian—whose students also included Pinchas Zukerman, sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian, Michael Rabin, and Arnold Steinhardt—combined the Russian and French schools. He was strict, but never lost his temper.
“Whenever you would do something right, he would say, ‘You did it right! Why don’t you do that all the time? That’s the way it should be!’” Perlman says.
“He was very logical. He would make jokes. He would say, ‘When I do it this way, it hurts.’ He had this way of holding the bow, it was the Franco-Belgian system [which is a lighter grip than the Russian style]. He would say, ‘Look, I don’t care if you stand on your head as long as you produce a good sound. I don’t care.’ But, of course, as it happens, the way you produce a good sound was in the way he taught you to do.”
Perlman later studied with Dorothy DeLay, who had been Galamian’s assistant at Juilliard. In 2003, Perlman began teaching when he was appointed to the Dorothy Richard Starling Chair of Violin Studies.
“Her attitude as a teacher was different because if something did not go right, she wouldn’t say to you, ‘You’ve got to do it that way.’ She would say, ‘What do you think you should do to it to make it better?’ So she would actually involve the student in the process,” Perlman says. “When I first came to study with her, I didn’t like it because I wasn’t used to it. I was used to something if it did not go right, the teacher would say, ‘Look, do it this way.’ She would say, ‘Sugar Plum, what is your concept of G sharp?’
“And I said, ‘It’s out of tune.’
“She said, ‘Well, some intonation is a little sharp, some is a little flat. What do you think?’ “And I said, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’
“And she wouldn’t do that . . . .
“But funny enough, the way I teach right now is exactly the way she taught me, which is involving the student in the process. So that’s why when something doesn’t work and they figure it out themselves, it’s their own.
“They own it. It’s not like somebody taught them. They actually figured it out.”
He says the most important thing about teaching is to make the student feel good, and that’s a key philosophy at the Perlman program, founded 21 years ago by Perlman’s violinist-wife, Toby.
If something doesn’t work out, the teachers are still supportive and help the student figure out a remedy.
“That’s when you accomplish things,” he says. “My wife, who’s the music director, said when something’s not right with the student, it’s usually the fault of the teacher. That meant that [the student] did not understand what the teacher was trying to say.”
With the success of the program and music education in general, how does the student find a job after graduation, especially in an environment of an aging classical-music audience and financial struggles by orchestras?
“It’s more difficult,” Perlman says, “but I know some of our kids who applied to some wonderful orchestras and they got the job. The thing about orchestras these days is that they are very picky. At auditions, they want virtuoso players. The level that they want has never been so high. It’s true, there’s a lot of competition. But as I said, they all have to use their imaginations to see what they can do.
“I tell my students to not put blinders on their future. There are so many opportunities in music to have a career that makes you happy, to make a life that makes you happy. That’s the important thing.
“You have to be imaginative as to what you do with your life.
“If you get a solo career, fine. If you cannot, there are other things that you can do, whether it’s chamber music, whether it’s teaching, whether it’s a little bit of both. The opportunities are great.
“So I’m very optimistic. I’m never pessimistic. A lot of people say, ‘Oh well!’ [But] I think the future is good for a long time. I think we’re here to stay.”
What Itzhak Perlman Plays
Itzhak Perlman’s violin, the “Soil” Strad, was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1714, during the Cremonese luthier’s “Golden Period.” It’s named for Amédée Soil (pronounced swahl), a Belgian industrialist who owned it from 1874 to 1911. Other owners have included Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1859 and Yehudi Menuhin from 1950 to 1986, according to the website Archivio della Liuteria Cremonese. That year, Menuhin sold it to Perlman for a reported $1.25 million.
Perlman, who uses a bow made by the Frenchman Joseph Henry, circa 1851–1870, also has played the 1743 “Sauret” Guarneri del Gesù and the 1740 Carlo Bergonzi “ex-Kreisler,” but he has parted with the latter two and plays exclusively on the Soil.
“It’s like driving a Rolls-Royce,” he tells Strings. “It’s an amazing violin. It’s one of those instruments when you give it to somebody to try, they say, ‘Oh, my God!’ You know what I mean? It’s a response, it’s the sound that comes under your ear, and it’s the way that it carries in a concert hall. It’s fantastic.”
The Soil Strad is not only an object of affection for Perlman. It also is coveted by video gamers in “Fallout 3: Agatha’s Song.” But they have to look hard: It’s hidden and they have to find it and hand it over to the elderly Agatha so she can play her song.
Off the Record:
Itzhak Perlman’s love affair with the violin started 65 years ago and never stopped. How does he keep his playing fresh?
Not by practicing every day, he confesses.
“I have a method. It’s called practice as needed,” he says. “By now I know what I need, so I practice, but it’s not like a usual thing where I do it every day. I do it when I have a concert or a recording. When I need to do it, then I do it.”
What about maintaining his enthusiasm, which he immediately makes clear by his humorous response to the very first question in the interview ahead of his 70th birthday?
“Well, by this time you forget your memory, you lose it, so that’s why everything sounds like it’s new,” he quips. “I think I’m playing everything for the first time because I totally forgot it.”
Jokes aside, he says he’s become more able to concentrate on the heart and soul of the music rather than on worrying how to make the music. “This is actually for the one thing I do, which is performing. But conducting is a different thing because I’ve got different repertoire than when I play the violin, so that by itself keeps it fresh,” he says. “And, of course, teaching is totally an amazing experience because you are exposed to different talents. Each student has a different schedule of development, they evolve in a different way.”
To celebrate Perlman’s big birthday, Universal Classics in May released a 25-CD box set of his recordings, titled Itzhak Perlman: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. In September, Warner Classics is releasing 59 albums on 77 CDs of his recordings on EMI and Teldec, called Itzhak Perlman: The Complete Warner Recordings.
What’s his favorite?
“All of them,” he says with a laugh. “Did you think I was going to tell you what was my favorite recording? Let me tell you why. The thing is that every record that I issued I really didn’t say, ‘Oh, what the hell, you know it’s fine, it’s good enough, I’ll let it go.’ It had to be a true representation as to what I was able to do at that time in my career.
“Now if I were to listen to a recording that I did 30 or 40 years ago, would I play the same way? Absolutely not. But that’s part of growing up,” he adds. “It’s part of listening in a different way and it’s part of evolving. So it makes me happy.”
Are there any recordings that make him wonder, “Why did I do that?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God! I’m not going to do it like that. I mean are you kidding me? What were you thinking?’ I’m not going to tell you which recordings, but it does happen yes, absolutely,” he says.
In fact, he says, he prefers not to listen to his own recordings.
“Every now and then sometimes if I drive, I put on the classical station and I listen to somebody play. And when something’s really good, I say to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I hope it’s me.’ Or even better—or even worse—if something doesn’t sound so good, I say to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I hope it isn’t me,’” he says.
“Being a teacher, I listen even more—it makes me listen to violin playing in a different way. I listen to it as a teacher, I listen to it as a violinist myself, so every little thing that I hear, I sort of criticize. I say, ‘Oh, that was good’ or ‘I didn’t like that.’”
As a consumer, he likes listening to music from the late ’50s and early ’60s, such as Elvis Presley and the Shirelles. He’s even used popular music to help his students understand the art of interpretation.
“The other day,” he says, “we listened to Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Julie Andrews singing the same song. We were listening to it with students from our program, analyzing what makes [the interpretations] different and what qualities they have that make them great. Because that’s applicable to playing a string instrument—you’re listening to singers.”
He should know a little about singers. In addition to being a fiddler, he’s a basso, and his EMI recordings include a cameo of him singing the role of jailer in Puccini’s Tosca, featuring Renata Scotto, Plácido Domingo, and James Levine. Perlman has received 15 Grammy Awards, although not for Tosca.