Itzhak Perlman Violin Recital

How often do you get to see a living legend?

One of those rare classical musicians to enjoy household name status, Itzhak Perlman has long been the standard-bearer for the modern violinist. He has played for puppets and presidents, has graced television shows ranging from the Grammy Awards to the Frugal Gourmet, and is the soaring strains of solo violin in some of your favourite movies. He also plays jazz and klezmer, is a well-known conductor and even sings operatic baritone. If you’ve never seen him live, you’ll have your chance this month when he returns to Beijing.

Born in Tel Aviv, in 1945, Perlman was an unlikely musician. His parents had immigrated from Poland and did 'whatever they could do', including doing construction work, cutting hair, and running a small business. But when he was just over three years old, young Itzhak heard a classical performance on the radio, and 'was fascinated by it.' He begged his parents for an instrument, and started on a six-dollar miniature violin his father found in a second-hand shop. But tragedy struck in the form of a polio pandemic; at age four, Perlman was paralysed and forever after would use crutches or a motorised scooter. Doctors doubted he would have the physical strength for a musical career, but after a year of recovery and furious practice, he entered the Music Academy of Tel Aviv.

By then an acknowledged musical prodigy in Israel, a thirteen-year-old Perlman arrived in the US to appear on the wildly popular Ed Sullivan show (which introduced America to the Beatles in 1965), and never went home, studying and later teaching at the Juilliard School, winning the prestigious Leventritt Competition, and becoming the world’s first name in violin. Still today, no one has ever eclipsed Perlman in name or fame, or in his trademark soulful, passionate sound, and if, in the autumn of his career, the critical reviews are not what they once were, his passion for his music remains unmatched. There are few times we can see a living legend up close; don’t let this one pass you by.

Perlman in his own words

On recording the soundtrack to the 1993 film Schindler’s List

Well, it was a wonderful experience for me especially because it’s such a fantastic film, and for me to be associated with it, to be asked by John Williams to participate, was very touching and very important for me. [I was] very happy I could play a part, very happy. John called me up and said I’m writing this score for this film, he told me a little about, and about the stories, and said, 'I hear a violin sound, are you interested?' Of course, because of the subject matter I was very interested, and I was curious about how he was going to do it. I thought the results were absolutely phenomenal.

On playing at Barack Obama’s 2008 Inauguration (the music was prerecorded because the cold would damage the instruments)

First of all it was very cold; it was the coldest temperature I’ve ever played in for anything in my life. But it was very exciting. I felt I was a part of history, and not just playing in a presidential inauguration, but this kind of inauguration, so everything was more important than ever. But there was no way [we could play live]; we were very concerned that the quality of the music that was coming out would only be of the best quality; this was the inauguration. You’re talking about 25 degrees (F) with a wind chill factor that made it more like 10; there was no way to do this without freezing over. I remember we had those chemical pouches; you put them in your hands to keep them warm. It was dramatically horrible, as far as the temperature was concerned. But I was very happy with the way it came out.

On conducting orchestras

In my career as a violinist, I’ve done a lot of pieces and repertoire, and I’ve repeated many. With conducting, there’s a chance to do new repertoire I’ve not done before. The minute you talk about a symphonic repertoire, you talk about something different, and something that keeps my musical experiences fresh, and that’s very important, especially when you have a long career, I’m getting old, I’m [72] years old, I’ve been playing for a long time. [With conducting], the mystery of how you affect a group of people by what you look like, how you move—to me, it’s like an electrical current that comes between the conductor and the orchestra. And also, to see how I can bring out of musicians the sound that I hear in my head without actually being able to control it physically, it’s a fascinating experience.