I've seen Itzhak Perlman perform five times, and each time was memorable in some way.
I enjoy classical music. I get it from my grandfather, who played violin; as I was growing up, he was instrumental (pun) in bringing classical musicians to perform in our community. It's a small town, and they weren't exactly name musicians (it was a big deal when we had the Buffalo Philharmonic), but it gave me a chance to listen to it.
I didn't like it. I grew up on Broadway showtunes, and discovered rock in my teens. But classical was OK, but nothing I'd go out of the way to listen to.
That changed as I got older. Part of that was due to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. SPAC, as it's called, is the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and has ballet and rock shows all summer long. Lawn passes are cheap (free for kids under 13). It's built on a natural amphitheater, so you can even see what's going on (though it's quite a distance away). You could also pack a picnic and spend an evening. We even sprung for lawn passes a couple of years.
That's where I first hear Perlman play.
It also rekindled an interest in classical music. I learned something important: no matter how old and clichéd a classical piece is, when you hear it performed live by a first-class orchestra, it's like it was new again. You may have heard the 1812 Overture 100 times, but when it's done live -- with actual cannons -- you can see why people are still performing it.
This was the type of performance that legends are made of -- literally. Well, urban legends, at least.
Perlman was performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. We had lawn passes and were just enjoying the show when, in the middle of the first movement, Perlman broke a string.
Yes, exactly the element that became the basis of a well-known urban legend. The legend has him finishing the piece using only three strings -- something that just isn't possible.
What happened? Well, Perlman turned to the concertmaster (i.e., first violinist) and politely asked to use his violin. He took it, the orchestra started up, and Perlman completed the movement -- to an ovation. Judging by the smooth way he turned, it gave me the impression that this was standard operating procedure: borrow a violin while yours is being restrung. At the end of the movement, an assistant brought Perlman's violin back, and he completed the piece.
And although this isn't as dramatic as the legend, it does show his brilliance. Every violin is slightly different, and Perlman had to learn the quirks of the instrument on the fly in front of a few thousand people. This is the sign of a great performer (or athlete, for that matter) -- the ability to adapt quickly to changes.
Perlman played the Beethoven Violin Concerto again, but this time, my memory was attending.
At the time, we were members of the New York State Museum in Albany (well worth the visit if you're in town), and they were putting on the "Dinosaurs Alive!" show: mechanical dinosaurs that jerked around and gave loud roars (probably from the actual recordings of dinosaurs). Loud, and probably scary: my daughter Lisa was about six the first time she saw them, and the noise scared her so much that when, some time later, we got sheets for her with a dinosaur pattern, she was afraid it'd keep her up at night. This was the second time around and, as members, we got a discount, so we visited.
At the end, as we left, there were discount tickets to SPAC. A local supermarket allowed people to buy a ticket for $5 anywhere in the arena. We picked up a few.
Perlman was playing, so we decided to go. We went to the box office and showed them the tickets, expecting to get some seat in the back row, or maybe a lawn pass. Without a word, he handed us the tickets.
They were for the front row of the balcony.
We wondered if there was some mistake. These were $40 seats, after all. But no. And we realized there was method to their madness: the supermarket had promised to pay the difference between the $5 and the full cost of the ticket. So it was in the interest of SPAC to give us the most expensive seat possible and get the most money from them.
When the usher led us to our box(!), we laughed and told her we paid $5 for the seats. She immediately asked to see the tickets.
The concert was great, especially since we could see Perlman so much better than from the lawn.
Later, we went back to the "Dinosaurs Alive!," rushed through it, and grabbed a few more tickets. We later went to see the New York City Ballet from the 4th row, though watching the sweat flying off the dancers (and nearly hitting us) on a hot summer night was somewhat unappetizing.
We looked, but the supermarket never made that offer again.
Perlman stopped appearing at SPAC quite as often, partly because he had moved on to a new project: The Perlman Music Program.. He and his wife Toby started this to give teenaged musicians a chance to learn under Perlman and other professionals. Toby handles the management, while Perlman teaches.
The Program was set up on Shelter Island, New York. Shelter Island is easy to find: look at a map of eastern Long Island. You'll see the North Fork (including Southold, where I grew up). You'll see the South Fork (where the Hamptons are). In between is Shelter Island. It's quite pretty, partly a summer retreat like the Hamptons, but quieter and more laid back. Perlman bought an old summer camp there and started the program. It's about a half hour from my parent's house (counting the ferry ride) or ten minutes by boat, and my father likes to spend summer evenings traveling over there for the music.
You see, the kids there need a chance to perform, and so every night there is some sort of performance. Some are by individuals. Some are by quartets or even the entire orchestra. The kids there are very proficient (they need to audition to be accepted), so it's more like hearing a professional orchestra than your local school band.
In the early years, Shelter Islanders were suspicious of having the people in their midst, afraid Perlman would draw big crowds. He was prohibited for charging for the concerts (except for one event, the yearly Gala). He was also prohibited for advertising the concerts.
Each summer, I go down to Southold to visit my parents for a few days. The first year of the program, my father had begun to go over and listen to the music. We were there on a Friday, and after the performance, Toby came out. "Tomorrow is a very special concert," she said. "Only I can't tell you who will perform."
Not obvious, was it?
So we were there the next day. Sure enough, Perlman joined with the teachers to perform string quintets by Brahms and Dvorak. I had never heard these, but the Dvorak impressed me so much that I bought a recording of it, and it has become a favorite of mine.
But what also sticks in my mind was what happened when there was a problem. Just before the quintet was about to go on for the Dvorak, a problem arose: one of the musicians couldn't find his music. So Perlman took the stage.
He didn't perform; he told jokes.
Now, Perlman's jokes are pathetic -- the type of joke that no one about a third grader would consider funny. ("They dug up Beethoven's grave and discovered him erasing all his music. 'What are you doing?' 'Decomposing.') I really think these were the worst jokes I'd ever heard.
He had us in stitches. His delivery was just plain funny, and he was having so much fun telling the jokes that you laughed as soon as you heard the punch line. It wasn't until afterwards that you realized, "that's a pretty dumb joke." There was just something about the warmth and joy with which he told them that connected on a personal level so that the entire audience was happy to laugh at them.
If he didn't have music, he could have made a great comedian.
The next year, I also went to the "special" presentation at the school, but in a different way.
Perlman's daughter Leora also has something of a musical career: with her partner, Meredith Greenberg, they have performed as opera singers (and also ran a catering business). This show was their baby: a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.
Now the Perlman program is for instrumentalists, not singers. They do have some singing classes, but as a break from the classes in the strings. (Not that they aren't talented: in 2004, we were treated to an a capella version of Rossini's Overture from The Barber of Seville that was absolutely spectacular. Yes, I know it has no words, but they used nonsense syllables that were absolutely perfect; if you know the piece, you'll know where doodlely doodlely doodlely doodlely do fits in. Just amazing.)
The kids were the chorus, and the leads were played by Greenberg, Leora Perlman, and some of the teachers (there may have also been one of the students). In the program, the name of the Mikado was something like "The Big Guy."
You guessed it. When it came time for the Mikado to enter, Perlman came in, riding his scooter, dressed in costume. He had a large book on his lap and sang the part, reading the lyrics from the book. The same warmth that made his jokes so funny still came across and the total effect was delightful. And he wasn't a bad singer, either.
So he also has his singing to fall back on.
When we went over, there wasn't a concert. Instead, it was an open rehearsal, the orchestra getting ready for the final performance of the season. Perlman was conducting, and also teaching, as they worked their way through A Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten.
At one point, Perlman stopped the orchestra. He then called out the names of three students and had them play the passage.
Next, he called three more students and had them do the same thing.
Finally, he called on three different students to play the same passage.
When they were done, Perlman said, "You see? When you are playing with the entire group, you tend to play with less authority, letting the others fill in for you. But when you play alone, you work harder to stand out. I want you all to play as though you are playing alone."
The orchestra sounded much better after that.
So he can always fall back on conducting and teaching (even more)