The scene was a concert at Lincoln Center in New York City by violinist Itzhak Perlman. He had come on stage the only way he ever does, which is to say slowly and with considerable difficulty.
Perlman wears calipers on both legs, the result of childhood polio contacted before he was four years old, and he uses crutches clamped to both elbows. Before he begins to play he unlocks the clasps of his leg braces and arranges his legs in a comfortable one foot forward position before lifting his exquisite sounding 1714 Soil Stradivarius and starting to play.
Then something went wrong. A few bars into the symphonic work, there was a sharp snap heard around the concert hall, which for a violinist means only one thing—the dreaded broken string. For any other violinist, while embarrassing, this is no big deal; the performer goes to the side of the stage and attaches a new string. For Perlman, however, it means re-fixing the braces, picking up his crutches, lumbering off, then repeating the entire process as he retakes the stage.
Perlman had a better idea. He paused, nodded to the conductor, and began playing exactly where he left off—on three strings, performing the piece in its entirety. The applause was deafening as the audience leaped to their feet in astonishment. He stilled them with a wave of his bow. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with whatever you have left.”
Perlman at 64 has plenty left. And on May 1, those who have been able to snap up tickets to the hottest selling concert in Ventura Music Festival history will be able to see just how much, when the music legend makes his Ventura County debut. Perlman performs a recital with pianist Rohan De Silva at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium in a sellout concert that kicks off the 16th annual Music Festival.
“It is a rare opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest violinists,” says Festival Artistic Director Nuvi Mehta, adding, “Our mission is to bring the best on the planet to our community. And with Mr. Perlman, I am delighted to say that we are delivering on our promise.”
He is quite simply the world’s most renowned violinist, but perhaps it’s Perlman’s life lesson—the one about making music with what you have left—that is one of his greatest gifts to us. Maybe it’s what propelled the 13-year-old violin prodigy (“Mozart was a prodigy, the rest of us are very talented,” Perlman says humbly) from his native Israel to the stage of New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater, then on to a scholarship at the Julliard school, a debut at 17 at Carnegie Hall, and his status today as the best of the best.
There are many great musical performers of course, but Perlman stands out because, while technically brilliant and with an emotional depth that is rare even in geniuses, he makes it look easy—and above all, fun. He has played with all the great symphony orchestras on all the continents. But he has also entertained millions of children on Sesame Street and been a guest on the David Letterman and Johnny Carson shows. He’s played at the Academy Awards and the White House. He’s jammed with Oscar Petersen and played Klezmer with his pals Pinchas Zuckerman and Daniel Barenboim, the so-called “Kosher Nostra,” a gang that also includes “honorary Jew” Zubin Mehta.
The fact is, Perlman is just plain funny. Once, when asked by the interviewer Mike Wallace why many of the world’s great violinists are Jewish, Perlman answered with a straight face: “You see, our fingers are circumcised, which gives us very good dexterity.”
This is not to say he is not serious about his music. When he’s not touring, he’s teaching at Julliard or his wife’s music program in the Hamptons, a pre-college camp for young musicians. And when he’s not teaching, Perlman has a new love: conducting. He has taken the baton with the New York and L.A. Philharmonics, The Israel Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony, and The Boston Symphony, to name a few.
In between, he recorded the score for the Oscar winning 1993 Schindler’s List, played at the Academy Awards, serenaded Barack Obama at his chilly inaugural, and won four Emmys, 15 Grammys, and the Kennedy Center Honors’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
And while his CDs sell in the millions (he’s recorded more than just about any other classical musician), Perlman still hopes warm bodies will come to his concerts because, as he says, “though a recording can be a very good documentary of a performance, it’s not like a live concert, which is irreplaceable because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”