Violinist-conductor Itzhak Perlman

The classical superstar discusses his passion for using music to build bridges between disparate people and political ideologies.

Itzhak Perlman is the reigning virtuoso of the violin and has achieved the widespread exposure and popularity of a superstar. From recordings to TV and film appearances, he's as beloved for his charm and humanity as he is for his talent. He's performed with every major orchestra and in recitals and festivals around the world and honored with four Emmys and 15 Grammys. Born in Israel, Perlman contracted polio and lost the use of his legs at age 4. Shortly after, he began studying violin and trained at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and, after immigrating to the U.S., at Juilliard. He's also been a soloist for a number of movie scores, including Schindler’s List.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Conductor and violin virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman, combines outstanding musical artistry with a commitment to human rights and education employing music to build bridges between disparate people and political ideology. His honors include the National Medal of the Arts, four Emmys and 16 Grammies and counting.

He’s currently on a world tour and his latest CD is called “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul” which in part celebrates Jewish culture through music. Let’s take a look.

[Clip]

Tavis: This is our 11th season. I’ve waited a long time for this. I am honored to finally have you on this set.

Itzhak Perlman: My pleasure.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

Perlman: Thank you.

Tavis: Another world tour. You aren’t tired of this yet?

Perlman: Yes, I am [laugh]. Everything but the travel is nice. The travel is getting worse, you know. It’s not getting better. You know, I was saying the other day to somebody I remember leaving one hour before a flight from the house and just getting to the airport and getting on the plane, finished.

Now if you leave in one hour, you miss the flight, so anyway. But, you know, it’s one of those things you have to just take it with the rest of it, which is good.

Tavis: I want to get personal with you and if I’m pushing too hard, you tell me and I’ll back up. I didn’t know how I was going to get into this, but what you said now gives me a wonderful opening. I complain all the time as one who has to travel too much.

And, to your point, I complain because travel is getting so much worse. I was on a flight the other day for like eight hours and they didn’t serve you anything on a flight that long.

Perlman: Peanuts sometimes or a little wafer, you know [laugh].

Tavis: Exactly. And then the delays and it’s horrific. But how else do you get there if you don’t hop on a plane, so we have to deal with it. But what hit me literally in my spirit when you said that you love everything except the travel is that here I am completely able-bodied. I’m able-bodied and I complain all the time. You have to walk with crutches or use your little machine to get around.

Perlman: Yes, yes.

Tavis: And I almost feel convicted that I’m complaining about what I have to go through and you got to deal with all that stuff.

Perlman: Well, I have to do it, you know. I cannot go through the x-ray machines, so they’re basically giving me the personal treatment. They said, “With the back of my hand, I’m going to touch your behind.” I always wondered how is the back of the hand able to grab you? You know, you have a funny kind of hand that goes like that.

Tavis: [Laugh] Yeah, why the back of the hand, not the front of the hand?

Perlman: Exactly. But, anyway, it’s one of the things. You know, my wife looks at me and she says, “I don’t know how you do that.” But you have to do it because, if you start complaining, you’ll miss the flight. So I just say go ahead, check me and so on, you know, with the leg braces and all of that stuff. But it’s one of those things, you know. So for me, it’s a little more unpleasant actually.

Tavis: Tell me why you never made excuses, why you were never bitter. When you come to this country, you have a handicap, you can’t speak English. So that’s a double handicap, I suspect. And somehow you were never embittered by it. You’ve gone on to be one of the greatest in the world.

Perlman: Well, the thing is this. Everybody’s saying, you know, you’re so heroic and so on despite of the polio that you had and so on. Look, I had polio when I was four. So when you’re four years old, you know, you get used to things very, very quickly. And it wasn’t like, you know, if you are 20 or so or 25 or something and then something happens, that’s more difficult to get used to.

So, I mean, it had to do with my parents. You know, they felt that this was not one of those things to stop me from practicing my violin, you know. It has nothing to do – I always say separate your abilities from your disabilities. You know, if I could play the violin, I don’t have to play it standing up. I can play it sitting down and so on.

So I never thought about it. All I thought about was to do the best I can. You know, if I’m talented, good. I mean, I wasn’t going to play the violin if I couldn’t.

Tavis: So I take your point. At four years of age because this is the way basically you’re formed as a child, you get used to it.

Perlman: Yeah, absolutely.

Tavis: Okay, I get that at four. But at 24 or 44 or 54, you could be asking God a lot of questions about why me.

Perlman: No, no. You know, I’m never bitter. You know, I’m a great sports fan, you know. I love to watch tennis and basketball and baseball and so on. I never say to myself, you know, gee, I wish I could do that. It never occurs to me, you know. I mean, the thing is that I always consider myself lucky that I can actually cry listening to some music.

I think, oh, my God, it’s amazing. I wonder if anybody else can feel that, you know, when you listen to a phrase of Brahms’s piece and the tears start to come. And I say that makes me special because I can actually react to something like that. That’s what I think about.

Tavis: I’m just curious now. I’m out on a limb here, not the first time, won’t be the last. But I wonder if there’s any parallel or parallels in your mind between what you see when you watch the artistry of sport and the artistry of music.

Perlman: Well, yes, absolutely.

Tavis: What parallels?

Perlman: Well, several. First there is, if you want to call it, energy. You know, when you see a person whether it’s a basketball player or a baseball player or a tennis player, the kind of energy that they have, you know, whatever it is, whether you hit the ball or whether you throw the ball or whatever it is that you do.

I find another thing is the, shall we say, when you watch Michael Jordan, for example, you see a ballet dancer. So that’s again something that can be a very musical thing and so on. In music, it’s energy. A lot of it is energy; a lot of it is what you are actually hearing in your ear and then trying to get it into the playing.

You know, a lot of the stuff in music, for example, has to do with some people feel very private when they play. And they say what I feel; I don’t want you to know. That’s my business. Well, in performance, if you feel something and you can actually express it to the audience, that’s very, very good.

Now I don’t know how that parallels into sports. I know that, for example, when you think about what makes for a great baseball hitter, for example, is I suppose the ability to see the ball go very, very slowly from the pitcher’s hand. I mean, not to get like that.

So while I suppose a parallel like that could be when you perform a piece that’s particularly difficult to actually hear in advance what it’s going to sound like so that you can actually not be surprised.

You know, I’m now involved, of course, in teaching and so on, and I see a lot of kids sometimes playing. The difference between somebody who plays who has a bit more experience is how in advance they can hear what they’re about to do as opposed to, you know, some kids came to me and say, oh, I was so nervous and everything just came too fast for me and I wasn’t ready.

So I guess there is a parallel in being ready for something.

Tavis: I was thinking as you were talking about, say, golf, for example. Golf is one of any number of sports I could use as an example of this. But certainly in golf, for those who play, it’s not about how hard you strike the ball necessarily. It’s about your form.

And I’m thinking about your form. The form of what you do is so important.

Perlman: Yeah. The form is good, but in golf, I think it’s very interesting that, as you get older, the challenge is not so much how far you can hit the ball. It’s the putting. For me, that’s amazing, you know. Because you’re old, why can’t you do it like that? But yet that’s what goes. At least, I’m told that.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I was told, that the putting is the first thing to go rather than the actual hitting. You can still hit the ball.

Tavis: The drive, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Perlman: So maybe it’s the same thing with violin playing, for example. It’s the fine motor things. You know, it’s making the melody really work perfectly that maybe that’s the challenge.

Tavis: So if in golf, putting is the first thing to go, when you’ve played the violin for 50-plus years, as you have, what tends to be the first thing to go?

Perlman: I wouldn’t know [laugh].

Tavis: I love that, I love that. You said I ain’t lost nothing yet [laugh].

Perlman: I wouldn’t know.

Tavis: I love that! I haven’t lost a step yet, so I’m the wrong guy to ask that question of [laugh]. That was funny.

Perlman: You gave it to me. I was prepared for it. I knew in advance what I was going to say [laugh].

Tavis: And you watched the ball come very slowly…

Perlman: Oh, very slowly.

Tavis: And you put it over the fence [laugh].

Perlman: It was right there.

Tavis: Okay, what are you afraid might happen first as you continue to play this instrument?

Perlman: I don’t know. I mean, everybody is different, seriously. Everybody develops differently, everybody ages differently, you know. I could give you a couple of fiddle players that played into their 80s and they were absolutely fantastic.

I mean, really great, and then I could tell you somebody who was like 60 and was, at the age of 60, was finished.

And then I knew one of the great fiddle players who retired at the age of 62, he felt something was going to happen, didn’t want it to develop, so he said, okay, I’m retiring and that’s it. You know, stopped so.

One of the great challenges is to know when things are not right.

Tavis: Ah, that’s my next question.

Perlman: It’s a big challenge.

Tavis: How will you know? So you’re not – I suspect you won’t be, but how will you know so that you are not one of those persons in that first category where people say, “Itzhak should have put the thing down 10 years ago.”

Perlman: Yeah, exactly. Well, first of all, when you play, you’re the first one to feel how effortless or the other way it is. In other words, is it effortless or is it getting more difficult? But then the most important thing is to have somebody that is actually truthful with you to tell you what’s going on.

And that’s one of the great challenges in music, especially in instrumental playing, you know, not in singing because, you know, singers have coaches.

Also, if you listen to a recording, I mean, how truthful are you with what you’re listening to? Would you say, oh, this is wonderful or are you saying, you know, this is just – it’s time to quit.

So for me, that’s a challenge, you know. I would hope that when the time comes with me, you know, that I would recognize it and I would say thank you so much, I’m finished.

Tavis: See, I’m laughing on the inside because you’re right. It’s good to have somebody you can trust to tell you that truth. But when you’re Itzhak Perlman, who dares to tell you…

Perlman: My wife.

Tavis: Okay [laugh].

Perlman: My wife, Toby, will never, never, ever – when something is not so, she tells me. And the thing is that she knows that I can take it. As a matter of fact, I ask her, you know. After a concert, I look at her face and I know if I played well or if it was okay.

The thing is that what you try to do when you play is you try to play not below a certain level. In other words, it can be a special day where it would be phenomenal, but if it’s not below a certain level, that’s the goal. You know, that’s what you want to do. That’s why you practice and so on.

Tavis: In each of our lives, I suspect it is the case that – I know it is the case whether we acknowledge it, admit it or not, we all want to be loved, respected, acknowledge, affirmed, paid attention to every now and again for something that we attempt to do, and I think that’s human.

I, in introducing you, listed a lot of your accolades, honors, awards you’ve received over the years. Are there things that have truly meant something to you that speak to what you’ve been able to accomplish?

I’m asking you to set your humility aside for just a second because, I mean, it’s one thing for me to say this, that and the other. I could talk about playing at presidential inaugurations and all…

Perlman: Yeah, well, that was great.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it was.

Perlman: That was amazing.

Tavis: Yeah, but what does Itzhak Perlman say about those honors and accolades and what really has meant the most to you?

Perlman: Well, look, honors are really wonderful, you know. Honors are actually people are, you know, looking at you and saying, you know, you’ve really accomplished something and so on and so forth. But that’s one thing.

The other thing is you’ve got to be able to just say to yourself, I am really out there doing the best that I can and I’m doing it well. You know, if I don’t feel that I’m doing it well, all the honors don’t mean anything. Oh, you’re wonderful. Then why do I feel that I’m not operating at my top level and so on?

So for me, honors is very, very nice, but I still feel that the challenge of anybody my age, you know – I can’t believe I’m saying “my age” – is not to be bored by what I do. You see, that’s the thing, you know.

Because after a while, how many times have I played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or the Beethoven Violin Concerto? And yet I just played it yesterday, you know, and I found new things in it and I said that’s great. That’s absolutely great, you know, because otherwise you play – I always say the same thing and I tell it to my students.

Don’t play the way it goes. Play the way it is, you know. And the way it is every time you play it, it’s slightly different. Look for something. So that’s the challenge not to be bored.

Tavis: Speaking of your students, I wrote this down. I want to get this right. I want to read a quote that you said ’cause I think I get it, but I want you to sort of unpack it for me. Before I do that, though, your comment about the honors are nice, but what really matters is what you think of your work.

I thought about a quote from Frank Sinatra who once said something like, “Never let anybody tell you that something is – he was talking about his recording studio experiences. He said, “Never let anybody tell you something is good when you know it can be better.”

Perlman: Okay. That is good.

Tavis: The producer says, “That was really good, Frank.” Frank’s like, “Let do that again. I can do that better.”

Perlman: Well, it’s nice to hear that you think it’s good, but you have to not forget that you can do it better. That’s absolutely true, absolutely true.

Tavis: So this quote I wrote down that I wanted to get you to unpack for me, speaking of your students, this is a quote from you. “You can play the music. Now you have to speak the music.” “You can play the music. Now you have to speak the music.” Unpack that for me.

Perlman: Well, playing involves mechanical things, you know, what sounds good. Especially violinists, you know, it’s a pain in the neck to play the violin. So many things can go wrong, you know. Intonation, for example.

If you put your hand on the piano, you play a note. It’s in tune. But if you put it on the violin, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. You have to figure it out. So there’s a lot of stuff. The bow, where do you put the bow? You put it a certain way, it sounds better than a certain other way. So there are a lot of mechanical things.

After a certain point when somebody knows a piece, I say to them, okay, it’s finished now. You’re trying to play the violin is now finished. You know how to do it. Now you have to really listen to the music and to express what it is.

And what I do, for me, I think it works very well, you know. I take a book. I open any book, you know, whether it’s a magazine or anything like this and I open to a paragraph. And let’s say the paragraph says “an amazing thing happened to Joe two mornings ago.” So I said, “How would you read that?”

And they say an amazing thing happened to Joe two mornings ago. I said, “You wouldn’t read it that way. You would say “an amazing thing happened to Joe two mornings ago.” The word amazing, you’re not just going to say amazing. You’re going to say amazing!

So now how do you compare it to what you’re playing music? You have harmonies. So if the harmony is amazing, you’ve got to play it amazing. You know, otherwise you cannot just say, oh, that’s very nice and just play it through.

So that’s what I was saying about you’ve got to talk it. You have to listen to what you are hearing and you said this is something very, very special that doesn’t just sound major-minor. It gives you a question mark. You got to do it, you know.

It’s like another example like going to a museum and seeing nice paintings and then you see the Mona Lisa and you just go by. You can’t just go by. You look and say, oh, my God, this is something.

Same thing with harmonies. If you hear something that harmonically is interesting, express it. So that’s what I’m saying about talking the music rather than just playing through.

Tavis: So is that the process that you use when you’re working, say, with John Williams on “Schindler’s List?” Do you need to see the words on the page, the screenplay? Do you need to see the film? What’s your process?

Perlman: I just need to hear.

Tavis: You need to hear.

Perlman: I just need to hear.

Tavis: Hear what?

Perlman: Harmonies.

Tavis: Yeah.

Perlman: Harmonies. And how do I – so another thing that you really do when you play, that you’re supposed to do, is colors. You know, you cannot play with one color. If you play with one color, again, it’s like watching a beautiful painting, a drawing, but it’s all in blue or it’s all in red. May be very nice, but not very interesting.

So you look for colors. So how do you get the colors? You get the colors by reacting to the harmonies. I know, maybe somebody who is not into music would not understand that, but I think I’m pretty clear. You know, you’ve got to react at harmonies. It’s like reacting to a vocabulary in a book.

So you cannot just go and just say, you know, blah-blah-blah-blah. You got to see a word, a special word, you know, like a word like says heroic. You’re not just going to say “this was heroic.” You’re not going to say that. You’re going to say “this was heroic!” Now what I’m saying is very subtle, but it’s still expressive.

Tavis: Since I’ve mentioned your work with Steven Spielberg and I mentioned “Schindler’s List,” this latest project of yours I mentioned earlier is called “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul.” I don’t want to color this question too much, but speak to me about your appreciation, the value that your culture holds for you.

Perlman: Well, this recording is basically – I would also call it from my childhood, you know, growing up in Israel, you know, on the radio on Saturdays, you used to have an hour of cantorial music. So a lot of this stuff that is on this recording is stuff that I heard when I was seven, eight years old, nine years old. That’s one thing.

The other thing is this is another thing about being reactive to a great voice. So this cantor, I heard him sing and I just said, oh, this is something. So the voice plus the material of my childhood, and I said I got to be involved in that, especially since this is something I grew up with. And it’s like a part of what you hear.

You know, it’s not like I have to study how stuff goes, you know. It’s right in the back of your brain and it’s like the same thing, you know, there’s some Klesmer in there as well. So, again, it’s something from my childhood that came naturally to me and there’s just, look, I’ve got to record this.

Tavis: Speaking of childhood in the course of this conversation – which I hate it’s just about up. I could do this for hours with you. You referenced, by my count, three or four times the teaching that you do with these young people. Why has that been so important for you, the teaching?

Perlman: Well, it’s like I always say. When you teach others, you teach yourself. It’s very, very simple. I’ve been teaching many, many years and this particular – you know, we have this program called the Perlman Music Program that my wife started. This summer, it’ll be 20 years. And I’ve been teaching at the Juilliard School as well.

Nothing is better for my playing than teaching because when you teach, you have to think and you have to listen what other people do. And then all of a sudden, you play yourself and then you say, my goodness, I don’t need a teacher. I’m my own teacher. Then I can react to what I’m doing immediately. It really improves.

You know, I do three things, you know. I do teaching, I do conducting and I do playing. And each one of those sort of helps the other.

Tavis: You’ve expressed what the teaching does for you as an artist. What does the conducting do for you as an artist?

Perlman: Conducting is a form of teaching or maybe you don’t have to use the word teaching. You could use coaching. But, again, it involves listening. It involves musical listening to a phrase, listening to the way people play and so on. That all is connected. So one thing is connected to the other. So for me, it’s just basically doing one thing in three different ways.

Tavis: I think, if there were a moral to this story or a takeaway from this conversation, it’s this notion of generous listening.

Perlman: Generous listening and the thing is, as I get older, it gets better. That’s the thing, you know. We always say about, you know, what are you going to lose when you get older? Well, let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about what you gain. All of a sudden, I find I can hear better which is nice, you know.

And it’s very funny because it would be nice to hear better and also to play better at the same time. But the playing better, you know. That’s more of a challenge, but I think I’m doing okay.

Tavis: Yeah, I think so [laugh]. I think that’s an understatement. You are doing and have done better than just okay. His name, of course, Itzhak Perlman. The latest project from him is called “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul.”

That’s not even why he’s here, to promote the project. I just been asking forever to get him here and we just couldn’t get this date thing worked out and his being in L.A. and finally it has happened.

Perlman: I’ll be here tomorrow if you want…

Tavis: Well, come on back, come on back [laugh].

Perlman: No problem [laugh].

Tavis: I could do another show with all the stuff you’ve accomplished. I’ve just scratched the surface tonight. But it is a great joy and a delight to have you on this program.

Perlman: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Tavis: Thank you so much. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

COMMENTS

  1. Juan Fröhlich
    January 24, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    This gifted human being is an example of courage towards life and culture for the mankind! In theese harsh times of hate, it seems that art is the only way to pacify people taken appart by tradition differences. Only ART will let you climb up your scale of values . . .

  2. michael moores
    January 25, 2014 at 12:05 am

    I watch him direct the St Louis symphony and choir do the hallelujah chorus and it was THE best I have ever heard ….I was in tears..

  3. Carole Gill
    January 26, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Mr Perlman, you made a comment on Tavis Smiley’s show that was transformative to me. There was discussion about what makes people special, or talented. Your response that when you listen to music (I think the example was Brahms) and you feel such sensitivity that the tears come, I am convinced we can all be special, even if not specifically talented in an area. Thank you so much for this insight.

  4. Ella
    January 28, 2014 at 9:24 am

    I Mr Perlman directing the St Louis symphony and his solo performances at Strathmore. He is a genius. I like what he said about the importance of listening and importance to train that skill for musicians. It is funny but I recently bumped to a post from a young musician who wrote also about listening and how it is important for young musicians (http://www.artemvovkguitar.com/blog/2014/1/27/how-long-will-it-take)

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Last modified: January 27, 2014 at 1:48 pm