A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Standard
The shortest book in the world, it was once said, lists famous non-Jewish violinists.
Told that joke, Itzhak Perlman — the great Jewish violinist — laughed: “That’s funny!” But, he added thoughtfully, it’s no longer true.
During the same conversation, Perlman confessed that, as a kid, he hated to practice the violin.
And that he still practices.
And that if he hadn’t been a violinist, he might have been…a cook.
And if he hadn’t taken up the violin, he might have taken up the cello. Or the oboe. But not the piano.
Perlman will perform Sunday at 3 p.m. at bergenPAC in Englewood (a few tickets are still available: call 1-800-880-8886).
In a wide-ranging telephone interview on Tuesday, he briskly answered questions and seemed to be enjoying himself.
He’s 65 and lives in New York City. Born in Tel Aviv, he studied at the Academy of Music there, then came to the United States and studied at Juilliard. In 1958, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. In 1963 he made his debut at Carnegie Hall, and in 1964 won the prestigious Leventritt Competition. He has since played with just about every major orchestra in the world and won four Emmys and five Grammys. He played the music in the film “Schindler’s List” and at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and has led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on tours.
He’s even appeared on “Sesame Street.” One program, called “Easy and Hard,” has Perlman laboriously climbing a few steps, using his crutches (he contracted polio at 4) before sitting down. He shows off a bit on the violin, then a little girl — who had bounded up the steps earlier — starts playing the violin. She is no Perlman. What she is is…a Jack Benny. And the girl comments that some things are easy for some people, but hard for others — and vice versa. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3richcoCUI)
Perlman is famous not just for his magnificent violin playing — the great Jascha Heifetz himself once praised him — but for his personality: his charm, his warmth, his unpretentiousness. Someone he didn’t know once phoned and said his mother was turning 80 and would love to hear from him. So Perlman called and wished her a happy birthday.
He generally avoids political controversy, but once made a video in favor of gay marriage. One of his five children is gay.
The virtuoso — he keeps referring to himself as a “fiddler” — has been interviewed hundreds of times by journalists. So — in addition to the usual questions — I tried to ask some unusual ones. Excerpts follow.
Warren Boroson: (mentions joke about Jewish violinists)
Perlman: I can tell you there are a lot of absolutely wonderful, wonderful violinists who are NOT Jewish.
So you know, I just feel that the level of violin playing generally in the last few years has really gone up. You have a lot of fantastic, wonderful players and they come from all over the world.
I sort of know about that because of a program my wife started 16 or 17 years ago called the Perlman Music Program, and it’s for young string players. And we audition people who want to be in the program. And I can see from everybody who sends us DVDs of their playing — from Russia, Europe, and all over the world — that the cycle is now going to fiddle players and string players who come from Asian countries…. The No. 1 country that has so many wonderful string players is Korea, then China, and then the rest of the world. Because right now the hunger for making music is in Asia….
When I went to the Juilliard School in New York — I was 17, 18, or 19 — there were hardly any players from Asia. And right now, it’s a lot. It’s a cycle.
W.B.: What advice would you give to young violinists? Who might hate practicing?
Perlman: (Laughs) Hating practice is something quite natural. I hated practicing myself. So I don’t feel it’s an unusual trait. I’m always surprised when someone says, “I just love to practice.” For me that’s less natural than someone who says, “Gee, I hate practicing.”
The advice I always give is to practice slowly. That’s number one. Because when you do something slowly, it gets more of a chance to soak into your brain than if you do everything fast. It’s like throwing a stone on the water. It bounces off the water, never goes in, because it’s too fast. That’s what happens when you practice fast —everything you’re doing is repetitious. It bounces off your brain and nothing happens. So, practice slowly.
For young kids, if they have a parent, a musician, it always helps if the parent just sits there and practices with the kid. But it’s very, very tricky. You have to do it the right way, so the kid doesn’t feel intimidated.
Also, the important thing is to have an actual plan. What are you practicing for? With the violin, it might be intonation, bow control. You need to know, not just put in three, four, or five hours and think it’s going to work. You’ve got to have a goal —it’s got to be organized. If that is the case, if you’re organized and have a goal, and practice slowly, you can actually achieve much more in less time.
Don’t ever practice more than five hours. That’s really, really tops. Some people feel, “If I practice six, seven, or eight hours, it will be that much better.” Not true. After a while, our brains stop working. I never practice five hours. In sort of the height of my student days, my practice was three hours.
W.B.: Do you still practice?
Perlman: That’s a good question. Well, let’s put it this way. I practice as needed. And, you know, I’ve played enough and I’m old enough to know when it’s needed. If I’m feeling that there’s a little need for things to be slightly tweaked, then I practice. And that’s it — it’s a question of how it feels.
A lot of practicing has to do with the player’s habits. I know some colleagues who don’t necessarily have to practice as much as they do, but it’s a way of life. Talking about Heifetz, he was a perfect example of someone who basically practiced all the time. Every morning, whether he was playing a concert or not, he would always practice scales — because that was “a way of life”. You wake up and you have breakfast; he woke up, had breakfast, and then practiced scales. If I’m not mistaken, even when he sort of retired, he actually still felt that he needed to have the routine of practicing every morning. That was his way of life.
W.B.: If you had not taken up the violin, what other instrument might you have played? The piano, the cello?
Perlman: Probably the cello. And then maybe, as a wood instrument, the oboe. I love the oboe.
W.B.: Why not the piano?
Perlman: Well, I don’t know. It hadn’t occurred to me. Maybe I’m more into a sustained sound, you know. It’s a most subtle thing when you’re a pianist.
But every time I listen to some absolutely incredible piece, say, a Brahms piano concerto, first or second, I wish I could play the piano. Whenever I listen to something that is musically exciting, I say to myself, I wish I could play this instrument so that I could play this piece.
W.B.: Do violinists and pianists have different personalities? Is that why they chose those instruments?
Perlman: No, I have a feeling that when people play different instruments, when they were young they have heard a sound in their head and they’re attracted to that sound. Why does anybody play anything? Why would anyone play the flute or oboe or double bass or the piano? It’s because of something in their ears, they’re attracted to this sound, to the timbre of this instrument. With me, the violin was something I was attracted to. I listened to it on the radio.
One of my daughters was always attracted to the flute. Why is that? Why the flute and not the clarinet? Well, that’s the sound you hear in your ear and that’s what attracts you.
W.B.: Are any pieces very hard for you to play?
Perlman: Very hard? Oh yes, absolutely! (Laughs.) You know, you cannot just say, this person has a great technique, and therefore he or she can play anything. It has to do with the kind of hand that you have.
Certain things I find very easy to play, and the next violinist might find very difficult. And certain things I find very difficult, some other violinist might find not too bad — quite easy. Certain things I find more difficult than others.
But the most important thing for me is to play things that I really love — and then, you know, if I think the piece is great, then I practice.
W.B.: Can you talk about the program you’re playing on Sunday? Why did you choose it?
Perlman: I usually choose a program that I personally would like to hear. So, if I were to go to a concert of somebody and I see the program, I would say yeah, I’d be interested in hearing that. You know, the pieces Sunday are wonderful. The Mozart sonata in B flat major is one of the great sonatas and one of the few that Mozart wrote that that is almost equally given to the violin as well as to the piano. Most of the sonatas are mostly piano sonatas, with violin obligato. This one has more of an equal share. And the piece is fantastic. With all typical Mozart, you know, there are inspired moments — and some of those moments can become hours. He was just totally awesome.
The Beethoven sonata in C minor is one of his great romantic pieces, and if you had to choose [words] to describe it, I would say it would be rhythmic intensity and drama — and that’s what a lot of Beethoven’s music is.
And after that, and after a piece by Saint-Saens, I don’t know what I’m going to play. I usually end up picking up a bunch of music and look at them, and do some nice encores.
W.B.: If you hadn’t been a musician, what other career might you have chosen?
Perlman: A cook.
W.B.: A cook?
Perlman: Anything to do with food and wine, unfortunately, I like. I say unfortunately because all of it is fattening and I’m always trying to diet.
Here are some Perlman interpretations appearing on YouTube.
The comments from listeners are sometimes worth reading, too.
After Perlman, on one recording, plays an awesome “Flight of the Bumble-Bee,” someone dryly comments: “I taught him that.”
And after various listeners comment on how sublime a musician Perlman is, someone adds, “He’s a great guy, too.”
Antonio Bazzini, Dance of the Goblins
Melody from Schindler’s List