Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The gregarious, politically-engaged, master violinist Itzhak Perlman…
“I’ve got rather large hands, and everybody tells me… you should be a cellist, you should be a bass player, you should be a pianist—anything but a violinist!”
It must have seemed, for most of Itzhak Perlman’s early years, that fate had something else in store for him. It wasn’t just that his hands were big: more seriously, he was stricken with polio at the age of four, which left him unable to walk unaided. But by then, he had already discovered his calling, thanks to a radio broadcast of Jascha Heifetz. He was going to be a violinist, come what may.
Perlman was born in Tel Aviv on August 31, 1945, to parents who had moved to Israel—which was then Mandatory Palestine—from Poland in the 1930s. His break came at the age of 13, when he was invited on to The Ed Sullivan Show, the hugely popular American variety show perhaps best known today for the controversy it caused in 1956 (two years before Perlman’s appearance) after Elvis Presley’s hip-swinging debut.
The Perlman family stayed in New York, and the young prodigy started attending the Juilliard School, where his phenomenal talent was recognized. It wasn’t long before he was among the world’s leading violinists, and a fixture in concert halls everywhere as solo player, concerto soloist, and chamber musician—especially in all-star lineups like the one that performed in London’s newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1969. For that concert, Perlman was joined by Pinchas Zukerman on viola, Jacqueline du Pré on cello, Zubin Mehta on double bass and Daniel Barenboim on piano. Christopher Nupen’s joyous film commemorates this landmark concert, and hints at the larger-than-life personalities of the gregarious Perlman and his equally gifted colleagues:
Perlman has collaborated many times with Zuckerman—their “grand duo” was the subject of another Nupen documentary, in fact—and Mehta has also been a frequent partner, especially in the bassist’s guise as conductor. The two of them toured Russia together in 1991 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra—Perlman symbolically traveling on his Israeli passport, rather than his American one, as diplomatic relations between the countries had resumed.
His tour to Russia shows that Perlman is unafraid to stand up for political causes, and also to advocate for the disabled—he makes several trenchant criticisms of the facilities he encounters there. But it is for his astonishing musical abilities that he remains best known—as well as the light, vivacious touch with which he wears his talent. Barack Obama awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, praising both his playing and “the way he approaches everything in life.” At the presentation, Obama relayed a story about how Perlman was asked what sound he loved. “His eyes lit up and he replied, ‘The sound of onions sizzling in a pan.’”