‘My challenge is not to be bored’

‘My challenge is not to be bored’

Itzhak Perlman, about to perform locally, discusses music, his disability, and Jewishness

It is one of Itzhak Perlman’s most ironic quotes:

“Child prodigy is a curse because you’ve got all those terrible possibilities.”

It’s interesting — obviously — because Mr. Perlman was a prodigy. So in a recent telephone interview with the maestro, I asked what he meant.

“When you hear a child who is 10, 11, or 12 years old, and they sound talented, but they sound age appropriate, that’s good,” he said. “You know there is promise there. But if you hear that child playing and you close your eyes and you think it’s someone in their 20s, for me, I always say watch out. What will they do for the next 10 years until they become an adult?

“That’s the challenge and why I say it’s easier if you hear someone playing age appropriately, but not yet finished.”

But you were a prodigy who played above your chronological level, I insist. “I disagree,” he responded. “I think I showed talent, but if you close your eyes, I was still playing young. It’s not like today, where if you look at YouTube or the Internet you will see 9-year-olds playing unbelievably well. But that was not me. I still had many ways to evolve and improve.”

Mr. Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. He was 3 years old when he heard Jascha Heifetz on the radio and fell in love with the violin. But his parents, who had emigrated to then Palestine in the early 1930s, believed him to be too young to learn to play. When he was 4, Itzhak contracted polio. While the disease impacted his mobility, it did not diminish his desire to play. So when he was 5 years old, at considerable financial sacrifice, his parents arranged for him to have lessons.

There were times, he’s said, when there was little or nothing to eat. But the music sustained him.

When he was 13, the variety show host Ed Sullivan, who was on a tour of Israel, heard him play and booked him for his popular Sunday night television show.

Mr. Perlman has said he suspects that Mr. Sullivan brought him to New York as much for the inspirational impact of his disability as for his skill. But it didn’t matter. Itzhak was a hit. And success seemed beshert.

But that sounds simpler than the reality was.

We spoke several years ago; back then, he told me: “In the beginning it was rough.” A new country. All his friends left behind in Israel. I asked him then if he ever considered chucking it all and going home. “No, not really,” he told me. “I just had to dig in and bear it and go through that depressing period.”

I’m speaking to Mr. Perlman now because he was promoting two concert performances scheduled this weekend, for Saturday at the Bergen PAC in Englewood and Sunday afternoon at the New Jersey PAC in Newark. More than 60 years of professional performances later, and he’s still at it. I wonder — is the magic still there? Is it harder to get up for performances?

“It’s a very good question,” he said. “A lot of people say to me, what is your goal? What do you want to do that you haven’t done before? I’ve done a lot, but my challenge is not to be bored. I’m able to stay fresh because I do so many different things that are connected — teaching, conducting, and playing — it makes everything much more interesting, so that I look forward to the performing.”

What he does not look forward to is the travel. “It’s really horrible,” he said. “I still remember when I was able to leave for the airport an hour before a flight, go straight to the gate, and get on the plane. But you know those days are over.

“For me touring is much more difficult right now, especially with a disability. I have a scooter and I need special arrangements, and you never know if the people who are supposed to come and help you will actually show up. It’s a big deal.”

So I ask him whether, given his gifts, it would be possible for him to retire, to chuck it all and settle in at a warm, sunny beach? “I’m compelled to keep going as long as I feel that the quality of my performance is good,” he answered. “Once the quality of my performance starts to go down — well, I don’t know. That has not happened so far.”

Part of what keeps him going is his teaching. He regularly conducts master classes at facilities such as Juilliard. Also, some 30 years ago, his wife, Toby, founded what became the Perlman Music Program, a summer school for promising musicians that the couple runs each year.

“I always believe that if you teach others, you actually teach yourself,” Mr. Perlman said. “For me, that is very helpful.

“I always tell my students, never miss an opportunity to teach. Whether you’re teaching a beginner while you’re teaching, or somebody more advanced, teaching is always helpful to make you a better musician, and a better performer.”

His mention of his wife brought back a memory of an interview we did about a decade ago. I asked him if his Jewish roots impacted his career, and he largely dismissed the thought. But Toby overheard and said that his answer was nonsense.

“You’re a Yiddle with a fiddle,” she said.

I reminded him of that episode, and I asked him the question again.

“I have no idea,” he answered. “I really have no idea how.

“Maybe it’s the fact that I like playing things that are Jewish. For example, one of my favorite things to do, which I did just recently, is play klezmer music. And so I don’t know whether that has to do with the fact that I am Jewish or whether it’s just something that comes naturally. I have no idea. Maybe yes, maybe no.”

I tell him I think maybe yes. That I sense his joy when I listen to his recording “In the Fiddler’s House,” and as a result I kvell.

“Well,” he said, “then I’ve done my job.”

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