TAMPA — In November at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to 17 people. Itzhak Perlman was among the recipients. He wasn't there for his reputation as one of the world's finest violinists — the "fiddler to the world," as he has been called — with 16 Grammys and countless other distinctions, including playing the solo in Schindler's List (an Academy Award winner for best original score), although none of that hurt.
Perlman, who will perform Saturday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, stands out even more for his work as a teacher. He leads the faculty for the Perlman Music Program, which nurtures 38 musicians, ages 12 to 18, from around the world. The program, founded in 1994 by his wife, Toby, includes a winter residency in Sarasota and underwrites the best young players of the violin, viola, cello, bass and piano regardless of their ability to pay.
The virtuoso deflected his honor with disarming modesty.
"When you get older they start giving you medals," Perlman, 70, said in a recent phone interview. "The highlight was sitting next to Willie Mays."
The awards kept coming. In December, the Genesis Prize Foundation, colloquially called "the Jewish Nobel," made Perlman its 2016 Genesis Prize Laureate, for dedication to the Jewish community and the state of Israel. The $1 million grant is his to administer. Perlman said he will divide the funds between young musicians and people with disabilities, causes both close to his heart.
Born in 1945 in Tel Aviv, Perlman latched onto his first violin at age 3. A year later he was stricken with polio, which has left him walking on crutches or getting around in a motorized scooter ever since. He gave his first public concert at age 10 and debuted at Carnegie Hall at 18.
He is also an enthusiastic singer, and once sang the part of the jailer in the opera Tosca.
"The length of the part was 19 seconds," Perlman said. "It was my farewell debut."
Students at his school sing in a chorus every day, which helps the musicians learn that "you should breathe before every phrase," Perlman said. The hardest part of helping to run the school is winnowing down the applicants. This year there are more than 100 applicants for the violin section alone. Of those, 50 are the best of the best.
"The level is extremely high," Perlman said. "Whom do you choose (for) four openings?"
Some of the lessons for those young musicians could be applied to everyday life. For example, breathing helps people cope with nerves.
"There is no such thing as getting rid of nervousness," he said. "The nice thing is I can say, 'I'm nervous, that's the way I feel.' That way I feel familiarity with the nervousness and deal with it."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.