The Hebrew sign on the door of the Tel Aviv apartment reads "Prakhia family." One wonders whether this could, in fact, be the apartment of the pianist Murray Perahia, one of the greatest musicians in the world today. "Yes, that's my original name," he says smiling. "Moshe Perahia, in fact, Moishe."
Perahia is of Sephardi origin; his family came from the Greek city of Thessaloniki (Salonica) and his father moved to the United States in 1935, thus saving the family from the Holocaust. "A large part of my family remained in Thessaloniki and perished," he relates.
The apartment he has bought in Tel Aviv bears witness to Perahia's burgeoning ties with Israel, a connection reflected in the circumstances in which the conversation takes place. Perahia is in Israel because he is being appointed president of the Jerusalem Music Center, which was set up by its first president, the violinist Isaac Stern, and has become an important forum for the development of young musicians.
"All the heroes of my musical firmament played and taught there - Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern to mention just a few," says Perahia. "My job will be to continue in their footsteps, to keep this activity flourishing, and also to help bring it to the attention of the world - and lastly to help raise the sponsorship necessary to maintain it."
The career of Perahia, who was born in 1947, started taking off immediately after he completed his musical studies in New York. He became a much sought-after pianist in various parts of the world, appearing in recitals and then as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1972, at the age of 25, he won first prize in the prestigious Leeds piano competition. Since then he has lived in England.
Perahia's style is lyrical and gentle, and therefore he is attracted to the music of Mozart and the Romantic repertoire of the early 19th century - Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. He prefers the beauty of the notes and a delicacy of expression to ostentatious piano virtuosity, and is attracted to chamber music and the accompaniment of singers - that is why, for example, the recordings of his piano duets with Romanian pianist Radu Lupo and the lieder of Schubert by accompanying baritone Dietrich Fischer-Diskau are considered benchmarks in classical music.
At the same time, Bach is his great passion. He says that all the great composers knew Bach well even in the period when he appeared to have been forgotten by history. "There simply is no music without him," he says.
Unlike many other pianists, Perahia is known for his intellectual approach to music, his broad education and his deep knowledge of musical theory. One of his teachers was Karl Schachter, the greatest living theorist, with whom he has come to Israel to inaugurate the new Edward Aldwell Center, at the conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, a center that will serve as an international cathedral for teaching and master classes.
Perahia considers in-depth study of music to be one of the main keys to its inculcation among pupils and the general public. "Many people think that if you sit in a room and practice eight hours a day and just keep at it, that somehow you will become an artist: Work diligently, add expression every so often, make a nice tone, put in some feeling and that should be that... In classical music the difficulties are much greater. Yes, there are the technical difficulties, but the teachers help with that. But the spiritual difficulties are the difficult ones. I'm always amazed at how free the great composers are, how they soar, fly boundless, how frank, personal and deep they are. It is a challenge to follow them there - a challenge, but also a great joy."
How does this knowledge affect playing? Is the audience able to distinguish it?
Perahia say he is sure the knowledge is transmitted to the audience. Because of it, the listener will hear a story, he says, and that is what gives the music authenticity. As for the influence on playing - if Beethoven is taken as an example, and if they understand how he imagines in his composition 15 minutes in advance sometimes, and how innovative and dramatic he is, they play completely differently, he explains.
Perahia's agreement to serve as president of the music center, at the request of Hed Sela who has directed the center for the past three years, testifies to the great importance he attaches to musical education. The center, which is supported by Yad Hanadiv and the Jerusalem Foundation, has groomed thousands of musicians during its years of activity and is known for the emphasis it places on talent and excellence. The summer courses for gifted musicians, meetings with the great musicians of the world, recordings, chamber music programs, and now the extension of the program to elementary schools in peripheral areas and the investment in beginners who do not necessarily have great professional potential - all are dealt with by this important institution, and its aims are in keeping with the world view of its new president.
Perahia points out that musical education all over the world is not in a good situation today. That is true too of England, he says, where the standard of musical education has dropped and even Shakespeare is studied far less. The only place where musical education is flourishing now, he says, is the Far East and people will be amazed to see what new talents will come out of China.
He recalls that when he was a music student in New York, 60 percent of the students were Jewish. "Now almost all the music students are from the Far East."
Perahia's desire to instill music in everyone stems from his deep love for this art form. He believes that classical music is the incarnation of democracy. "Music represents an ideal world," he says, " a world where all dissonances resolve, where all modulations - that are journeys - return home, and where surprise and stability coexist. If all this could be taught, the love of music would continually expand."