At 75 years of age this August, and with more than 60 years in the spotlight, it’s a reasonable question to ask of violinist Itzhak Perlman, “What’s left?”
What further accolades could be draped around his shoulders? Grammys? He’s got 16, and a Lifetime Achievement award. Emmys? Four. Plus the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Kennedy Center Honor for good measure. He’s recorded composers ranging from Bach to Foss, performed with the Muppets, PDQ Bach, Billy Joel.
It’s as comprehensive and lauded a career as one could ask for. Perlman is as closely associated with the violin as Houdini with magic, as Babe Ruth with baseball; a tribute to his dedicated musicianship, his technical prowess, his prolific recording career, his amiable public persona, and his unflagging work ethic. What other American has done as much to bring classical music to this generation?
Ask him about his impact, though, and you get a modest shrug.
“I really don’t think of my legacy,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘Isn’t it amazing, bla bla bla.’ For me the challenge is ‘What have you accomplished?’ And for me I hope personally what I’ve accomplished is to succeed in still loving what I do.’
So by the measure of personal satisfaction alone, it seems like he’s succeeded mightily. There’s an undeniable joy in his music-making, a sheer pleasure for the sake of itself. There aren’t many other explanations for his indefatigable schedule.
This year sees him touring across the country from January through April, in concerto performances (Beethoven in Portland, Bruch in Atlanta) and in dozens of recitals with his long-standing accompanist Rohan De Silva. The tour includes a recital stop on January 19 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, courtesy of the Orange County Philharmonic Society. The program: Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 3, Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 2, and Dvořák’s Sonatina in G Major.
How did this program come about?
“Well, the first thing that I do with programs is play something I like,” Perlman says. “I always imagine if I were to go to a concert and listen to a violinist play, and I think, ‘That’s a nice program.’ I’ve been playing the Beethoven sonatas for quite a long time. These days, especially with the Beethoven year (2020 marks the composer’s 250th birthday), it’s always appropriate to play his work. This particular sonata is very light one. Pianistically it’s extremely challenging and of course for the violinist everything he writes is challenging, and so I love this piece. It’s one of the earlier pieces of his I play.”
Beethoven has been one of Perlman’s key composers, a constant throughout his life, and the violinist is still discovering new approaches and insights into the composer’s work.
“To say Beethoven was a great, great, great composer is a huge understatement,” he says, “and not only when we talk about the ten violins sonatas that I’ve recorded and which are great works, but the violin concerto is stupendous, one of those works I always consider as a journey, a lifelong journey. I recently had a student that started the concerto and I said, ‘Welcome to your lifelong journey.’ You rediscover it, and I’m still rediscovering it. And now that I’ve been conducting, I’ve been exposed to his symphonies, and to me there’s nobody more who had the recipe for drama than Beethoven. There’s a drama and an intensity of rhythm that no other composer has.”
Rediscovery is central to Perlman’s ongoing efforts—the quest to look deeper into a composer’s intent, to tease out meanings that haven’t yet revealed themselves.
“The thing is, if you grow as a person you grow as a musician,” he says. “One of the great challenges and accomplishments is to look at a work you’ve played for so many years and find new things in it every time. It’s not like a recipe, where it’s something you played 10 or 15 years ago and you’re playing it the same way. We’re not talking, shall we say, black and white, but shades of differences, how you listen to phrases. Someone asked me how different is the way I play today as compared to 20 or 30 years ago, and I think my ability to listen is better, so I hear better. So that’s really important, what you do, because you’re so involved physically, and the physical sometimes interferes with what you hear. The more accurate you hear, the better it is, and the more you can accomplish what you’ve been playing most of your life.”
This is especially true for Perlman regarding Beethoven’s works; works that for him are a constant source of wonder, filled with beauty and complexity, repaying closer attention time and time again.
“Every time I listen to him, the symphonies, the violin works, but also those great, great works the string quartets, those are again something that are indescribably beautiful,” he says. “And when you think about the early quartets and hear what’s to be in the future associated with the late works, Opus 132, Opus 137, and to think about the fact that, for me, Beethoven is the owner of probably one of the worst tragedies of the world! Just think of him, spending most of his life as deaf, so that the music that came…that’s always a discussion, people agree or disagree, ‘Would he have written the same way had he been able to hear or not?’ We’ll never know, obviously. I’m not sure, because maybe because of his deafness the music was so internal and was not maybe affected by actually hearing. I’m not sure. I’m not sure whether it’s a plus or a minus. But it’s a nice mystery to have. Having a Beethoven year is great, but as far as I’m concerned every year is a Beethoven year.”
As for the other pieces on the program, the Grieg is a fresh addition to his repertoire, and the Dvořák is a decades-long companion.
“The Grieg sonata is fairly new for me,” he says. “I quote ‘discovered’ it recently. I’ve always played his third sonata, and this one is not played as often, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. It’s very funny, I was teaching and one of my students brought this piece, and I said ‘Ooh, that’s nice! Why don’t I try that!’ I tried it out. It’s beautiful in many ways. It’s very romantic and a real ‘Grieg’ piece. And the sonatina of Dvořák is also a very beautiful piece. As regards to the slow movement, it has been transcribed as a single piece by [composer/violinist Fritz] Kreisler. He used it as one of his encore pieces, and so on. I find personally that Dvořák has been affected by Schubert. Besides the fact you have a lot of flagrant Americana, you also have these lovely Schubert moments. Then I’ll do some encores, things I don’t know yet what. We take a pile of music and play whatever strikes me at the moment. So it’s going to be fun.”
Finding fun and joy in one’s work after 60 years? That’s as good a legacy as any.
“All these pieces, and I’m still not bored,” he says. “I’m loving what I do, and for me that’s a good accomplishment. I don’t think ‘It’s been X years.’ It’s been a lot of years, and I’m still liking it. I can still discover new things. And I like the three things I do—teach, play, conduct. I have a handful of things to keep discovering and I’m very, very happy with that.”
Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at [email protected].