This week marks a local milestone in Itzhak Perlman’s career. When he takes the stage for a series of concerts, it will be his first time as a conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.
Perlman’s iconic career as a violinist spans more than a half-century and includes multiple Grammys, celebrated performances with orchestras around the world, solos in Schindler’s List and appearances on The Colbert Report. He has been conducting with increasing frequency over the past 20 years and will be working both sides of the podium during an evening that features works by Beethoven, Dvorak and Brahms. The following is excerpted from a recent phone interview in advance of his appearance here.
While this will be your first time doing so with the Philadelphia Orchestra, you have been conducting for a number of years. How did you decide to add it to your repertoire?
My wife wanted me to help her with The Perlman Music Program, which she founded. She put together a string orchestra and wanted me to be their coach. This was around 20 years ago — it was the first time I ever conducted. I had some good results, and so people said to me, “Why don’t you try to do this?”
How does the experience of conducting an orchestra differ from being conducted?
Obviously, it is not the same as when you play an instrument. As a conductor, you are in charge of what you want the orchestra to sound like. The satisfaction and success comes from when you are showing them and you get down what you want, but you are not really in total control of what comes out. One of the mysteries I find fascinating about conducting is: How does one apply what they want by motions, looks and signs to get the kind of desired sound?
Did your double duty affect the program choices for this weekend?
I am a guest conductor, so the repertoire is a little tricky because the music director has first choice of what he wants to do. Working with the strings of the orchestra on Dvorak will be a lot of fun to do — with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first thing that comes to mind is great string sound so I’m really looking forward to that.
You have previously said that your inspiration for playing the violin came from hearing Jascha Heifetz perform on the radio when you were 4 years old. Do your students ever tell you that your playing inspired them to take up the instrument and, if so, how do you react to that?
It makes me feel very old. I say something like, “Oh, thanks a lot!” It is a bittersweet reaction — I have inspired them, but I am always telling them that being inspired by someone doesn’t mean they have to sound like that performer.
Your career has taken you from The Ed Sullivan Show to The Kennedy Center Honors, klezmer concerts to presidential inaugurations, Sesame Street to Schindler’s List. Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you want to be involved in?
What I want and what people want me to be are two different things. The important thing is to be happy with the result. I felt very lucky to be asked to do the music for Schindler's List. Every time I think about it I am so honored.
Why is Schindler’s List so important to you, 20 years after it premiered?
What is incredible is that, no matter where I am in the world, the only thing people ask me to do is Schindler's List! I’m not just talking about in the United States and in Europe — it happens in Asia as well. It’s almost become a theme song for me.
What will your family be doing for Thanksgivukkah?
I think that is a food question. One of my daughters was saying that we could cook a turlatke — we could combine the turkey and the latke like a turducken.
IF YOU GO
Itzhak Perlman conducts and performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra
300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia