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

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