The Remarkable Itzhak Perlman
You know the famous Rorschach test: the one that psychologists use where they show you an inkblot and ask for a response to it. I’m greatly simplifying, but it struck me that if the inkblot was replaced by a violin, the name of Itzhak Perlman would involuntarily jump out for many. That’s not just asking who the most famous violinist of our time is, but rather who synonymous with the instrument itself today.
This resounding identification with the violin has been rare and selective in history.
There was Paganini in the 19th-century of course, with his dazzling act that thrilled audiences just as Franz Liszt did on the piano. There were composer-violinists like the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe or Spain’s Pablo de Sarasate – master performers recognized today more for what they wrote than how they played. There was the incomparable Jascha Heifetz, whose other-worldly virtuosity can be experienced through a huge discography that Perlman too worships, and Fritz Kreisler, whose uniquely personal old-world charm brought the violin from his heart to millions. (Apologies to Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and other great violinists I haven’t room to mention).
But imagine all the violinists around the world – students, professionals, fans – and you can project with plenty of confidence that the name, sound and personality of Itzhak Perlman, today, is the natural response to what the violin is all about in the great concert literature for the instrument.
At 72, he’s covered a lot of ground in a career that has been inspirational, not only for his supreme violin playing but also the warmth of his personality. A Perlman performance is not only a love-in but an invitation to seek out more of this kind of elevation in a cluttered, angry world.
Itzhak Perlman was born in Tel Aviv to parents that emigrated from Poland in the 1930s. At age three, Itzhak heard a violin recital on the radio and decided to become a violinist. A toy fiddle gave way to a real one. Lessons followed and then a tragedy, for at the age of four years and three months he was stricken with the polio that permanently compelled him to use crutches. As he recovered he pressed on with his studies, refusing to let his infirmity get in the way.
Itzhak’s career began to bloom with concerts in Israel. In 1958 he was selected by Ed Sullivan to come to America and appear on the iconic “Ed Sullivan Show,” which we all watched on our rabbit-eared single-channel sets every Sunday night. After two appearances on the show in 1959, Itzhak decided to stay in New York and was soon joined by his parents. A concert tour of 20 cities in the United States and Canada followed, leading to a Juilliard scholarship where he was a pupil of legendary violin teachers Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay.
Life is always full of challenges. I believe you’re never happy unless you’re consistently making challenges for yourself.
A solo debut with the National Orchestral Association went unnoticed due to a newspaper strike, so violinist Isaac Stern helped Itzhak out by introducing him to renowned concert manager Sol Hurok, who took on the young violinist thereby guaranteeing career momentum. Itzhak won the renowned Leventritt competition in 1964 over 19 contestants. This led to prestigious engagements with major orchestras. The ever opportunistic Ed Sullivan, too, had Itzhak back for two more appearances. Soon after, Itzhak appeared at the Winnipeg Auditorium and I was among the large audience savoring every moment. The career never looked back.
Like Heifetz and Kreisler, Perlman’s recorded legacy is mandatory listening for all who love the violin. All the basic violin repertory is self-recommending, as are the many collaborations with such artists as Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy and similar luminaries. I love Perlman’s klezmer romp In the Fiddler’s House, and of course his haunting playing of the John Williams theme on the soundtrack of the movie Schindler’s List, essential in experiencing the impact of this important film.
This will be Itzhak Perlman’s fourth WSO appearance. In 1972 he performed Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto; in 1973 the Brahms Violin Concerto, and in 1975 Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. All were conducted by then music director Piero Gamba.
Itzhak Perlman performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major with the WSO on September 16.