Itzhak Perlman: Lessons from a maestro

Itzhak Perlman overcame polio to become one of the world's greatest violinists. Now 62, the Israeli-American virtuoso is determined to pass on his gifts, he tells Sue Fox
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The Independent Culture

It has been more than 30 years since Itzhak Perlman and the celebrated film-maker Christopher Nupen collaborated on Virtuoso Violinist (I Know I Played Every Note). The film is an intimate profile of the Israeli-American musician, at home with his family in New York and at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. As Nupen's narration explains, Perlman is the violinist who, against all the odds and predictions of the classical- music world, carved out for himself one of the most successful careers as a world-class soloist.

Now 62, Perlman, a father and grandfather, doesn't seem to have changed much since the film was made. He contracted polio when he was barely four years old – just months after he fell in love with his tiny violin. From the film, even a blind man could sense Perlman's commitment to music-making and teaching, his sense of humour and sheer love of life.

For the little boy in calipers, a life of music-making seemed one dream too many, but, talking to Perlman now and watching him, aged 30, in Nupen's film, his passion for music still leaps out at you. He describes the young musicians he teaches at the Juilliard School in New York, and also at Shelter Island, his summer home on Long Island, where, in 1995 he and Toby, his wife, started the Perlman Music Program. "We often have videotape applications from over 100 violinists to fill a space for just one fiddle player," he says. "They all play at an incredible level. But even with brilliant technique, it's not always obvious that the player has something to say. Beauty in itself isn't enough. You're always looking for the passion. When you hear it, that's the kid you want – the one who plays as though what he or she is doing with the instrument is inevitable."

Watch Itzhak Perlman performing Serenade Melancolique Op 26.

Although Perlman would be the last person to say it, the kid he's talking about is young Itzhak, the passionate child who played in a way that made everyone want to listen to what he had to say. The brilliant 12-year-old, who, unlike a lot of very talented players, never suffered from burn-out, and who, on reaching adolescence and then adulthood, just kept on getting better at what he did.

We are talking just before Perlman will go on stage to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic – "Brahms Four and the Mozart Haffner, plus I'm playing some Bach concertos". He seems like the happiest musician on the planet.

"I'm incredibly lucky to be doing something I enjoy that continues to challenge and fulfil me. I've been in this field for more than 40 years, but I don't feel jaded or bored. Conveying that to some of the kids is sometimes difficult. They want to know how they can play the Mendelssohn Concerto for the umpteenth time. I tell them they have to look for what the music says to them today – not what it said to them the last time they picked up the score. You have to feel the music speaking to you. Just because it worked yesterday doesn't mean that way of playing is right for today."

Perlman finds that the youngsters joining the program keep on getting better. "The level is definitely higher – but the distance between being a very good player and a great player doesn't happen very often. Greatness is a bit of a rare commodity."

Apart from music, Perlman's other great passion is cooking. "Making music is a bit like cooking. If you follow a recipe for a certain cake, it will, if the ingredients and the oven temperature are correct, turn out more or less the same each time you do it. So maybe one day you put in a few almonds or a squeeze of lemon, perhaps you do something else a bit different – imperceptible changes that can make a great cake into an amazing cake. In music, you don't always follow the same recipe. It depends how you feel in the moment – you might want to make a tiny right turn instead of a left. Surprising things can happen if you don't always pick the same direction."

Perlman has no definite opinions on his role as a conductor. "I don't know, except to say that you have to relay your ideas about what you want the piece to sound like. It also has the element of teaching, which is what I love. If you're working with a very fine orchestra, of course, you don't have to teach them anything about how to play their instruments. You're conveying how you feel about the music – what you want them to do with it.

"Somehow, you have to relate to them the sound you're looking for. It's about having control and making connections. You communicate from the podium. How you do that is difficult to explain. At best you're hoping for some kind of telepathy between you and the players."

He says that if you put three or four different conductors on the podium and ask them all to make one down beat, each conductor would produce a different sound from the orchestra. "Body language makes people react in various ways. But conducting is not about power. It has to be about mutual respect. A conductor can't be a passenger beating time. The musicians will instantly feel what you feel. You can't let go for a second.

"How do we conductors do it? Honestly, there's a lot of stuff I don't understand. Maybe I never will, but it's nice to have a bit of mystery about what you do."

Perlman believes that "a recording can only ever be a very good documentary of a performance. It's not like playing a live concert, which is irreplaceable because you don't know what's going to happen."

Not much has changed since he made the film with Nupen, he says: "I looked at it again recently. A lot of what I did then in my teaching – which was basically fun – I do right now. All that's changed is that I'm much older and the teaching I do with kids today is more intense."

Perlman feels that he is passing on an important legacy to his students: "I want them to learn how to listen. To be the best they can, and never to play on automatic pilot. Listening is something you do as a tribute to the music. That sounds simple, but it's actually very difficult because of our physical involvement with the instrument – that goes for all instruments, including singing. That physicality can often get in the way and distort the sound. If you think something sounds bad, it's not always true.

"I teach students to listen as close to 100 per cent as possible. If they reach the low nineties, believe me, they're in good shape."

'Virtuoso Violinist (I Know I Played Every Note)' is out now via Allegro Films (