After a half-century career, Itzhak Perlman’s challenge is to keep things fresh

By David Fleshler

Itzhak Perlman performs a recital January 7 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Touring virtuosos typically announce concert programs months in advance, giving promoters the chance to advertise and themselves time to rehearse.

So what will Itzhak Perlman be playing at his recital January 7 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts?

“I can’t tell you because I don’t know,” the legendary violinist said in a telephone interview from his home in New York. “I’m terrible that way. I’m notorious. People say, ‘C’mon, we need the program already.’”

An email to Perlman’s manager eventually elicited the news that the performance would include Schubert’s Rondo Brilliant in B Minor, Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1, Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and additional works to be announced from the stage.

While the program has been settled, this approach to concertizing represents Perlman’s attempt to keep music-making fresh for himself and the public, to fight the staleness that represents a danger for a star of his magnitude. He has reached the level of fame only attained by two or three classical musicians a generation—the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti provides the closest parallel—and he could fill halls whether or not he coasts for the rest of his career.

Audiences love him for the style and personality of his playing, for the inspiring personal story of the Israeli boy crippled by polio who would become the leading violinist of his generation, for the effusive warmth and sometimes corny humor he radiates in an art form often chilled by formality and snobbishness. While other soloists glower with the hauteur of a Paris maître d’ as members of the audience commit the common gaffe of applauding between movements, Perlman will tell the audience with a smile that he received a call backstage from “Mr. Beethoven” asking them to not clap until the end of his sonata.

The violinist’s personal charisma is so powerful that there are people who go to concerts to hear Perlman and nothing else, a point memorably demonstrated at a 2007 concert at Festival of the Arts Boca, where Perlman played the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and blocks of seats emptied out before the ensuing performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

Even though Perlman could fill halls whatever pieces he chose to perform, he works hard to vary his programs to keep both himself and the public engaged. “I look at all the programs that I’ve played in a place in the last 10 years or whatever it is, and try not to repeat,” he said. “The important thing is that I program what I like to hear myself if I was going to go to a recital. So there might be some Beethoven there, or maybe Brahms or something like that, but I’m sorry I just can’t tell you. I’d love to tell you but I can’t.”

He chooses his repertoire to keep himself interested as well. Years ago he stopped playing what he calls the “Vs and the Ws,” referring to the virtuoso concertos of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski with which he had dazzled audiences early in his career. And he has dropped other works from his repertoire for years at a time because he didn’t feel sufficiently engaged to do them justice.

“I don’t like to do things because I have to do them,” he said. “And throughout my career sometimes there would be concertos that I would say, ‘I hate this piece, I’m not going to play it.’ And that’s it because it doesn’t do anybody any good if you play a piece because you have to play it and as a result the performance is not good.”

He is reluctant to name pieces that spent time on his blacklist and quickly backs off the word “hate.” But when pressed, he says the works included two staples of the violin repertoire. One was Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. “The only reason that I had a problem with it was because I studied it with my teacher for like a year and got really sick of it so I let it rest.” The other was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. “There were about five years I did not put it in my repertoire because I did not feel I was ready. It was too close to my childhood. A lot of pieces when you play them in childhood all the weaknesses as a student come into that piece, and as a result the brain always thinks about the piece in a particular way. You’ve got to sort of clean it out and get a new perspective.”

Asked to name the highlights of his career, Perlman lists obvious ones: His two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, his 1964 victory in the Leventritt Competition for young musicians, his 1990 tour of the Soviet Union with the Israel Philharmonic, a 2007 performance at the White House where the audience included Queen Elizabeth II.

But when asked what he is proudest of,  in a lifetime of awards, recording contracts and performances on the world’s concert stages, his answer is surprising. “My family,” he said, without hesitation. “I’m proud that we have a wonderful family.” Perlman and his wife Toby have five grown children. “In the long run, this is really the most important thing in one’s life,” he said. “You can be successful doing this, doing that, but if you have a family that you’re proud of, you have a family that you feel, when we all get together for holidays and stuff, that’s what it’s all about.”

So what are his children and grandchildren up to? “All sorts of stuff. I’ve got musicians, I’ve got lawyers, I got doctors—all I need in my family is a general contractor.”

His latest recording is arrangements of Jewish liturgical music performed with the cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot called Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul. Perlman said the collaboration came about almost by chance, when he heard the cantor on a free night while in Israel to perform with the Israel Philharmonic.

“I’ve heard about him through the grapevine,” Perlman recalled. “I’d never heard him before and somebody was saying this guy’s amazing, so I went there. What impresses me about any performer is the sound, the tone, and when it comes to singing, the voice. And so his voice was quite amazing to me, and I was just blown away. I went backstage and I said to him this is fantastic and we got to do something together.”

Having been born and raised in Israel, Perlman said he was familiar with this repertoire. “A lot of it was something I’d heard in my childhood,” he said. “This is something I really grew up with in Israel, this sort of cantorial selections. It’s Jewish standards.”

At 67, Perlman remains extremely active, filling his days with solo appearances, conducting and teaching. (Of course, he’s a baby compared to his violin, the famous Soil Stradivarius, an instrument made in 1714 and formerly owned by Yehudi Menuhin, which celebrates its 300th birthday next year.) “My main plan is to stay fresh, to stay inspired by music, and to stay excited by music, and not to be bored by music, and so far I’ve been succeeding,” he said. “It may not sound very ambitious, but believe me, when you get to be my age and you play a lot of concerts, boredom is the danger, and so far I’ve been avoiding it.”

Itzhak Perlman performs 7:30 p.m. January 7 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. browardcenter.org; 954-462-0222.

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