Fiddler on the move
Although unable to walk, the great violinist Itzhak Perlman travels the world constantly, taking along his personalised scooter. We spoke to him this week during a flying visit to the UK
‘THIS I S live television. Please let the viewers see me coming on to the stage using my crutches, and going off the same way. I don’t want to be just ‘discovered’ sitting there, ready to play.” The speaker is Itzhak Perlman, just before a 1979 concert in New York with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta for NBC, a gala tribute to Arturo Toscanini designed to help this ratings-chasing, commercial network take a brave leap into classical music. Perlman’s determined words are very much in character.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, young Itzhak was singing, pitch-perfect, opera tunes he heard on the radio before he was three. He asked his parents for a violin, and his father bought him one in a bargain store. His rapid progress towards a concert career seemed doomed when he contracted poliomyelitis at the age of four, permanently losing the use of his legs. Undaunted, his astonishing gifts put him among the world’s supreme violinists. One of his mentors, the violinist Isaac Stern, called his talent “utterly limitless... no one comes near what he can do physically with the violin”.
And now, this astonishing musician can look back over half a century on the concert platform, along with ceaseless campaigning for the disabled.
In England for recitals at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and at the Barbican, he is seated in his London hotel on a motorised scooter which he steers nimbly between the furniture. He is casually dressed in shirt and corduroy jacket, and is jet-lagged — an occupational hazard among travelling virtuosi.
The scooter, he says, “comes over with me on the plane. It goes in the hold, and the violin travels with me in the cabin. It’s called Amigo.” The violin? “No, the scooter, not the violin. That’s a 1714 Stradivarius.” He has owned several priceless instruments, but now is in love with this one, which he bought from Yehudi Menuhin. “This Strad was my dream. It’s very English, it’s been in this country a long time.”
After this London visit, Perlman will perform the same programme in three recitals on the continent, with his long-time pianist, Bruno Canino: Schubert’s Rondo Brilliante, Beethoven’s lyrical Spring Sonata, and a big, romantic piece by Richard Strauss, the Sonata in E flat, Opus 18. Plus the obligatory, fizzing encores without which no Perlman audience would let him leave.
But Richard Strauss, the idol of the Nazis? Isn’t there a story about what happened to the great violinist, Jascha Heifetz, on the way to rehearse this very same Strauss sonata in Tel Aviv? “Yes, it’s true. Someone ran up to him in the street and tried to break his arm with an iron bar. It was a token punishment for daring to play Strauss in Israel.” Heifetz vowed never to return, but eventually relented.
Perlman is a former member of the fabled “kosher nostra”, a golden group of stunning young musicians who lit up the musical world in the 1970s: pianist Daniel Barenboim, cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and fellow violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Nowadays, Barenboim spends time trying to ease political and racial intolerance through his high-profile Divan Orchestra, in which Arabs and Israelis play alongside each other, a project about which Perlman has mixed views: “The idea itself is very good. When it comes to politicising it, it doesn’t always work. The thing that works for Divan is Daniel. You go for the music, for the experience of a great conductor, which he is. I do my concerts for people who come to hear. I leave the politics out of it.”
Not that politics — and history — have been absent from Perlman’s life. In 1995, he decided to trace his roots by visiting Poland, seeking out elderly villagers who recalled sad memories of vanished members of his family.
Out of this quest came two bestselling CDs and an Emmy-winning television documentary, collectively titled In the Fiddler’s House. In the video version, his joy is plain to see as he takes up first his Strad, then an electric violin, to explore the intoxicating world of klezmer fiddling. His advocacy has helped to vitalise a contemporary revival of its rich, nostalgic repertoire.
“More than any other music I’ve recorded, this is my music. Both my parents came from Poland, and Yiddish was the first language in our home in Israel. When we moved to America in 1958, klezmer music came with me. It’s in my blood.”
Never more so than when, in the Fiddler’s House video, the solemn, outdoor wedding for one of his daughters (“Sometimes it’s not only the bride who is nervous,” muses Perlman on the soundtrack) gives way to a raucous klezmer clarinet and the ceremony breaks into shtetl-sounding merriment.
Perlman’s identification with his European heritage made him the natural choice to record the violin solos composed by John Williams for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Just as Isaac Stern’s playing transports us to a lost world the moment Norman Jewison’s film of Fiddler on the Roof begins, Perlman’s soulful melancholy enhances Spielberg’s soundtrack, and their collaboration is one of his proudest achievements.
Perlman has always enjoyed entertaining American television audiences, through programmes as diverse as Sesame Street, The Late Show with David Letterman and the long-running Live From Lincoln Centre classical concerts. His career was in effect launched on the box when, aged 13, he appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Caravan of Stars, thanks to a talent search for a performer from Israel.
Perlman is an indefatigable supporter of charitable and educational causes. “I’m always thinking of new ideas for fundraising,” he says. “For a few years, I’ve been a wine nut, so last year I started p u t t i n g o n charity wine a u c t i o n s . Next month, I’ve booked a restaurant in New York and we’ll have people bringing first-class French and Californian wines… Ideally, you want a person who donates a bottle then buys it back for three times the price.”
Perlman’s other passion is to pass on his musical wisdom to the next generation of gifted players. “I have 15 students at the Juilliard School of Music — an awful lot for a performing artist. I come back from a tour of Japan, I arrive at the airport at 10 in the morning, and I go right into Juilliard…
“My musical experience is now three-pronged: I play, I teach, and I conduct. I learn to see things from different perspectives, to listen with different ears. The most important thing is to really listen.”
It was his wife Toby who founded the Perlman Music Programme. He met Toby Friedlander (also a violinist) during summer visits to a music school in upstate New York, and they married in 1967. Now, for six weeks every summer, the Perlmans are resident at Shelter Island, near Long Island, mentoring an international group of very talented 12- to 18-year-old string players.
He has twice taken the older children to Tel Aviv to meet up with Israeli students. “I also went to China with them. In Shanghai, I conducted 1,000 kids playing the violin in unison. And I love Japanese audiences. Have you seen, on the internet, an amateur Japa- nese production of Fiddler, with just piano accompaniment? Tevye has a nice beard. But he looks too thin to be Tevye.”
So is the “fiddle” essentially Jewish? Isaac Stern described the violin as being the nearest to the human voice, and a passport out of the ghetto. Popular legend has it that 60 per cent of the Russian exodus to Palestine in 1905 were carrying violin cases.
“It’s changed”, says Perlman. “I believe it goes in waves, or like a pendulum. Violin prodigies used to come from Poland or Russia. Then from Israel. Then China and Japan. Country number one now? In sheer volume of talent, it’s Korea.
“Actually, I find a lot of parallels between Koreans and Jews. Korean moth- ers are as close to Jewish mothers as you could find. Above all, the importance of food. Every year during our Perlman Programme, on one Friday all the Korean mothers come in and cook for us. We have an incredible Korean banquet. Each mother pulls your arm and says, ‘Try this, I cooked this.’ Doesn’t that sound familiar? When the kids reach 18 and they graduate, they’re too old to come to the camp. But their mothers still come, and they still cook. I wasn’t feeling too well one time at Shelter Island. In the old days, your mother would say, ‘Hey, try a little cholent.’ But this little boy violinist, he brings me a steak, marinated Korean style. I mean… it’s so Jewish.”
Since Perlman began his prodigious career, an aspect of classical music of little importance in the 1950s has come to exercise performers, concert promoters, record companies and audiences. The “early music” bandwagon has spawned a huge debate between those who like their baroque, classical, and even romantic, repertoire played in “authentic” style, maybe on copies of old instruments, and those who find the whole business a scholastic anachronism not worth the effort.
Perlman, who has given his life to conjuring a big, rounded, sonorous tone from his Strad or Guarneri, is adamant. “I think I’m an old-fashioned fiddle player. I play in what we call the ‘grand tradition’. I think ‘authentic’ playing is good for the classroom, a nice study course. But let’s get back to reality. Pinky [Pinchas Zukerman] did an interview and the guy asked him: ‘What do you think about authenticity?’ Pinky tore into him. He said: ‘OK, so let’s not have any lights. Do you want me to play with candles?’ A lot has to do with radio stations pushing it too much. They ask listeners to vote for their favourite Four Seasons CD, and the early-music version wins. It’s ridiculous. Mozart and Beethoven would have loved the modern orchestra.”
This old-fashioned fiddle player bids farewell. His broad shoulders recede through the door, his deep voice growls to his assistant about the next event in a crowded schedule. His motorised scooter glides noiselessly down the hotel corridor. Adios, Amigo. Rodney Greenberg has produced and directed television classical-music programmes since 1970, including performances by Itzhak Perlman from studios in New York and Pittsburgh
Perlman performing with members of the New York Philharmonic and Louisiana Philharmonic orchestras during a benefit concert at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre, in October 2005
Perlman ( centre) on Ellis Island, New York, in Frederic Brenner’s 1996 photo of “American-Jewish icons”. Foreground, from left: Roy Lichtenstein; Lauren Bacall; Arthur Miller; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg