NEW YORK — Whenever I interview a celebrity I’m always thinking ahead to the ice breaker. It isn’t uncommon for the subject and I to have some sort of mutual connection. “Hey, you used to work with so-and-so? Well, I went to camp with her daughter.”
I came armed with double-barrels when I agreed to interview Itzhak and Toby Perlman. One friend was buddies with their son in high school, another worked intimately with them on a project. But when I watched Alison Chernick’s documentary “Itzhak” I quickly realized I didn’t need any of that. These are people I’ve known my whole life.
Sure, Itzhak Perlman is widely regarded as the greatest living classical violinist, but he’s also a Dad joke-cracking, septuagenarian Israeli-born New York Jew with plastic bottles of Vintage brand seltzer on his table. He likes to grumble and complain a little, but that’s only because everyone really knows how warm he is.
He’s the quintessential artist-poet-intellectual who would rather watch a baseball game than argue. And with him always is his rock, Toby, the eternally smiling and supportive spouse of over 50 years. The type of woman who, when you compliment her scarf, will grab your hand and tell you the story of how she got it.
“Itzhak” is an inspiring and upbeat film, not surprising considering the adversity our lead characters have overcome. Having had polio as a child, Perlman has since lived with disabilities — and leg braces. This didn’t stop him from appearing on the Ed Sullivan show as an adolescent and it doesn’t stop him from schlepping through TSA checkpoints or New York snowdrifts today.
Director Chernick eschewed traditional “talking heads” in her documentary. “I didn’t need that, I had the two most dynamic people right here,” she said. The result is a mix of biographical snippets that will delight fans of Perlman’s career, and fly-on-the-wall moment from the Perlmans’ life that will delight everyone.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Itzhak and Toby in between two Q&A sessions at the new Landmark at West 57th Theater in New York City. I have more great material than could ever fit on a long-playing record (and multiple examples of Itzhak punting a question by turning to Toby and asking, “What do you think?”) but these are the choicest cuts.
What’s your tip for 51 years of successful marriage?
Toby: We have the same values and same responses to life. Marriage is difficult, it’s helpful when you have a lot in common and are coming out of the same environment. You don’t get into trouble.
There’s got to be something you don’t agree on.
Itzhak: Wine. Wine and food. I’m a bit more passionate. But Toby’s a great cook!
Toby: I’m all right, I’m not that good. But he’s great to go shopping with, he’s got a great eye.
You have performed for many titans of industry, celebrities, heads of state – in this film we see you both with former US president Barack Obama and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Have any of these people ever come to you with a deep understanding of classical music?
Toby [delighted]: I don’t think anyone has asked that before! Never!
Itzhak: The answer is no. But speaking with Barack Obama was a pleasure, exciting.
Toby: Uchhhh, such a pleasure, really.
Itzhak: A good person, intelligent person, you can talk about anything, really nothing is out of his league.
And if an invitation came from the current White House?
Itzhak: It would get lost in the mail. Lost in the swamp. Lost in the circular file.
Maybe just for, I dunno, the Vice President…
Toby: Unh! He’s a horror! No!
Itzhak: Talk about the swamp! But it’s always exciting to play at the White House. Maybe in a few years. Hopefully not eight years.
Toby: I think he’s going to win again.
The film gets into your winning of the so-called Jewish Nobel, the Genesis Prize, in which notables are granted money to then donate elsewhere. The funding, some note, comes from Russian sources, a little oblique, perhaps a little cagey. Any thoughts on this?
Toby: First I’m hearing of it.
Itzhak: There will always be discussions. But I’m not getting that money. It’s almost like a contract, I’m passing it through my hands to the organizations of my choice. The origin of the money, I wouldn’t know about it.
In your studies, was there ever a tipping point where you knew you were headed to achieve this level of success?
Itzhak: It was a gradual thing. You don’t think about “let me try it for fun.” If you have a talent and you start to play, everyone has the same thought. You go for it. Then it evolves, based on the studying and talent. Like in baseball. Someone with talent plays, what do they think about? They think about playing in the major leagues. Then they grow up and they say, well, let’s go to the minors, then double-A, single-A and it devolves to a person’s ability.
It starts off at Carnegie Hall and then you end up in an orchestra or chamber music or teaching or however things turn out. In my case, this is how it turned out.
What was the most exciting baseball game you ever attended?
Toby: Through his legs! It was unbelievable, we were there!
Itzhak: Game six of the Mets – Red Sox 1986 World Series. We were behind a bunch of Red Sox fans in the press box. The sigh of sadness when it went through [Bill] Buckner’s legs!
Toby: It was so incredible. Then Bobby Thompson’s home run. I was a little girl after school, home alone in the house. Being a Dodgers fan was making a political statement. There wasn’t anyone on the Upper West Side who wasn’t a Dodgers fan.
Did you ever face anti-Semitism during your career?
Itzhak: During a performance, no. We had some threats, though. 30 years ago, I had to enter through a basement here in New York, to make sure everything was safe. You know for some people there’s always, “Oh, I didn’t realize he was Jewish,” but for us we never have that problem. You know.
Do you ever play Richard Wagner?
Itzhak: No. Wagner did not really write anything for the violin, so this isn’t an issue.
Toby: But there was no Wagner in my house growing up, that was not allowed. We listen to a lot of opera. We don’t listen to Wagner.
Do you play differently now than you did 20 years ago?
Itzhak: Do I play differently than I do 20 years ago?
Toby: It’s better.
Itzhak: So much of it is personal taste. I play Bach in the film, as a child, and I do it in the Romantic style.
Toby: And it’s great.
Itzhak: But ask 10 teachers or critics and half will love it, and half will say it’s appalling. My theory is, if you play today, play like people play today. If you play Bach like they did during Bach’s time, that’s for the classroom. That’s education. And I think Bach would be very happy to hear contemporary pieces.
Do you have a favorite composer?
Itzhak: No, my favorite composer is the one I am playing at the moment. I like the classics: Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. But, nothing particularly favorite. But there are a few pieces I hate and I won’t do them. Everything I play is because I like them.
Hate because they are difficult?
Itzhak: No, I hate them because they are a pain in the neck.
One piece I can’t stand because my teacher made me play it for a whole year. He wanted to use it to change my bow grip. As a result I grew to hate it – even though it is a good piece. Edouard Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole.”
What do you think about classical music when incorporated into a jazz or rock context?
Itzhak [making a face, almost saying something, then taking a breath]: Eh.
What about groups like, say, the Grateful Dead, who can take a three minute song from a record then somehow turn it into a 30 minute performance?
Itzhak: Yeah. If it works, it’s fine. I did a recording with Oscar Peterson. And we would do a take and he’d say “I dunno, let’s do another,” and he’d sit down again and it was a completely different piece. Amazing. But jazz or whatnot, that’s something you do by listening. One thing I always say to myself whenever I play klezmer or anything is “don’t forget your day job.” This stuff is for fun.
“Itzhak” is currently playing in New York and other major cities, but expands everywhere in North America on March 23. It airs on PBS in October.
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