A Song for the Conductor

Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben-Zeev

Itzhak Perlman is returning to Tel Aviv, and, as always, his return is intriguing and makes one want to hear him, no matter how many times he has performed here. International soloists and conductors return nearly every year to perform with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, without bringing much new to the concertgoers. But Perlman is a different story: This is a love story with the audience. Ah, the audience! They include veteran IPO subscribers (starting Wednesday, March 17), thirtysomething listeners of the nighttime "Concert in Jeans" series with the orchestra (Thursday 22:00, including beer in the lobby) and morning listeners at "Intermezzo," moderated by Emmanuel Halperin (Friday, 11:00). Next week, small children will hear him as the narrator of "Peter and the Wolf."

The IPO knows that Perlman's magic never fades and his personality speaks to everyone, so it's offering Perlman to everyone. Like every year, the tickets are selling out fast.

Perlman, with utter modesty, assumes he's loved because he's Israeli. Tell him other Israelis appearing with the Philharmonic see a different attitude, and he suggests, "Apparently, I smile a lot."

Perlman this week, as in other performances with the orchestra in recent years, will not be wielding his Stradivarius but his baton. He will be conducting Beethoven's Trio Concerto and Pastoral Symphony and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. There have been rumors as to why he has not been playing his violin here. It has even been said he has abandoned the instrument. That is not the case. About 10 days ago, in fact, he gave a violin recital in Boston, a program of Mozart and Franck, with pianist Rohan De Siva.

Why are we not hearing him play the violin in Israel?

"The Philharmonic is my family and, as in every family, the relationship is dynamic," replies Perlman. "It used to be a violin relationship, now it's a conducting relationship." In the Beethoven concerto the pianist will be his daughter Navah, one of his five children, all of whom have clearly Hebrew names.

"Our meetings onstage are rare, because she's busy. She has four children, and this means I already have eight grandchildren."

When he talks about the Rachmaninov symphony, he is overtaken by romantic excitement: "This is real music for films, it's [the] best style," he says, "and I especially wanted to play it more times here, but they said Beethoven is preferable."

Perlman was born in August 1945 in Tel Aviv. As a child he won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied with legendary violin teachers Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay. He had contracted polio age 4 in an epidemic that hit here at the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s, until it was wiped out by immunization. The illness made it necessary for him to use crutches to walk and to play sitting down, but did not prevent him from becoming the greatest violinist of his generation.

It would be impossible to list all the famous artists with whom he has performed, the prizes he has been awarded and the important events at which he has a appeared, such as the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

To understand how Perlman came to conducting it is necessary to go back 15 years to when his violinist wife Toby (they met studying at Juilliard) realized her dream of establishing an incubator for nurturing outstanding young performers. With a tiny budget, in small premises and mainly at their home in New York the two established the Perlman Music Program - PMP - in which talented violin students study every summer. The prestigious educational project based on Long Island lasts eight and half weeks and has an annual budget of $4 million. Toby hires the best teachers in the field and herself teaches dozens of promising string instrumentalists from around the world.

"My wife asked me to practice with the children," says Perlman of making his way into conducting "and what she meant was that I would instruct the orchestra we established. I started conducting with a Handel concerto and the sound that came from them was beautiful, so I though to myself: 'If I'm getting such a beautiful sound from these children, I'd probably also get one from professional instrumentalists." And how was it the first time? How did you have the courage to present yourself as a conductor to a professional orchestra?

"This, too, happened in the family, with the Israel Philharmonic," Perlman laughs. "I decided if I was going to fall flat on my face, at least it would be in intimate circumstances."

Perlman did not fall on his face. His new career flourished. "I informed orchestras that henceforth I would conduct, and they all accepted this. But as I always tell my students, the most importance performance in a career is the second one. If they invite you again, it's a sign it wasn't bad."

Since then, he has been conducting important orchestras around the world (more than once). His conducting (like his playing) is full of expressiveness and feeling.

"There's a mystery in conducting," he says. "Four conductors will stand in front of an orchestra, lower the baton one after the other - and each time a different sound will be heard. I'm even afraid to ask why this happens."

But four violinists will also produce different sounds from the same violin.

"True, but there isn't the same control of an orchestra that an instrumentalist has over his instrument. And the instrumentalists pick up everything. If you 'take a vacation' and let the automatic pilot work for a few minutes, just waving your hands around, so the music somehow continues, they too 'take a vacation' with you. The orchestra knows exactly when the conductor loses concentration, when he loses heart."

The transition to conducting helped Perlman to extricate himself from a great danger, that of routine: "The most dangerous thing for me is boredom," he says, "and how does boredom take over? When you do the same thing for too long. That kills spontaneity. And now I'm doing three things - conducting, teaching and performing. And these are things that spring from one another and influence one another."

Asked about the nature of these interrelationships, Perlman answers with a single word: attention. "When a student is playing, and especially if he is playing well, what will you say to him? Here and here, it was off? Or great, wonderful, carry on like that?

"This is immediately clear and isn't the essential thing. To know what do say you have to pay close attention to all the nuances. As a conductor, it's the same. What more can be said to an orchestra in a rehearsal of a work, for example the Pastoral, about which they have already been told everything possible? How can I bring them to play what I hear in my imagination, how can I make the concert a special performance that isn't just mine? Or what do I say - even to myself - when I'm performing a concerto for the 200th time? What is the difference between this time and the way I played it 20 years ago, and how can I make this spontaneous and go off the automatic pilot?

"The phrases in playing music are like speech, and the work is like an actor's monologue in the theater, and he, too, needs to say it, night after night, and hold those same dialogues with the other actors, again and again. If you pay close attention, it works."

And do you yourself succeed?

"I hope so. At least my playing is interesting to me, and that's the first condition - that I am interested in what I'm doing, because if I'm bored, it's clear everyone will be bored with me."

Perlman's project convenes every summer but, he explains, not just in the vacation season. "In winter we move the program to Florida and hold it there, and in May we will come to Israel for the first time for a program in which half the participants are Israeli, together with the Jerusalem Music Center and a lot of institutions and foundations that are supporting it.

"And at our home in New York we have evening concerts. Toby sends e-mails to people and invites them to come play something new, which they don't know and haven't performed, and this leads to tension and nerves and then the most interesting things happen: If it's new and scary, it's good."

Perlman also holds chamber concerts, inter alia, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, together with graduates of the program. There are also lectures and films of performances by instrumentalists from the past: "I find that young people lack the historical dimension. They are au courant with everything that's happening today but our style of playing is evolutionary. It stems from the past and it's necessary to be familiar with it," says Perlman.

However, the main thing is chamber music, in the course and in life. "Really good musicianship is achieved only in chamber playing," says Perlman. "Paying close attention to one another, breathing together: This influences everything. The soloist in a concerto will also listen differently to the orchestra and will respond differently to the conductor if he is a chamber instrumentalist. And the instrumentalists in an orchestra, even if many of them are playing exactly the same notes, will play with their ears and their heart, together, and not each by himself."