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Itzhak Perlman is at a dress rehearsal in a student choir. After going through the composition, the choir’s conductor asks the group to guess what new, faster tempo they’ve been using. The students blurt out their guesses left and right, eager to impress. None is correct.
Perlman sits silently among the choir, intently studying the hands of his wristwatch as the hubbub goes on around him. A second later, he quietly shares with the group the actual tempo, rhythm being something he long ago internalized.
The scene perfectly captures Perlman’s duality: legend and teacher.
Many people know Perlman as a renowned concert violinist who’s performed with and conducted some of the greatest orchestras in the world. But he’s less known for his role as a teacher, a responsibility he considers just as important.
WWDScoop caught up with the classical violinist at The Perlman Music Program for young artists on New York’s Shelter Island. His teaching studio resembles a museum chronicling his achievements. The room is decorated with photographs of friends and fellow musicians like Luciano Pavarotti, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma. Another collection of photographs features violinists Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Arturo Toscanini and George Szell. Also on display is a signed 1966 photo of composer Igor Stravinsky and an original manuscript of Violin Concerto No. 2,
Op. 19 by Henri Vieuxtemps. An entire wall is devoted to Perlman’s many awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor, Medal of Liberty and National Medal of Arts.
Dating back more than 35 years, Perlman’s teaching career began at Brooklyn College. As the holder of the endowed Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Chair in violin, he’s now been teaching at The Juilliard School’s precollege and college levels for the past eight years.
Perlman, who celebrated his 62nd birthday last month, claims teaching has improved his own playing. Still, he points out there’s a distinct difference between the role of teacher and performer.
“When I teach others, I teach myself, and that makes me a better musician,” says Perlman. “You perform for an audience, whereas a teacher shares knowledge and gives students guidance.”
He’s also become increasingly active in The Perlman Music Program, where he now teaches and performs. In addition to conducting chamber music, Perlman and his wife, Toby, both sing in the student choir. “I started coaching one year, and my wife promoted me—sort of volunteered me—to a full-time teaching position,” jokes Perlman.
Founded by Toby Perlman 13 years ago, The Perlman Music Program’s Summer Music School is a highly selective six-week program for 12- to 18-year-old students who play string instruments such as the violin, viola, cello and bass. Taking on no more than 35 students per session, it offers year-round mentoring and international study and performance tours. A select few students and alumni even get an opportunity to perform in some of the world’s most famous venues.
In October, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will showcase Perlman and The Perlman Music Program in a concert series featuring both students and alumni. For the first time, Perlman will be performing in all of the concerts. The first, on Oct. 27, will feature a Mozart Quintet for Viola and Strings in G Minor, Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet 2001 for three string quartets and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Two more concerts will follow in March and May.
Perlman claims that he never plays the violin in his downtime and only in practice. Instead, he finds joy in performing chamber music.
“I adore it, but I don’t do enough during the year because I’m always performing, teaching and conducting,” says Perlman, who averages more than 90 concerts a year. “Here, I have the opportunity to play with students and faculty. For pure pleasure, I play for an audience.”
Perlman fell in love with the violin early in life, but his affair with classical music was rocky at first.
“It was a terrible experience,” he recalls. “I was a kid, so they gave me a 16th-sized violin, and it didn’t sound good at all when I played it.”
While Perlman wasn’t always certain he wanted to be a concert violinist, he eventually discovered his passion.
“At first, everybody wants to be a soloist, dreaming of playing at Carnegie Hall, and I was no exception. But reality sets in, and the dream has to be supported by reality,” says Perlman, who suggests every musician must figure out how much talent they have and how far they want to go.
With years of experience on and off stage, Perlman has realized talent comes in many varieties.
“Some people play great, and then nothing happens on stage. Others don’t play as well, but exude a certain charisma on stage. A music career is complicated because it’s like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces must fit together,” he says.
Perlman discovered his passion at an early age. In the late Fifties, the 13-year-old from Israel made his U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same stage where Elvis Presley and The Beatles made memorable appearances.
“I wasn’t one of those kids that made a big splash,” says Perlman. “All I knew at that age was that Ed Sullivan was a wonderful gentleman who was very kind to me. It was a great opportunity to come to the U.S.”
Interestingly, Perlman, who was stricken with polio at the age of four, says his handicap didn’t become an obstacle until later in his career. “The fact that I was handicapped didn’t do me any harm on Ed Sullivan. People just thought there’s a cute 13-year-old kid who walked on crutches and played pretty well. It wasn’t an issue until I decided to start an actual career. People questioned whether I would be able to travel and withstand the arduous demands of a musician. So I had to prove I could do it—and I think I did,” he says with a laugh.
Eight years after his Ed Sullivan gig, Perlman performed at the other extreme of the spectrum, playing for Stravinsky.
As a young man, he was rarely anxious before performances. But as he got older, his anxiety grew.
“I was too dumb to get nervous when I was young, but now I absolutely get nervous—because you’re supposed to!”
Today, he plays two fiddles—the Stradivarius in the winter and Sauret Guarneri in the summer. The Strad once belonged to violinist Yehudi Menuhin and dates back to 1714, and the Sauret Guarneri is named after the violinist who once owned the instrument. Perlman said he plays on different violins because he doesn’t want to play the Strad outdoors in the summer.
As a 15-time Grammy winner, Perlman also has served as violin soloist on the film scores of Schindler’s List and, most recently, Memoirs of a Geisha.
“If you do anything that’s crossover just for the sake of doing it, then it most often doesn’t work,” says Perlman. “I always try to choose something that I believe in.”
Some of those things have included jazz recordings with André Previn and Oscar Peterson, along with performing klezmer, a traditional Jewish music. He also loves the music he grew up with in the Fifties and Sixties, including that from The Platters, The Four Seasons, The Shirelles and The Supremes.
Although he’s said he would never perform with a rock group, Perlman recently recorded “a little thing” with his 27-year-old son’s band, Something for Rockets. In his downtime, Perlman is a self-proclaimed “big baseball fan,” rooting for the New York Mets.
With years of professional experience as a classical violinist, it’s the wisdom Perlman offers as a teacher that may be his most important legacy.
“Just be passionate about what you do,” he often tells his students. “If you’re passionate, then anything you’re going to do in music will be worthwhile. If you’re not, it’s just a waste.”