By Cliff Hall | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
In the summer of 1958, The Ed Sullivan Show was in a ratings war. Variety programs like The Milton Berle Show and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts were canceled as Westerns like Gunsmoke became increasingly popular among viewers. Although he had hit number one just two years earlier when he programmed Elvis Presley’s watershed performance, Sullivan was struggling to stay in the top ten in the Nielsen ratings and would eventually fall down to the 19th slot by the end of the season. Sensing this slide, Sullivan knew he needed a boost, so he boarded a flight to Israel to find some new talent.
Though he had been a supporter of the country since its creation in 1948, Sullivan went to Israel for the first time in August 1958 at the invitation of the Zionist Organization of America. While the trip didn’t lead to the ratings boost for which he had hoped, it did launch the career of one of the greatest violinists of all time. Of the five groups featured on the show, the Phoenix Jewish News wrote, “Headlining the acts will be a twelve-year-old violinist who is a polio victim.” That violinist was Itzhak Perlman—and he remembers Sullivan well.
“He was a real showman who always came up with terrific ideas,” says Perlman, who made his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on November 2, 1958. “He was the master of that kind of a variety program.”
The memory of his American television premiere kicks off Perlman’s latest show, An Evening with Itzhak Perlman. In a fresh multimedia experience, Perlman regales his audience with tales from his life and career, while also performing alongside his longtime pianist, Rohan De Silva. I sat down with Perlman over Zoom to discuss the show’s national tour and to hear his reflections on a life defined by teaching and performance. The inspiration for this program, in which Perlman’s storytelling is interwoven with personal photos, came from the stage itself.
“I remember seeing a similar one-man show on Broadway, and I thought, ‘My musical history interwoven with storytelling would work nicely,’” says Perlman. “I was hoping my life story would be interesting enough for the people not to look at their watches and say, ‘When is this show over?’”
It’s hard to imagine audiences not being captivated by the story of a child prodigy from Israel being catapulted into a career on the world’s greatest stages overnight.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, Perlman experienced his musical awakening at age three, when a broadcast of Jascha Heifetz caught his ear. Though he was too young to enter music school, his parents bought him a toy fiddle, the small sound of which only served to frustrate him. Before he could start formal lessons, however, Perlman was stricken with polio at age four, which left him unable to walk. He was still determined to play, and his parents enrolled him in lessons at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv, where he eventually studied with the Lithuanian-born violinist Rivka Goldgart.
His new routine was to go to school, return home at lunch time, and then practice for three hours before doing his homework. Not surprisingly, this arrangement wasn’t always harmonious. “When I started, there was no drive. It was just drudgery. I had to practice every day, and I did not like it… If my mother wouldn’t have pushed, I would not have practiced. So it was very peaceful in the house if I practiced and not very peaceful if I didn’t,” says Perlman. He remembers his mother Shoshana as a “modern woman,” having emigrated by herself from Poland to the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel) in the mid-1930s and opened a salon in Tel Aviv. As a result of her ambitious nature, Perlman persevered and found a different experience once he started to play in front of audiences.
“When I started to play concerts, I was fortunate to be asked back repeatedly,” says Perlman, who gave his first recital at age ten. “That’s what kept me going.” Then, at 13, his whole life changed. Sullivan brought Isaac Perlman (as his wife, Toby Perlman, still calls him) to the States and introduced him to America. The same year, he began to study at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay.
“Galamian was a straightforward teacher who told you, ‘If you do what I tell you, you’ll be able to play the instrument well now,’” says Perlman. He also studied with Galamian’s assistant Dorothy DeLay, who had a more Socratic approach.
“She had a different teaching style. She involved students in the process of studying, of making something work and asking questions: Does that work? Why doesn’t it work? She encouraged you to figure it out for yourself,” says Perlman. “I was lucky to study with both of them at the same time. It was a dynamite combination.”
Of their differences in approach, Perlman gives an amusing example. “When he said it was out of tune, it was rather worrisome,” says Perlman. “However, Ms. DeLay would say: ‘Sugarplum, what is your concept of G sharp?”
After graduating from Juilliard, Perlman went on to win the prestigious Leventritt Competition in 1964, which kickstarted his career as he earned both professional representation and the opportunity to play with six orchestras across the United States. And from there, his reputation as a top-tier performer only grew. However, despite his constant presence on the world’s stages, Perlman waxes most eloquent on the power of having students in his life, on his role as a teacher.
“From teaching, you learn how to listen. If a student plays for you, and it’s very, very beautiful, you have to know what to say and what not to say,” says Perlman. “I always tell my students, never to miss an opportunity to teach. Teaching gives you the ability to listen to your students, and that’s one of the challenges. And that’s why I say, ‘If you teach others, you teach yourself.’”
In 2019, Perlman teamed up with MasterClass, a streaming platform that offers video lessons by leaders in a number of fields, and made a four-hour-long, 19-lesson master class video series. But what place does video learning have in violin pedagogy?
“It does not have to replace one-on-one teaching. Each student has a different way of translating what is said in a lesson. I tried to be as specific as possible in my online master class, but you still need a teacher to help with your individual needs,” says Perlman. “It’s still a very good teaching tool to combine with the teacher.”
But Perlman does see some limitations to the instructional process.
“Certain things you can’t teach. Whether it’s with a teacher or on video. What you can teach, for example, is quality of sound. Proper usage of the bow will produce a good sound. But the beauty of tone is strictly individual,” he says. “You can have three or four singers, and they all sing very well, but one of them is exceptional because of the quality of the voice. You don’t learn that; you’re born with it.”
Perlman’s stance is in contrast to DeLay’s, who thought that anything could be taught. “I disagreed with her. I think you cannot teach magic, passion, or inspiration,” he says.
There is one technique that Perlman thinks can be greatly improved for significant gain. “I’m a vibrato freak. Vibrato is a phenomenal musical tool that can be used to produce a variety of expressions,” he says.
Perlman has been teaching for nearly as long as he’s been performing, but his wife’s establishment of the Perlman Music Program (PMP) in 1994 has profoundly changed both their lives. “That was my wife’s dream. When we met at Meadowmount, where Galamian and Ms. DeLay would teach, Toby always said, ‘When I grow up, I would like to create a similar program to Meadowmount using my own set of principles.’”
Initially uninvolved with the program, he slowly started being drawn into its circle. “It was all her creation, but once she started the program, she asked me, ‘Would you mind maybe helping us out?’ And then she started a string orchestra, and she asked me, ‘Would you mind coaching them?’ It was like the Al Pacino phrase [from The Godfather]: ‘Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in!’” he says with a hearty laugh.
What distinguishes PMP from some other learning environments is its lack of rivalry. “The whole philosophy of the program is to eliminate any competition between students. We concentrate on developing technically and musically. And for me, the Perlman Music Program is not only about music and fostering relationships. The students always support each other and are encouraged to do so,” Perlman says. “One of our techniques involves not having the students audition for their seats in the orchestra. Often, their seats are determined by their height.”
Singing is another unique aspect of the program. “Starting a chorus is another one of Toby’s ideas for cultivating a noncompetitive environment. It exposes students and faculty to different repertoire, since we are string players, not singers. Yet, under the wonderful leadership of our chorus director, we manage to sound pretty good,” he says.
One of the lessons Perlman treasures the most is how to interpret music. “You’ve got your roadmap for how it should sound. Where is the high point harmonically? Where is the low point? What color do you hear when you listen to a particular chord, and how do you express a harmonic modulation,” he says.
Above all else, Perlman realizes, whether in this latest show or others he’s done in his life, a musician always needs to keep the audience engaged, no matter what artistic choices they make. “One of the great challenges is to make a long work sound short,” says Perlman. “Musicians should also be ‘magicians.’ They will do something that you are not aware of, but all of a sudden, you’re saying, ‘That was a wonderful performance.’”