Itzhak Perlman discusses teaching, Mendelssohn, color, chamber music, warhorses, interpretation, solo Bach, and his hair.
By Ben Finane
Itzhak Perlman completed his early violin studies in Tel Aviv then came to New York City, where he was propelled to national recognition with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 at the age of thirteen. Following study at the Juilliard School, he won the Leventritt Competition in 1964, which led to a worldwide career. Perlman contracted polio at the age of four, which left his legs permanently paralyzed. Perlman dismisses any nods to his perseverance in the face of his condition as ‘baloney.’ In 1998, he and his wife, Toby, cofounded The Perlman Music Program, which offers musical training to young string players. To coincide with his seventieth birthday milestone, Universal Classics has released a twenty-five-disc Perlman box set. Not to be outdone, Warner Classics released all eighty of the violinist’s EMI recordings in a box set, which coincides with a new recital album featuring Perlman performing the Fauré and Strauss sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon) with pianist Emanuel Ax, followed by an eight-city Perlman/Ax tour.
My mother taught high school English. She used to say it’s not that ‘teaching is everything,’ but rather that ‘everything is teaching.’
I began teaching thirty years ago and have been teaching at Juilliard for maybe fifteen years now. I was still teaching with Ms. [Dorothy] Delay the last two years of her life. I always tell my kids and my students that they should never miss an opportunity to teach because it helps their own ability to play, and the same is true with me.
I have heard you speak in the past about this evolution in pedagogy, this idea of learning how to teach yourself — and it certainly seems like that was Ms. Delay’s tact.
Yes, my teacher in Israel was a strictly old-fashioned — or fascist — teacher who always told me what to do and was Russian Russian: ‘You’d better practice!’
That’s what my Russian piano teacher used to say: ‘Bleck keys! Vhite keys!’
Yes, that’s right! ‘Do it! Do it!’ When I first came to the States, I actually studied with Ms. Delay and then a few months later I studied with [Ivan] Galamian, who was more like my first teacher: ‘Do what I tell you, and you’ll play.’ With Ms. Delay, I was always more insecure, because her style was different than what I was used to. She was — as you’ve said — ‘What do you think of this,’ and ‘What do you think of that?’ and ‘What’s your concept of A-sharp?’ That’s another way of saying the A-sharp is out of tune. I said, ‘Just tell me what to do and I will do it.’ I didn’t like that approach, and that’s now the way that I teach. It’s very funny.
It’s a positive approach, ultimately.
Totally. It is a positive approach and I felt that it really helps the student accomplish something that they thought about themselves — and it gives the student the credit! One of the things that I am always reluctant to do, unless I really have to, is to show, to demonstrate. I don’t like to demonstrate.
I see, because then it’s an imitation game.
Exactly, and these kids are so talented; they have great ears and they listen. One time, I demonstrated and asked, ‘What did you do differently?’ and the kid said, ‘I don’t know, I just heard the way you played it.’ ‘So now the next time will it work?’ I ask. ‘I don’t know,’ says the kid. And that’s why I find if I can verbalize, and have them verbalize what they can do for the phrase to sound a certain way, then it becomes their own.
And after the teaching stops, they have to continue to teach themselves. You have to teach the man to fish, right?
Yes, and when instrumentalists finish school, they no longer have coaches such as singers have. ‘Are you doing something wrong?’ the coaches say. ‘Are you doing something right?’ We don’t have that.
Do you think instrumentalists should have coaches?
I think there should be somehow a way — I think it would be fantastic to travel the world with a coach, but there is not this tradition. Maybe one thing to do, once you finish playing would be every now and then to play for someone else and ask, ‘How am I doing?’
Ed Koch style.
Am I getting into bad habits or not? Maybe I do well. So it’s important, when you teach others, that they understand that you basically become your own coach — and that is what you want.
Not really, I never really left. [Laughs.] If I never left, there is no place to return. It’s there. My only example — and that’s a long, long time ago — but I left the Mendelssohn Concerto.
Had you over-Mendelssohned?
I don’t know if I over-Mendelssohned, but it was just too difficult for me as a kid, so I left it — and then I returned and never left again. That was great: To leave Mendelssohn and then return. That was the only concerto that I really kind of left alone and felt I wanted to relax, that I needed a vacation from that piece.
What was it about the Mendelssohn Concerto that was... getting you?
Getting me in a negative way?
It was difficult. For me, any Classical concerto is difficult. Mozart: difficult. Mendelssohn: difficult. Beethoven is difficult. Why is it difficult? It is difficult because everything has to have a particular balance when it comes to your sound, when it comes to phrasing — and the balance has to be just right. And if it’s not just right, it sounds okay, but only okay. It’s got to sound, like, after you hear a phrase you say ‘Yes! That is satisfying for me.’ And this is very difficult in the Classical style.
Violin especially, as far as coloration.
Exactly. With the violin or any string instrument, you make the color. You affect everything. As a result, it is really so difficult to do it just right. Of course with the phrasing and the timing and the rhythm and the pacing: that is all very transparent. So the Mendelssohn Concerto for me is a perfect piece, as a concerto, and therefore more of a challenge. What do you do with a perfect piece? You have to give it justice in a way that works. The beginning of the piece, my God! How much more transparent can it be?
There is nowhere to hide.
There is nowhere to hide and it comes at the very beginning; it doesn’t give you a chance to warm up at all! [Laughs.]
Let’s stay with color. If I think about great living violinists I feel on one end there is Gidon Kremer with an unadorned, raw sound, and then I put Itzhak Perlman on the other of that continuum with an adorned, polished sound. Is that fair?
Look, everybody has a different way of describing what they hear. I was watching a documentary on Heifetz, and I don’t remember the piece, but there was a phrase of music with a flute that lasted for about ten seconds and within those ten seconds there were, like, eight colors that I detected. [Perlman has synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes certain stimuli to trigger multiple senses — here, he sees colors when he hears pitches. —Ed.] I don’t know if someone else would say the same thing. I detected colors, which was an amazing thing. In the long run, it really is what does the player do to the listener.
You are not so concerned about these sort of reductive —
Well look, description is description. Does the player move you?
And however he or she gets there, that is their business.
Exactly. Do they move you? Do they make you go into a different place when you hear them play? I always tell my students that one of the things that the listener is not interested in is what you do. In other words, you have to be like a magician. You do this with a bow, less vibrato, more vibrato, phrasing — I don’t want to know what you’re doing. All I want is to be convinced that this sounds really good. Now as a teacher I can analyze it — what made it sound like this, and so on. You can do the same thing with Heifitz: the way he used the bow, the variation of the pressure, and so on and so forth. You actually don’t want the listener to hear that. For me, the analysis of food is the same. If I enjoy something, I don’t want to know, unless I am a professional chef, what goes in it. I want to say, ‘What great flavor! This is incredible!’ You never say, when you eat something, ‘This is beautifully salted.’ You always say it is too salty or not salty enough. You always say the negative, but when it is the positive you don’t talk about it. And it is the same with music. The challenge occurs when you have a very fine player, but why is nothing happening? It leaves me cold. Why? That stuff I think is more difficult to teach.
The X factor?
Sometimes, when I listen to the kids in the Perlman music program — they’ll send in DVDs — you hear only three or four notes, and you can tell that this guy or this girl is interesting. There is a sparkle, there is something that you can touch. Or sometimes you hear somebody, perfection, and it’s like: ‘So? Next!’ [Laughs.] It’s one of those things and I suppose it’s what makes art, art.
I value so much of your music that comes from a chamber setting, that comes from playing with others. You have had so many celebrated collaborations, but for me, one of the most special was with [Vladimir] Ashkenazy playing Beethoven sonatas and Brahms sonatas. Can you tell me about your connection with him?
Well, I admired him. He is a great pianist, one of the great pianists of our time. We saw each other at a concert and we decided to get together one evening and play some sonatas just for fun, basically to audition ourselves. That is always something that you need as a musician, to be able to play with others. As a kid, I would always regularly play chamber music with a fellow group of students at Juilliard and we would get together almost every week.
It’s more social, isn’t it?
It’s not so much social as a question of being more active musically on other levels — not just listening to yourself, but being part of the whole. The first time that I played a quartet was relatively late; I was almost fourteen. I remember I played a Haydn Quartet, the ‘Lark.’ I can’t even describe the excitement of ‘Oh my God, I’m a part of something — it’s not just me.’ I play an important part of the music but there are three other people who are also part of the music. It was an amazing thing and it becomes a habit, an obsession: you’ve got to have it — at least in my case I had to have it.
Through the years. Itzhak Perlman with (from left): Ed Sullivan, 1958; Jay Leno, 1993; Kennedy Center honorees James Brown, Loretta Lynn, Carol Burnett and Mike Nichols, 2003
There is a populist side to your music making. A lot of people who don’t know anything about classical music are still going to know you from Schindler’s List and other film music. But there is a terrific album you did of the Berg and Stravinsky violin concertos, not exactly Johnny Tonal–type stuff, and the late Earl Kim wrote a piece for you. Did you retreat a bit from that thornier music as you went forward?
When you talk about Stravinsky and Berg, for me, that’s classical music. It’s out there, if you have never heard it before, especially the Berg, one of the greatest twentieth-century pieces. I enjoy doing that, but with every piece — and sometimes this is a difficult problem — we are asked to judge pieces from the first hearing. And you can’t do that, because it’s not like a rock song or a popular song, where you have the rhythm the first time and by the second time you really know the piece. But the pieces that I played that were fairly new I enjoyed very much, but again there is not enough opportunity for whatever reasons — economical, where orchestras would rather hear you play a standard piece rather than a new piece, and so on. You do it once a and then it’s rare that you do it again, or sometimes you do it a couple of times and then its back to bingo: Tchaikovsky or Brahms and so on and so forth. Now I’m a little old for new tricks, so I’m leaving the new pieces to the younger more adventurous people. I’m sure there is good stuff being written.
Now what’s great about these ‘warhorses’ is that you are able to return to them — even though you have played them hundreds, maybe a thousand times —
— but there is always a new angle in, isn’t there?
There should be.
Tell me why should there be, because that is an important distinction.
The repetition of a piece, especially a piece that’s great, if you really listen to the piece then you can have the nuances. The danger is to play the piece and automatically play it in a certain way that you played it yesterday, or a month ago, or a year ago, or ten years ago. And if you fall into that trap, where you say, ‘That’s the way it goes,’ then that is one of the dangers! If you are able to divorce yourself from ‘the way it goes’ and almost shut your ears to your interpretation of the piece yesterday and try — and this, I’m telling you, is such a challenge — try to imagine that you have never heard the piece before. Say to yourself, ‘Listen to the harmonic progression here’ or ‘Listen to the phrasing here.’ It’s not like one day you are going to do it black and the next you are going to do it white, it is not like that. It is shades. When someone asks ‘How do you play the piece today versus twenty years ago?’ I’m not able to give you a general statement but if I were to listen to the performance carefully, I could say ‘You hear that phrase? I wouldn’t do it like that today.’ The timing would be different, and so on. So when you play something, especially when it’s a great work, it’s easy, easier anyways. It is easier if you are playing the Beethoven Concerto, to evolve with it because the work is so great — or Mendelssohn.
If I’m playing Beethoven, are the musical priorities the same for when I’m playing, say, Bach?
Not necessarily, it all depends. When I play Bach unaccompanied, it has to be really well played — first of all. But the important thing is for me is the kind of sound that you get, especially when you play more than one note at a time and the thing about the Bach Partitas and Sonatas is many of the movements are so unviolinistic — and so difficult. So you try and take the violin away from the music.
What does that mean?
Well what you don’t want for people to say, ‘Hey, this is written for the violin and yet it’s really very awkward.’ Breaking of the chords and all of that stuff — you used to have the Bach bow, which may have been a little bit smoother, and so on. And then of course you want to phrase it, but it’s a different kind of phrasing.
You can’t do it all so you have to pick and choose.
If you are doing something with Mozart, then linear phrasing is much more important. With Bach, I find that yes, you want linear phrasing but you want it within the chordal material, and the chordal material can sound very awkward because of the difficulty — even if you play it well. But with Bach I’m just married to the kind of sound to be produced, almost organ-like on the violin.
The notes are all kind of meshed together smoothly, and with a violin it’s difficult.
Yeah, those triple stops —
— are no joke.
Oof. So then you have to give the leading tones, the leading voices importance and still play the lower voices in such a way it does not sound like a hiccup.
It’s Impressionism, isn’t it?
Exactly, it’s what you want the listener to hear. But the thing about Bach which is a little bit frustrating, is that when you play a Bach Partita or Sonata you will have ten people listening to it and each will say ‘That’s wrong’ because of the whole business of the early-instrument style of playing and so on, don’t vibrate in Bach and so on.
Landowska saying ‘You play Bach your way, I’ll play it the right way.’
I don’t think there is a right way and a wrong way, I really don’t, unless it is so obviously horrible, then it’s wrong. [Laughs.] But there is my way and there is your way, and sometimes that I find that... so long as it works. It has to work.
Is that the goal? Finding something that works?
The other day I heard a former student play a little Bach, and she did it with slightly non-vibrato, and I don’t like that.
You are a vibrato guy, it must be said.
She convinced me, because it was so beautiful.
That’s the word. You’ve hit on it. If you make a convincing argument, than who is to say who’s right and wrong if it’s a convincing interpretation?
Maybe I wouldn’t do it like that but I was totally enthralled.
And that is the criterion for successful music: a
Yeah, if it sounds like people are going [makes belching noises] because people used to play it like that then I’m not interested in that. It is not a music history lesson you want to hear. If it works, I will be the first to say ‘I disagree with the way that this was played, but I find it convincing.’
At the height of your powers, who had better hair, you or James Levine?
Hmmm. Different. [Laughs.] It’s not a question of our hair, it is a question of the barber.
See, I didn’t take that into account.
And you haven’t been in to Seville in a long, long time.
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