Itzhak Perlman Teachers a Few Lucky Teens How to Pull Some Strings

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Itzhak Perlman.Credit: Getty Images

Last Thursday in the Tel Aviv Conservatory, Itzhak Perlman raised his conductor’s baton at an open rehearsal – the dress rehearsal preceding the festive concert on Saturday night. It wasn’t an ordinary orchestra: Its members, about 40 musicians, have worked hard in the past two weeks – in private lessons with a team of 13 teachers, most of whom flew here specially from the United States, in master classes, at rehearsals and chamber music concerts, and in choral singing. Nor do these dozens of musicians fit the usual profile of orchestra players: They are teenagers, who have gathered here from six countries.

This is the orchestra of the Perlman Music Program, which for the past 20 years has been nurturing a select group of young musicians, most of them players of string instruments, from all over the world. Over the weekend all the participants traveled to Dimona for an entire day of rehearsal and a concert, in which the orchestra was joined by Dimona children who play string instruments. The day included singing together with the choir of the Hebrew Israelite Community, the Dimona-based community of Israelis of African-American origin.

The children in the program probably see Itzhak Perlman as a good-hearted, friendly and extremely funny man, with a thunderous bass voice and an angelic violin sound. There is almost no need to introduce him to the adult world: He is at the summit of international classical music, a man who has won innumerable prizes, played in the White House and at the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama, he has conducted, recorded and played with all the great soloists and orchestras – including the Israel Philharmonic – at historic concerts such as the first one in Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain; and he also promotes popular music – in jazz, Hollywood films (the solo of “Schindler’s List”), and music education.

Perlman owes his conducting career to music education, and first and foremost to his wife Toby. She was the one who dreamed up the Perlman Music Program and started it as a personal dream in their New York home, and she is the one who asked him to instruct the children who gathered for the program and to organize them into a small orchestra. “During the first year I wasn’t involved at all,” he says. “Toby asked me to help, and that’s it. And I didn’t know how to conduct at the time. I didn’t even have a baton and I would use a pencil, as though to inform everyone, before you stands a teacher, not a conductor.”

In a conversation with the couple in Tel Aviv, Toby Perlman, as was the case 20 years ago, is the moving spirit behind the program. She is full of enthusiasm about the project she started, relations with the children, the teachers and the workers, the complex production of the project. She says that this is not a summer festival, and that the program continues all year round in Florida, Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia – and even in the couple’s home, at Sunday concerts.

Music and munching

“She sends emails,” he says, “and says ‘Let’s play something this evening,’ and they come to us, and they say maybe we’ll play Beethoven – but they immediately add, and what’s for supper?”

“It’s mainly ‘what’s for supper?’” she laughs. “One of the children in the program had an idea of focusing on opera. So he (she points at her husband) called the Met (the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York City) and told Jimmy (James Levine, the legendary musical director) that we needed 30 tickets. We met at our house and talked about opera, afterwards we went to dinner in Chinatown, and finally to the Metropolitan, where we got a tour behind the scenes and sat and listened as a group… It was unforgettable, and that’s just a small example, one of many.”

“What Toby started is not an ordinary educational program, it’s a family,” says Itzhak Perlman, and she laughs and points at her partner again. “No, no – it’s him. Only him. Who else with such an important international status could work endlessly and modestly with children, without television crews from all over the world to document him, without ego? What other person would be capable of that?”

The love between the two, who met when they were studying violin together at The Juilliard School decades ago, and who have five children and lots of grandchildren, is evident. “If you want I can give you a special interview about married life – you have to work hard on it for it to last,” she says.

“It’s fun to make music with young people,” says Perlman in answer to the question as to what motivates him. “For example, to read a work for the first time – for example a late and complicated Beethoven quartet – without preparation, an activity that deters many people. We all approach it, whoever wants to, and many more than four players: I play first violin, and sometimes another two or three join me, and sometimes five violins sit opposite me, two playing the same part and three violas and several cellists, and everyone plays.”

At Juilliard Perlman is considered one of the best teachers, and teaching is a significant part of his life: “No, no. Teaching at Juilliard is something entirely different,” he replies to a question about the similarity between his two pedagogical preoccupations. “There I sit for an hour with a student in a private lesson, and that’s it. It’s straight forward. Here too in the program there are private lessons with me – but there’s also a chamber studio where we talk about playing and about stage fright and all kinds of subjects that interest young musicians, and we play in an orchestra, and sing in a choir, and as I said – sometimes 20 musicians play one quartet, simply in order to experience the work. Without fear of not reaching the notes, without counting notes under pressure.”

Finding the funding for the project is a very complex task. “The program is very expensive. You have to transport and board and feed dozens of people, and there are endless expenses,” says Toby, “and some people ask, why invest so much money in only 40 children? The program budget is over $4 million annually, and every year we have to raise it – so only 40? But in the past 20 years the number of students has already added up to hundreds, and we concentrate on each one of them individually. That couldn’t happen in any other program.”

So how do you finance it?

“By constant fundraising, all the time, all year round,” she says, and Itzhak Perlman adds, “I’ve already changed my handshake: I’ve started shaking people’s hands like this – he stretches out his hand like a beggar asking for money. (This time, bulk of the funding needed to bring the program to Israel, including board, was raised by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai from donors).

“First of all you have to dream undisturbed,” says Toby, “and only afterwards can you start to think about how to make the dreams come true. And I have only one problem now,” she adds with a smile, but in total seriousness, “how to live long enough. I would so much like to be one of those who remains lucid until the age of 100! There’s still so much to do, so many ideas, so many dreams.”

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, left, at a rehearsal in Tel Aviv with his young international orchestra. Credit: Mia Kaplan

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