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Chatting Up a Legend, Strings Attached

September 7, 2006 By:
Cantor David Tilman, JE Feature
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Itzhak Perlman -- superstar violinist, teacher, conductor and Jewish mega-personality -- invariably awakens in followers a multitude of emotions: pride, admiration of his artistic gifts, and profound gratitude for bringing to life masterpieces of the solo violin repertoire.

Born in 1945, Perlman is known throughout the world for his consummate artistry and ability to touch the deepest parts of our souls, despite his lifelong struggles with the effects of polio. During his brief stop here for a Philadelphia Orchestra concert at the just concluded Mann Center season, I had the opportunity to speak with him between his rehearsal and evening performance.

Perlman has presented literally thousands of momentous performances, and recordings of classical and Romantic violin performances, as well as three heart-rending CDs of Jewish content: the soundtrack from "Schindler's List"; "Tradition: Perlman Plays Popular Jewish Melodies"; and "In the Fiddler's House -- Perlman Plays Klezmer Favorites With Four Klezmer Bands."

On the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music, Perlman reported that his health is fine, and he continues to "play the violin, teach and conduct." He is most enthused about the Perlman Music Program, a summer institute for string players that he co-directs with his wife, Toby, at a site on Shelter Island, N.Y., for eight weeks.

His wife began the project 12 years ago, he reported of the "two-pronged program: a six-week term for musicians 12 to 18 years old, and a two-week chamber-music program for musicians 18 and older." The 35 to 38 students come to the institute from all over the world, their selection based on submitted videotapes.

"The kids can repeat the program, and most usually do," explained Perlman.

The virtuoso is involved in the day-to-day educational program, teaching individual violinists, coaching chamber-music ensembles, conducting the institute's orchestra, and singing in the chorus.

"It is very important for string players to sing in a chorus," he stated with conviction. String players are always conscious of the connection of their instrument to the human voice. Choral singers learn the sublime beauty of collective breathing in choir, an essential attribute to solo and ensemble performances for string players.

'A Very Ambitious Repertoire'
Patrick Romano, whom the Perlmans discovered at their children's high school, conducts the institute's choir. And Perlman is "in the bass section of the choir! We sing a very ambitious repertoire, including works by Schubert, the Mozart and Faure 'Requiems,' and Bernstein's 'Chichester Psalms.' The kids just love it. Patrick gets it out of us. For people who are not singers, we are terrific!"

Perlman's conducting career began at the summer institute, and was nurtured on the podium of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble with which he has a long personal relationship.

"Thank God for the Mann!" he exclaimed. As with many musicians, Perlman feels a special relationship to this venue because of his association with the late Freddy Mann and his wife, Sylvia, lifelong supporters of classical music in Philadelphia and Israel.

"I am delighted that there are no rain dates for me, as there used to be at the old Robin Hood Dell," he stated with obvious humor of the Mann's predecessor open-air concert venue.

Perlman had a great time playing klezmer throughout the world several years ago, and is eager to return to this improvisational music of his family's Eastern European roots.

Cantor David F. Tilman, conductor and music educator, serves as chazzan of Beth Sholom Congregation and synagogue-skills instructor at the Forman Center of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.

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