Most teenagers don’t get the chance to josh around with famed violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, but some, who have what the maestro calls “fiddling abilities,” were enjoying that privilege for several weeks in Israel.
The 36 teens came from abroad to attend the Perlman Music Program, established by Perlman’s wife, Toby, herself an accomplished violinist. The PMP offers musical training to string players between the ages of 12 and 18 “of rare and special talent,” according to the program’s website — including access to Perlman himself. The residencies take place in New York, Florida, Vermont and Israel.
“This was my dream,” said Toby Perlman, a Juilliard graduate who first raised the couple’s five children before setting out to establish the program. “And a piece of it included coming to Israel with a certain amount of frequency. It’s wonderfully enriching for the students, faculty and personally for me. As a Diaspora Jew, nothing gives me more pleasure than coming here.”
“Yes,” responded Perlman. “Perhaps we should write a song…”
Big groans ensue from the students; they are apparently used to this kind of avuncular kidding from the virtuoso.
A handful of them, gathered to answer questions about their program, were clearly at ease with their teacher, bending their heads easily to look Perlman in the eye when he’s sitting in his motorized wheelchair.
And when the violinist — who suffered from polio at age 4 — made his uneasy way on crutches toward the front of the stage to conduct, no one blinked.
For with this particular teacher, there’s a lot to learn.
“Mr. P. chooses what to say and what not to say,” said Jacob, a high school-age violinist from Vancouver. “He knows what to leave alone and how to keep a student in the discussion.”
He’s also a big advocate of letting young musicians learn how to question their own playing, said Valerie, another violinist from New York City who studies with Perlman regularly.
“Mr. P is the best at bringing out the best in you,” said Phoebe, the Australian in the group.
Perlman himself left his native Tel Aviv at 13 to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and then study at Juilliard.
He told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2009 that when he lived in Tel Aviv, his dream was to go abroad. “If you went abroad,” he said, “that was a sign that you were progressing.”
Perlman continues to perform with and conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), and spends several weeks each year with the PMP in Israel, at Tel Aviv’s Israel Conservatory of Music.
As a teacher, he’s very hands on, and likes to encourage constant and steady growth.
“It’s not so much what you know at 18, but how much you’ve learned as a 30-year-old, as a 40-year-old or as a 50-year-old,”said Perlman, who is now 69. “The important thing is to grow as a musician, and not to stand still.”
Teaching the young is a bonus, added Toby Perlman. “it’s different at this level because they’re so gifted,” she said. “The trick is to know when to shut up.”
Which he does, often. As the students took their seats for a planned rehearsal, Perlman sat in front of them, offering instructions in English and sometimes Hebrew — despite the fact that most don’t speak the language — on a piece of Mozart.
“Don’t be heavy,” he told them. “Yesh le ze ktzat, you know what I mean?”
He left it at that. And as they lifted bows to their violins, violas, basses and cellos, it seemed they did.