Israeli native son Itzhak Perlman was both king and jester while holding court at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on Tuesday, ahead of a June 23 ceremony for his most recent award, the Genesis Prize, called by some the “Jewish Nobel.”
Inaugurated in 2014, the prize is funded by a $100 million endowment and run in partnership by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, the private Genesis Prize Foundation and the Jewish Agency. Previous winners were former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor Michael Douglas.
The jocular 70-year-old virtuoso violinist was awarded this year’s $1 million prize for his accomplishments as a musician, teacher and advocate for the disabled. It comes on top of last year’s accolade, when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a laughing US President Barack Obama, who dubbed Perlman “the most beloved violinist of our time.”
And while he’s a proud grandfather of 11, Perlman, who contracted polio at age four and has since conquered the world’s stages on an electric scooter or crutches, shows no signs of slowing down.
Perlman is an international household name, a rare personable classical music celebrity who is equally at home on late night talk shows as on PBS’ “Sesame Street” and “Great Performances.” His career has spanned decades and included genres untouched by most of his contemporaries.
The Perlman discography includes all the stalwart great violin concerti — from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms and back. But among the dozens of discs are sprinkled volumes of jazz, klezmer, a bissele of Chinese folk music with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, several Hollywood soundtracks and even an uncredited violin solo on the 1989 Billy Joel song “The Downeaster Alexa.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Perlman spoke about the importance of curiosity, and how the very Jewish theme song from “Schindler’s List” transcends international politics.
First of all, mazal tov on your win of the Genesis Prize. It’s been said you’re going to be using the funding for work with music education and also disabilities. Do you have in mind anything in particular?
This is one of the challenges of this prize: To whom do you give the money? And it seems as though it would be a very simple challenge, but it’s not, because there are so many organizations around and so many projects, and I have to make up my mind what is personally something I feel strongly about. You’re talking about a minimum of a million dollars, which, when you think about it, is not that much.
It sounds like a lot to me.
But when you think about giving it away, it’s not that much. And as a result you have to divide everything to who gets what. That’s one thing.
The other thing is, I believe in giving charity to people that I knowingly would be able to say I’ve helped this person or that person. And it’s almost not so much how much it is, but what effect this money can have, either on an organization or on a person, or on a project, and so on and so forth. That is a challenge that has to have a lot of research, and that’s the process that we’re going through right now.
So that the two things that I’m interested in, which is music, and the problem of people with disabilities, those are where we are concentrating on, and then we will see.
I imagine that, oftentimes, you’re helping people without even knowing about it. You helped me personally about 20 years ago.
I’ve got to hear that.
Okay, so, I was at the Indiana University School of Music, playing violin, and I became injured — tendinitis
That’s an old story…
And I realized quickly that my career was over before it had begun. But, you had just put out “In the Fiddler’s House,” and I realized that instead of being trapped in the classical music regime, I could leave it, and play for fun, and have joy in playing again. So I joined a klezmer band, and you really helped me bring joy back into my life, so thank you.
Well, that’s great. Well, look, your story is similar to a few stories that I’ve had during the time that I’ve been teaching. I had a student, pretty good, very talented violinist, who had problems with tendinitis and stopped playing, and became a Rhodes scholar. So — not bad!
A Rhodes scholar, a journalist… life goes on.
Exactly. The thing is that with a life in music, first of all you have to love what you do. And another problem that music students sometimes have, is when they graduate and they say, what am I going to do with my life?
And I say your attitude should be: don’t ever have one thing that you want to do and if you cannot do that one thing, your life is over, or you cannot do anything else. Because if you are a musician, you are already in a lucky spot where you have something in the arts that is close to you. And there are so many things that you can do in music. I mean, if you’re a violinist, to play concerts, to be a solo with an orchestra, it’s very very nice. To play with an orchestra is also very nice, to play chamber music is very nice, to teach is very nice.
As long as you’ve got a passion for what you do, and for me, the luckiest thing you can have is to be happy in what you do professionally. To make a living with happiness. And that’s sometimes something that is not so common.
That’s definitely true and I feel blessed in the same way in journalism. One hundred percent. You have gone out of the box several times throughout your career — the classical music box — and you’ve done jazz albums, you’ve done klezmer, you’ve done Chinese music. How did this happen, and when you did the first jazz album, that was what, 1980?
I guess so, with [Andre] Previn.
How did you get there, and how did it feel to you?
Well, look, the thing is this, a lot of people say, well, you’re a really great jazz player and I say to them, I’m not a jazz player, I play jazz. And as a matter of fact, I love to tell this story because it’s really really true. When I was recording another jazz album — you mentioned Andre Previn — but another jazz pianist by the name of Oscar Peterson, I recorded with him as well [1994’s “Side By Side”]. Just because I was curious as to how it would feel.
And the thing about the curiosity is that sometimes it doesn’t work. And I would think that I’m a good enough judge of what works and what doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work, I just don’t want to do it. So I was doing this recording with Peterson and after one take of, I believe it was quite a well-known piece, we were listening to the playback and the person who was in charge of the playback, he said to me, he says, “That did not sound like jazz to me, that sounded more like klezmer.”
That’s the first time that I discovered that I could actually play klezmer music — because it was a positive that came out of a negative.
And with the jazz of course, it’s incredibly challenging because of the need to improvise. And you know, we Classical musicians, we don’t improvise. The only thing that we improvise is sort of musicality, but it’s not actually changing notes and things like that.
But it wasn’t always that way, would you say? It used to be that during a concerto a player would really improvise.
Well, Beethoven was a really great improviser and so was Mozart and so on, but not today. Today we are People of the Page, you know, as opposed to People of the Book. So the nice thing and the unusual thing about jazz was, would I be able to figure out a tune that I know and then improvise? And that’s what I felt was such an incredible challenge. Especially the recording with Oscar Peterson, because with Andre Previn, he actually wrote it out for me.
Right, I read that. And so you were with Oscar Peterson in 1994, I think it was released? And then your next album, if I’m not mistaken, was the klezmer album. And so did one lead to the other?
No. It was an accident. It was just they were doing a klezmer program for PBS I believe it was and they called me up and asked me whether I would want to host it. Just because I was Jewish. And so I said yes, and I said, “What are they doing?” And they said, “Ah, they’re playing some stuff.” And then somebody says, “Would you like to, just for fun, join us?” And I was smitten.
And all of a sudden I felt, “My God, this is something that I could actually grow to like.” Especially since I felt it. I felt it, while I was growing up, I suppose. The sound was not foreign to me at all.
Did you have klezmer in your home when you were growing up?
Not more than usual. But you know, you would hear it on the radio.
So your parents were from Poland and you played with the Israel Philharmonic in its first concerts in Eastern Europe. How was that for you, going back to your parents’ homeland?
‘The barometer of relations between Israel and other countries has always been whether the Israel Philharmonic was invited there’
It was very emotional. At the beginning we went to Russia and when listening to “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, in Moscow, with the orchestra, I was just sobbing, sobbing, sobbing, especially since a lot of people in the hall didn’t sing, because they didn’t know it.
And today, they may be here in Israel.
Yes. Of course, the barometer of relations between Israel and other countries has always been whether the Israel Philharmonic was invited there.
My first experience with the Israel Philharmonic invited to Russia was a negative one. I was at the airport and I was actually at the ticket counter when they said, “We’re not going.” Because relations had cooled off for the orchestra and the tour was canceled. And then it was re-established, so we went.
So that’s why I’ve always said, it’s like a barometer. If things are warming up politically, then the Israel Philharmonic is quote “allowed” to go, and so we were there [in Russia]. We were in Poland and we were in Hungary I believe as well. And it was an extremely exciting time.
So do you feel in a way, as a representative of Israel in the world when you are traveling?
When I’m traveling with the Israel Philharmonic I certainly do. But, well, at this moment I feel that people know who I am, and I’ve been living in the United States since 1958. I was born in Israel, so I’m both an Israeli artist and some people call me an American artist. I don’t know, just call me an artist — if I’m lucky enough.
Today there’s a lot of talk about BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Have you heard about this?
I’ve heard about it. I’m not going to go into it. I just think it’s horrible.
But it’s not affected you personally?
No, but it’s horrible. It’s disgusting, and the thing is that I’m just hoping that music is something that helps bring everybody together. And I believe that it is, whether you play in Israel, or in the former Soviet Union, or wherever you play — in South America or in the Far East.
As a matter of fact, just for your information, the singularly most asked piece for me to play is the theme from “Schindler’s List.” Absolutely unbelievable. And all of a sudden, you forget about what’s going on politically, and no matter where you go in the world, this is what they request and I’m always amazed at that.
I’ve been telling that to John Williams [who wrote the “Schindler’s List” soundtrack] and he can’t understand it either. Well, first of all, it’s a great piece, but the theme of the piece is so close to what’s been happening in Jewish history. But yet, that’s what people want to hear.
And is that ok for you as a legacy?
What else would you want to be a legacy?
What I’d like to have in my time, I’d like to have peace. Period. You know the world is crazy.
You have five children.
And 11 grandchildren.
Were they ever at peace?
They’re at peace, yes. Absolutely. That’s what’s amazing for me. This is one of our, my wife Toby and myself, one of our proudest achievements. To have five children at peace with each other. Including the 11 grandchildren that we have.
That is a bracha [blessing].