Itzhak Perlman has captivated classical-music audiences as a violinist, conductor and teacher for more than five decades. He’s easily one of the world’s most-recognizable classical musicians, and easily sells out venues around the world. In fact, he did just that here in the Coachella Valley: He’ll be performing a sold-out show at the McCallum Theatre on Tuesday, Jan. 20.
Born in Tel Aviv, in the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel) to Polish immigrants in 1945, he showed an interest in music as early as the age of 3.
“I just remember a specific violinist who inspired me—Jascha Heifetz,” Perlman said during a recent phone interview. “The sound just drove me to say, ‘I want to do this!’ but I don’t remember the specific piece.”
He said an oft-told story—about how he was supposedly rejected by the Shulamit Conservatory at the age of 3 because he was too small to hold a violin, and then went on to teach himself how to play—is untrue.
“I didn’t teach myself,” he said. “When they decided that I was a little too young, we stopped it. I entered the conservatory when I was about 4. I had teachers from the very beginning.”
At the age of 4, he contracted polio, but recovered, albeit with the diminished use of his legs. Later in his childhood, he immigrated to the United States and entered the Juilliard School. He was introduced to American audiences by performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958; he played on the show a second time, in 1964, appearing on the same episode as the Rolling Stones.
“At the time, I didn’t know anything about the Rolling Stones,” he said. “On The Ed Sullivan Show, I had my own dressing room, and I didn’t really mix with anybody until it was time for me to make the appearance. Now, I’m quite amazed that I was on the same show. At that time, I was just concerned about doing the best I could on the program.”
Since then, Perlman has performed in just about every important classical music venue in the world. He’s played with renowned orchestras and other classical musicians, appeared at the White House, and even performed at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“I’m going to be 70 soon, I’ve been playing music for almost 50 years, and I’m still loving it,” he said. “If there’s anything you ask me that I want to do, I want to stay connected with what I’m doing, and so far, I’m still connected. For me, that’s a goal I always think about, and the minute I think that’s enough for me, and I don’t want to do anything, I’ll stop. I play concerts; I conduct; and I teach. I’m having a great time, and I’m very happy with that.”
When asked about the difference between playing and conducting, he spoke passionately about the experience of conducting.
“It’s different when I play, because I’m in control of what’s going on,” he said. “When I conduct, I’m in control of what goes on musically, but I actually can’t make the people who play an instrument play a certain way. I can just coax them to play a certain way. In some ways, there’s a little bit less control, but I love conducting, because it gives me the opportunity to be exposed to a different repertoire. I play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto; I play the Beethoven violin concerto; and (I play the) Brahms violin concerto many times. When I conduct, I can do Brahms symphonies, Tchaikovsky symphonies—and it’s a different repertoire. It’s a great experience for me.”
Perlman said teaching is also a big part of his life.
“Teaching is very rewarding, and second of all, it’s very important for any performing artist, in my view, to have some experience teaching. I keep repeating the answer to this question with, ‘If you teach others, you teach yourself.’ I feel that one of the most important reasons I’m playing a certain way is because of my experience in teaching others, and I’m very lucky, because the level of my students is pretty high. To teach students who are very talented is more challenging, because you really have to dig deep in what you want to tell them to help them perform better, and so on. It’s extremely rewarding, and I love it.”
The cuts to public schools have affected music programs across the country—especially since the Great Recession. Perlman sees these cuts as a dangerous thing.
“I think we need more awareness as to how important the arts are to our society,” he said. “Without art, it will just not be as good. So we need to make sure politicians and people who are in charge of funding are aware of the importance of the arts. I think the fact that the arts is on public television is extremely important, because you want to bring this to everybody. You want to make sure that everyone is aware that the arts are there for us. Why bother to have schools if the schools are only going to be partly educating the kids? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The advances in technology have brought young people more ways with which to get involved in music. Perlman offered some fine advice to anyone who wants to pursue a musical instrument.
“First, you have to do what you like. The other thing is you need to study what happened before electronic music or other kinds of music,” he said. “What about composers like Bartok? What about Shostakovich? We’re talking about 20th-century composers. In order for people to be aware of what people like or don’t like, they have to be aware of what came first, which is basically like studying history—music history, and music history can go way, way back. It’s very important not to have blinders on and just see what’s going on today. You have to see what went on before. That’s part of the reason why today is what today is. It’s all evolved.”
Itzhak Perlman will perform at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 20, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are sold out. For more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.