Monday, June 18, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Interview: For famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, spontaneity keeps the music fresh

At a recital given by Itzhak Perlman, you'll always hear the classics, such as the sonatas by Beethoven (No. 3 in E flat) and Franck that are on the violinist's program Saturday night at the Straz Center. But you're also likely to hear music from composers who aren't exactly household names anymore (if they ever were), such as Jean-Marie Leclair or Giovanni Martini or Francois Francoeur or Franz Ries. Often these pieces are charming, flashy showstoppers, such as Antonio Bazzini's Dance of the Goblins or Giuseppe Tartini's Devil's Trill.

And to make things interesting, Perlman and his longtime pianist partner, Rohan de Silva, typically announce much of the program from the stage, sometimes rummaging through a box of sheet music to select something to play.

"I want to make sure that everything is nice and fresh," Perlman said by phone one morning last week from his New York City home. "I want to make sure that I don't feel, 'Not again do I have to do this piece.' That's why I give myself permission to choose something at the last minute."

To be sure, Perlman and de Silva aren't sight-reading when they pull out a score of a dazzling showpiece by Henryk Wieniawski or Pablo de Sarasate. "It's stuff that we know, part of the violin recital repertoire, played by fiddle players for encore purposes," the violinist said. "I think this repertoire is so attractive. I just love it."

By delving into obscure nooks and crannies of the massive violin-piano repertoire, Perlman, 68, is emulating the violinists whose concerts and recordings he grew up listening to, golden-age virtuosos like Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. He also learned from Sol Hurok, the legendary impresario who recognized Perlman's exemplary technique and innate warmth of expression in performance and began promoting him in concerts around the country in the 1960s.

"Hurok was a very interesting character," Perlman said. "I don't know how much he knew about music, but he knew about audiences. He was very thoughtful about programs, and what is good for the audience. He would always say, 'These violinists! All they do is sonatas! You've got to do some lighter stuff!' I would do sonatas, too, but I would always finish with something showy, and he liked that."

In recent years, Perlman has added the theme by John Williams from Schindler's List, which he played on the movie's soundtrack, to his lineup of encores. "I get a lot of requests to play it, which is quite incredible to me, because that is not just in the States but all over the world. I'm talking about South America, Asia. When I go there, that's what they want."

It has been more than 50 years since Perlman first made a splash as a 13-year-old on crutches (he had polio at age 4) playing a Mendelssohn violin concerto on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show. Today, he may be the world's most famous classical musician, and he continues to keep up a busy concert schedule, as well as teaching and doing some conducting. What is the secret of his longevity?

"I think the secret is not a secret," he said. "What I try to do is I try to really just concentrate always on the music, not the way I played. The minute you concentrate on the music, then you have freshness all the time. The danger is to just play something you have played a long time, and just do it like you usually do. That's the kiss of death."

He cited the Beethoven violin concerto. "I don't know how many times I've played it. How do you maintain interest and not get bored? Go to the music. Every time I play it I hear something else."

Perlman has dropped pieces from his active repertoire because he felt they were becoming stale. "One piece that I dropped very early was the (Édouard) Lalo Symphonie Espagnole. A terrific piece. I played it as a student for too long a time and it just became impossible. I couldn't stand it anymore because I played it over and over and over again. Another piece like that is the Mendelssohn concerto, which is one of the crown jewels of the violin repertoire, but I had to give it a rest."

Since 1986, Perlman has played the Soil Stradivarius violin, made in 1714. "I have just one fiddle," he said. "It works and that's it. It has been an old friend."

Through his teaching at the Juilliard School and in the Perlman Music Program, founded by his wife, Toby, Perlman works with plenty of top-level young violinists, and he is optimistic about the future of classical music. But as the father of five grown children and grandfather of nine, ages 6 to 14, he knows all too well the challenge of getting youngsters involved.

"Only one of my grandchildren is serious about a musical instrument," Perlman said, mentioning a daughter of his daughter, Navah Perlman, a concert pianist in her own right, who plays the cello. "The others dabble in it. We don't push it. Everybody has to really want to do it. To start pushing kids is not what I believe in."

John Fleming, former performing arts critic for the Tampa Bay Times, can be reached at [email protected]

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