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Master thoughts

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Whenever renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman signs an autograph for a young musician, he's always asked to jot down a little advice, too.

And every time, he pens the same suggestion.

"I always write, "Practice slowly' . . . that's my theme," he said, calling from his Manhattan home. "Your brain is like a sponge . . . when you put a sponge in the water and quickly take it out, it's not going to soak up a lot of water. But if you put it in slowly and you squeeze and then soak up a lot of water _ that's when you get the best results."

But when it comes to the art of taking things slowly, Perlman might have trouble taking his own advice.

Now 56, Perlman still plays about 75 concerts a year, despite a body weakened by childhood polio. He also has been named principal guest conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra _ requiring about three appearances a year _ continuing a foray into conducting he began seven years ago to express new ideas on a grand scale.

For Perlman, the orchestra is just another instrument; allowing him to shape a group of musicians the same way he shapes melodies on his own instrument.

"In one way, you feel you don't have control over what you are doing, because you're not playing, you're making other people play," he said, chuckling.

"It's almost like telepathy . . . what happens with the motion of the hand that makes an orchestra sound a certain way," added Perlman, who wields the baton from a seat at the conductor's podium. "As long as one is not frustrated by saying . . . "Ach, if I were to (play) this, I would do it differently' . . . then one is doing a good job."

In the same way he has been known to wave off helpful stagehands when his crutches slip onstage, Perlman brushes aside notions that conducting work offers a needed break from the rigors of playing recitals.

"Who says conducting is easy?" he asked, a tiny edge surfacing in his voice. "For pure physical activity, if you do it with the intensity that the music demands, it's hard work. Nothing is easy."

In Clearwater, Perlman will be playing rather than conducting, offering an intimate recital that peppers his expert playing with bits of warm humor and his trademark down-to-earth charm.

Ask what he'll tackle for the Ruth Eckerd Hall audience, and the list comes quickly: a Beethoven sonata, a "wonderful warhorse piece" by Frank, a Debussy sonata. Thanks to a handy computer program, nothing he played from his last appearance at the hall two years ago will be repeated Saturday.

Except, perhaps, for one thing: "Encores . . . I shall decide at the last minute, which I usually do," said the virtuoso, who called his last Ruth Eckerd encore "Easy Parking" as a friendly jab at those already streaming to the exits. "I'll probably surprise everybody, including myself."

For those who have followed Perlman's career _ from his start as a 13-year-old prodigy on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 to life as a seasoned veteran with 16 Grammy awards and a Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan _ the Israeli-born violinist has always offered a few unexpected turns.

Discovered by Sullivan during a talent search, Perlman had been playing violin since age 5, a year after polio paralyzed his legs, requiring a long recovery. After the Sullivan tour, he moved from Israel to New York City with his mother, where he eventually studied at the prestigious Juilliard School and debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1963.

These days, he's one of the best-known violinists of his generation. Recognized for decades as an ambassador of classical music on popular TV shows such as The Late Show With David Letterman, Sesame Street, The Frugal Gourmet and The Tonight Show, Perlman nevertheless discounts ideas that such exposure alone brings masses of fans to the classical world.

His notion? You gotta hook 'em early.

"Once you have that sound in your head as a child, then you grow up and go to a concert hall and you don't feel alienated. Just to go to the concert hall for the first time and listen to a symphony by Mahler _ you're not going to get sold," he said.

According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, sales of classical recordings fell to 3 percent of all album sales last year, down from a high of 7 percent in the 1990s. Even National Public Radio is considering scaling back its classical music programming.

For Perlman, the only way to counter these trends is through music programs in school and pop culture that can reach young fans in the making.

"One thing about a pop hit . . . in a week, you've heard it five or six times and you know you like it," he said. "How many times will you hear a Mozart symphony (on the radio)? Two or three times a year? You're not going to say, "Hey, I like that Jupiter Symphony ... that really swings.' "

And even though he is also known for the occasional "crossover" album _ such as a recording of jazz classics with pianist Oscar Peterson, an album and PBS special on klezmer music and an album of film music _ Perlman remains skeptical of record companies' demands for such cross-pollination projects.

"The way (record companies) look at it, they ask, "How many new recordings can you have of the 5th symphony of Beethoven?' " he said. "Something came up with me to (work) with a rock group ... they say, "Let's put it to a rhythm.' I can't stand that. I'm not one of those, quote, purists . . . but if (a crossover album) doesn't work, it's embarrassing."

His method for judging a proposed project? "I usually ask myself, "How would I feel if I heard someone else doing it?' " Perlman said. "If the answer is, "I'd feel bad for them,' then my answer is no."

Ask if fading health has prompted his 75 dates per year schedule, and Perlman offers another strong rebuttal. He's an advocate for making travel more accessible to the disabled, but said his schedule is arranged to keep him close to his wife Toby, their five children and the New York home he loves.

Still, Perlman found himself stuck in Detroit when the terrorists struck Sept. 11 _ forced to jump into a rental car for the long drive home to make sure his family was okay.

"There's still some scars," he said. "You always look at the skyline and visualize the Twin Towers where they used to be and now they're not. I feel as if we have reached the reality . . . the United States has joined the rest of the world. And life here will never be the same."