Itzhak Perlman at 75: Violin virtuoso and culture star yearns to return to the stage

Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune

Chicago -- If this were a "normal" year, the music world would be celebrating Itzhak Perlman's 75th birthday -- Aug. 31 -- with uncounted tribute concerts and gala retrospectives.

The Ravinia Festival alone had been scheduled to feature the world's most beloved violinist in three separate events.

All of this has been canceled -- or at best delayed -- by the pandemic. Nevertheless, we should take this moment to recognize Perlman's protean work as soloist, chamber musician, conductor, teacher, personality and champion for people with disabilities.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Evgeny Kissin perform at the Chicago Symphony Center Wednesday May 1, 2019, in Chicago.

A source of considerable energy and unmistakable optimism, Perlman long ago transcended the role of classical violinist to become a ubiquitous figure in our popular culture. Sixteen Grammys, 4 Emmys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, TV appearances everywhere from "The Ed Sullivan Show" to "Sesame Street," performances with everyone from Billy Joel to klezmer bands -- Perlman has built an outsize presence on uncommon gifts and considerable travail.

All of which has led to a milestone birthday.

"I'm not thinking 75," says Perlman nonchalantly. "When I pick up the violin, and I start playing, I say to myself: 'Oh, 75 is pretty good. Things are still working!'

"When you think 85, 75 is young," adds Perlman, ever the optimist. "I still remember when we were young and were with some friends, and they were discussing what is old age. People were saying: 30 is old! It's all a question of relative to what.

"I'm feeling good. The only thing was that I did not go to the barber."

Meaning the pandemic has curtailed various aspects of everyone's life. But for any musician, especially one as hyperactive and openly expressive as Perlman, a life's work has been muted. Yes, you can practice at home, you can stream performances and conduct classes and teach lessons online.

None of it, alas, even comes close to the real thing.

"It's a little frustrating," says Perlman. "It's nice to have an audience. I miss that. It's very funny, because we did this virtual program. No matter how many people who are on Zoom, the response to whether it's playing or whether it's talking or telling a story or teaching -- the response is different. There is no face-to-face. It's not the same.

"People probably don't realize that people in the arts and music, and people who rely on the audience, are the ones who suffer" in distinct ways.

Which may indeed have altered how Perlman perceives this point in his life and art. Or at least how he regards the rigors of touring as a childhood polio survivor who faces constant physical obstacles on the road and in New York, where he lives.

When I ask Toby Perlman, his wife since 1967, how she believes he feels about turning 75, she offers two sharply contrasting perspectives.

"My impression is not as clear as it would have been before the pandemic," she says.

"Before the pandemic, if you'd asked me that question, I would have said: 'You know, problems are so difficult, there are so many problems, the easiest part of the tour is playing the concert. I think he's really had it. He'd like to travel less or not at all.' And that was pretty clear.

"And now I'm completely in the opposite camp," she continues. "This guy can't wait to get to the concert hall.

"He never had a vacation his entire life. Nor have I, by the way. So when I said to him, 'You know, we really should take a holiday the way other people do,' he would say: 'Well, for me a holiday is just being at home.' Because of course there's no travel involved.

"I don't know for sure, but I think all of that has changed with the pandemic. He can't wait to start to play. The sooner the better. I don't think he's even thinking about the problems with that.

"Who knew?"

Even so, those problems are considerable, as both Perlmans attest. So though the violinist indeed affirms that he cannot wait to return to performing, he still laments what individuals with disabilities are forced to confront at practically every juncture in their lives.

"For me, it's a monumental thing," says Itzhak Perlman. "The more I travel, especially these days, I see how much is needed and how uneven the situation is. You can go to a very fancy hotel, and they tell you there is an ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) room, and it's absolutely a disaster. Then one time you go to a hotel where it's fine. But I don't know whether it has to do with what somebody thought about, or by accident it was better.

"There's a lot of problems. Travel can be disastrous sometimes. The way they design airplanes for example. Forget about going to the bathroom on an airplane. I always say: You don't go to the toilet, you wear it. It's like a jacket. You go in, and that's it."

And it's not much better on the ground. In the documentary film "Itzhak," which PBS premiered on "American Masters" in 2018, we see Perlman trying to negotiate Manhattan's snow-laden sidewalks, its pathways so narrow and treacherous that he barely can maneuver his motorized scooter.

"The ADA is now celebrating 30 years, and it was a good thing," says the violinist. "We need to improve on things. A lot of the ADA has become a question of interpretation. ... There are so many people who have different kinds of disabilities, so you cannot make a code do certain things that would fit everybody.

"A lot of it for me has to do with architects who think about it, rather than just open a code book saying: 'What do I need to do?'

"You've got to use a little sechel," continues Perlman, invoking the Yiddish word for "sense" or "judgment."

"I have two dreams: One is to hold a convention just for interior designers and to really discuss what can be done about it. The other thing is to have a foundation do a competition just for interior design, so that architects can actually concentrate on what's needed."

And the obstacles are not just physical.

"If you're in a wheelchair or scooter, people have the tendency not to talk to you, but to talk to your friend who accompanies you," says Perlman. "It's still happening! So we have a ways to go. Especially now with this pandemic, it isn't getting any easier."

Perlman, who was born in Palestine in 1945 (three years before Israel was founded), contracted polio at age 4 but soon learned to walk with crutches. Fortunately for the world and for music, his hands were spared.

His parents, poor Jewish emigres from Poland, did all they could to nurture his gifts.

"They washed clothes for the neighbors," Perlman says in the "Itzhak" documentary. "They adjusted what they did for a living for what they had to do for me. Anything that happened in my childhood, besides school, had to do with 'yes practice,' 'no practice.' That's all it was."

Their belief, Perlman adds in the film, was, "Listen: You have a talent. Use it. Because you're not going to be a tennis player."

Why did he choose the violin?

"It's a question of being attracted to the sound," he says today. "When you're a kid, you don't figure out what it is -- you have an attraction. You're attracted to voice, you're attracted to violin, you're attracted to piano, to wind instruments and so on. It's all a question of what your brain feels that it lacks. When I heard that on the radio, I heard that was what I wanted."

But being an aspiring, disabled young violinist in a small, then-impoverished country meant Perlman was going nowhere.

"My parents actually were very close to giving up on me," he says in the film.

The chance to study at the Juilliard School in New York at age 13 changed all that. Though living in a tiny apartment with his mother and unable to speak a word of English, Perlman was about to see his musical life blossom. When the revered Juilliard violin teacher Dorothy DeLay heard him, she was stunned.

"He started playing Mendelssohn Concerto -- at about double tempo, and he's looking at me very crossly when he did it," she says in an historic clip in "Itzhak," his duress presumably due to his new life in a strange land.

"I thought: I've never seen anything like this in my life," continues DeLay. "It was just amazing. And I think I fell in love with him then. He really was amazing. There was no question about that talent. I think the question in some people's minds was the fact that he walked with crutches. And they called it wrong. They really called it wrong. And I knew at the time that they were calling it wrong."

In that same year, 1958, Perlman was invited to perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show," where America convened in front of the TV. Sullivan introduced him in grand terms.

"Just as Israel has triumphed over so many discouragements and so many hurdles, this little boy -- 13 1/4 u00bd years old and a polio victim -- triumphed over polio with the help of God," Sullivan told millions of viewers. "And Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin say that he is going to be one of the great violin virtuosos of the world."

Perlman's performance certainly lived up to its billing. Even today, his televised reading of the Mendelssohn's third movement seems astonishing: fast, fleet, technically brilliant, seemingly effortless.

Was he nervous?

"Nervous? I didn't really know about being nervous," says Perlman today. "I would say I was excited. Not sort of nervous to the point of: You're shaking, and you don't know what's going on. Just excited. It was very exciting, just leaving a country that does not have TV, (now) playing on TV!"

Under the guidance of teachers DeLay and Ivan Galamian, Perlman developed into a singular concert violinist, his art distinguished by its purity of tone, lyric intensity and extraordinarily nimble technique. All of this is documented on a new boxed set, "Itzhak Perlman: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection" (Sony Classical), its 18 CDs spanning 1965 to 2011 and including concertos of Prokofiev, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi, plus chamber repertoire, Hebraic music and themes from the films "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Yentl," "Il Postino," "Schindler's List" and others.

What most of the world has not heard, however, was the profoundly moving performance he gave Nov. 30, 2016, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The occasion was a private tribute to the museum's founding chairman, Elie Wiesel, after the author, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor died at age 87. (I was invited because Wiesel and I had spent the last four years of his life working together on the book "The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel"). Perlman played the theme from "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's look at a haunting chapter of Holocaust history, and Perlman's performance could not have been more tender, vulnerable or introspective.

"We knew each other -- he was a phenomenal representative of the Jewish people, you know," says Perlman of Wiesel.

"When we talk about anti-Semitism, it's always important: always remember. It's always important not to say: that was then, now it's different. Maybe some of the difference, it's that people don't readily talk about it. But it's there.

"Somebody like Elie, I miss him. We all miss him. Whenever something happened, any incidents, he was always the voice of us, our voice, and an eloquent voice. It's a shame."

Wiesel's death "was a great loss to us personally," adds Toby Perlman, "because he was our go-to guy. If there was an issue, a problem, we could always call Elie and ask: What do you think?"

All life's losses and triumphs color an artist's work, and by now Perlman has gathered a great deal of them. He and his wife believe you can hear that in his playing -- or will be able to once he can return to the concert stage.

His work "really has evolved," says Toby Perlman, a Juilliard-trained violinist who with her husband founded The Perlman Music Program for aspiring musicians in 1994.

"It's very, very different now than it was," adds Toby Perlman of her husband's art. "I don't believe that he was ever really, really attracted by the word 'perfection.' But what has happened, the good news is that over a period of time, I think he's better and better. And the reason I think that has happened has to do with teaching, which is very challenging to anybody who is a teacher and who knows how difficult it is to do and to do well."

The violinist concurs that teaching has taught him to "listen better." But he also credits his wife as his longtime guide.

"String players or pianists -- any performers besides singers -- when they finish studying (at) the music school, they're basically on their own," says the violinist.

"We don't have coaches, and so all we have to rely on is ourselves, and to rely also on people that we trust. I'm very, very lucky because my wife has been my critic forever. And when she says that it's good, I trust her. And when she says that it needs something to be tweaked, I trust her as well."

The two have 5 children and 12 grandchildren.

It's not difficult to guess what Perlman wants to do after his 75th birthday.

"I'm looking to play concerts again," he says. "The thing is that I'm very lucky that I'm able to be interested in what I do, after all these years.

"So my goal is to continue to be interested. ... Let's hope that we can get a vaccine soon, and so we can return to seeing normal life as performers.

"We cannot do concert deliveries, like restaurants."