This article appeared in The South China Morning Post’s Review section
For someone so indivisible from the altogether serious business of virtuoso violin-playing – with its exacting levels of self-discipline and its station at the altar of high culture – Itzhak Perlman should, one might reflect, seem rather more daunting than he does. We are, after all, talking about a violinist of real genius: a man in whose hands the instrument has a kind of molten ferocity that distracts from but does not diminish his technical mastery. He is, without doubt, the repertoire’s greatest living interpreter.
But alas, there is nothing daunting, nothing stern, about Perlman – no loftiness or hauteur, no hint of a tortured soul. He may revel in Beethoven and Mahler but he does not share their manic severity. On the contrary, millions around the world love him as much for the enveloping warmth of his personality as for the emotional range of his playing (though the two may be inseparable). Like the late Luciano Pavarotti, he has for decades performed an almost ambassadorial role for classical music, critical adulation combining with the force of his own irrepressible joy in music-making to catapult him into the global popular consciousness.
And so, when he tells me with boyish glee that the last thing to survive when the world ends is certain to be Mozart’s violin sonatas, it is difficult to be persuaded from the notion that Perlman is the effervescent pedagogue we all wish we’d had in school. He is, whisper it, almost as much fun to listen to talking as he is to hear play.
The 66-year-old Israeli-born American, who will perform his first concerts in Macau and Hong Kong for nine years this week, has spoken at length before of how he often asks his students – or when he conducts, entire orchestras – to think about colours or types of food in order to get them to play a piece of music in a certain way. “What do you say to an orchestra that has played, let’s say, Beethoven’s 1st Symphony 200 times? The way I do it is to just try to think of what I would like to hear from a piece, how I hear it in my head.” he tells me. “I would call it suggesting what you want the orchestra to sound like.”
Having taken up the baton relatively late in his career, Perlman has, over the last decade or so, conducted many of the most prestigious orchestras in the US, Europe and beyond. He was, until recently, also Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Westchester Philharmonic in New York, where he lives with his wife, Toby. Together, they run the Perlman Music Program, a summer camp for exceptionally talented young string players, and since 1999 he has taught all year round at New York’s Juillard School of Music – the institution at which he himself studied the violin, under the great Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay, after relocating from Tel Aviv in the late 1950s.
“For me these things are all very much connected,” he says. “Teaching and conducting have an effect on you as a performer. Instead of saying to someone they must play a certain way, I talk to myself. I learn to listen in a particular way, so that I can do what I am hearing in the music. Listening is the most important word – the difference between a good performance and an okay performance is in how well the performer listens to what he or she does when they play.”
Perlman’s own students are mostly between 14 and 16. “I can have a better effect on the way they play because they have not developed the habits that older students have picked up,” he says. He is uncomfortable with the phrase “child prodigy”, believing it to create unnecessary pressure on parents and children, but it’s worth remembering he gave his own first recital aged 10 and was soon thereafter performing with the Israeli Broadcast Orchestra.
In reality, he says, he hated practicing and in his reflections on his own youth there is a surprising degree of mixed feeling. He loved the instrument and went through periods of “completely idolising” first Fritz Kreisler and later David Oistrakh. “But I wasn’t sure I could do it [be like them]. You just keep hoping and practicing. If you have talent then people give you support, which I had, but you need an awful lot of negative vibes as well to do this.”
Making things harder, quite probably, was the fact that, having contracted polio at the age of four, he was unable to walk without crutches – to this day he relies on them, and an electric scooter, for mobility, and plays the violin while seated. “People ask me what would I have done if I had not had polio as a young child,” he says. “I really don’t know. I would probably have done the same. When I wanted to play the violin I did not have polio. It was not something that came after.”
In the event, two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS in 1958 made him a household name in the US at the tender age of 13, and in 1964 he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition, paving the way for a career touring the world’s concert halls.
Almost five decades later he is the most recorded violinist in history, possesses 15 Grammy Awards and has played with every major orchestra in the world – including the Israel Philharmonic, with whom he made history by going behind the Iron Curtain to perform in Warsaw and Budapest in 1987, and in the Soviet Union in 1990. He has received honorary degrees from Ivy League universities and had successive US presidents clamouring to weigh him down with medals. And in addition he has recorded jazz and klezmer albums, performed as a soloist on the soundtracks to three movies – Schindler’s List, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Memoirs of a Geisha (along with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) – and made countless television appearances in the US, including on The Tonight Show and Sesame Street.
A 1980 clip of him performing a Beethoven duet with a tuba-playing Telly Monster can, inevitably, be found on YouTube; not so the 2004 PBS special Perlman in Shanghai, but it chronicles something a little more historic – a visit of the Perlman Music Program to the mainland that culminated in a concert at the Shanghai Grand Theatre featuring one thousand young American and Chinese violinists.
“We linked up with kids from the Shanghai Conservatory,” he says. “Chamber music, certainly a few years ago, did not have the importance there that we feel it should have, so it was one of the things we wanted to promote. But generally in Asia right now, there are a lot of very fine musicians coming through. The ratio of kids coming in from the Far East on our programme is rising – from Korea, China, Japan. It’s really a lot. In the late 1950s, early 1960s, string players tended to come from Europe, Russia maybe, the United States and Israel. Right now the cycle has really shifted to Asia for young string players.”
When I put it to him that he has form in terms of breaking down cultural barriers via music, the response comes back with almost evangelistic certainty: “Music is, simply put, an international language.”
“No matter where I go to play or the culture of that country, when it comes to classical music everybody has a common reaction to it,” he adds. “As an Israeli, there were occasions where I have gone to countries where Israel did not have diplomatic relations yet and you knew that relationships would improve because of those visits with the Israel Philharmonic. The music was a step to improving relations. Because everybody speaks that language.
“There is something about music that is so important to the development of humans. I am asked what I would do without music. I think society would be much worse; it’s the soul of society. What would we do without it?” It doesn’t bear thinking about, of course; but at least the Mozart sonatas are safe.