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When violinist Toby Friedlander heard Itzhak Perlman play Ravel's Tzigane in 1963, she rushed backstage, introduced herself and asked him to marry her. They married four years later. Now Madison will get a chance to fall in love with the violinist's sound when he plays Overture Hall on April 19.
Perlman's performance will be a recital with longtime piano collaborator Rohan De Silva. At this date, Perlman's office did not have the program details, and Perlman was not available for an interview. He may surprise us and announce his pieces from the stage, but a few selections will probably showcase the 19th-century Romantics he loves, like Brahms, Franck, Schubert and Classical-Romantic hybrid Beethoven.
But the fact is that Perlman can play whatever and still fill a concert hall on his name alone, a star status that marketing experts say is fading fast. Where are the emerging classical music megastars?
Perlman is 66, and you might think he should slow down more than he has and enjoy more time with his family in New York, or spend more time with his favorite nonmusical activities, like cooking Chinese food and watching the New York Knicks on television. While he has reduced the number of his concerts from over 100 to about 90 a year, it's still a grueling schedule. Violinists can lose three pounds while playing a two-hour recital.
Besides performing as a soloist, Perlman conducts some of the world's leading orchestras. He's a crossover artist who plays klezmer music, jazz and film scores. He performs benefit concerts for the disabled and for the eradication of polio. He also teaches at Juilliard and at the Perlman Music Program, founded in 1993 by his wife, Toby. The Perlmans have five children - three classical musicians, a rock musician and a lawyer - and a bevy of grandchildren have been added to the mix.
The megastar Perlman is no stranger to Madison. He has performed here, on and off, for the past 45 years. The Wisconsin Union Theater, the Oscar Mayer Theatre and Overture Hall are venues where we witnessed his artistry. Tyrone Greive, professor of violin at the UW-Madison, tireless researcher into the history of the violin in Poland, and former concertmaster for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recalls one of Perlman's performances.
"In October 1991, Perlman played a special concert with the Madison Symphony Orchestra," says Greive. "He played the Brahms Violin Concerto and it was fantastic. Because he walks with crutches, I followed him onto the stage and carried his Stradivarius violin in my left hand and my 1772 Guadagnini in my right."
Naha Greenholtz became the MSO's concertmaster after Greive retired in the spring of 2011. She recalls the impression that Perlman left on her. "His musicianship and technique are legendary, but more importantly, he radiates a deep love for music and his craft. I think this is what allows him to connect so strongly with his audiences."
Greenholtz, 26, is a product of the Suzuki method of violin playing, but she spent much of her childhood listening to her mother's record collection of violinists from the Jewish-Russian school like Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh. Perlman shares a lineage with that school via his instructors at Juilliard and the Tel Aviv Academy, though he is a free spirit who doesn't fanatically adhere to the style.
Perlman has a vast music legacy on film, the Internet, CDs and LPs, Greenholtz notes. "The recordings that I refer to constantly are his Sibelius Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his Stravinsky Concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra and, of course, the Paganini Caprices."
Says Greenholtz of Perlman, "He's perhaps the most recorded violinist of all time."
What does it take to be a music hero other than practice, practice, practice? In Perlman's case, it all began with a sensitive ear.
Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. His parents, Chaim and Shoshana, emigrated to Palestine from Poland in the mid-1930s. They were not musicians, but often listened to classical music on the radio in their home. That's where Perlman first heard the sound of the violin, a sound he describes as magical. He doesn't know who the radio violinist was, but likes to think it was Heifetz, his all-time violin hero.
At 4, he asked his parents for a violin. Not knowing the depth of his interest, they gave him a toy instrument. As Perlman tells the story, in the liner notes to a 1982 Great Performers recording, he "gave it a whack and threw it under the bed." His father then bought him a miniature version of a real violin for about $6 from a pawnshop.
Then came violin lessons. "My first teacher was a Russian man whose method was quite direct. I played and he screamed," Perlman recalls. At 5, he began studies at the Tel Aviv Academy with the Russian-trained Rivka Goldgart, who told him to forget everything he had learned from his first teacher and start over again.
Despite Goldgart's strict teaching style, she guided him through the scales, arpeggios and exercises that eventually blossomed into Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee. Playing those pieces endeared Perlman to the American television audience when he performed on Ed Sullivan's show in 1958. By age 13, Perlman was a music hero in Israel and the United States. He also had beaten the odds against a deadly virus.
In the fall of 1949, Perlman became a victim of the polio epidemic that killed or paralyzed nearly half a million people worldwide that year. He spent a week in a hospital and nearly died. Years later, Perlman's father recalled the trauma. "The doctor told us he was okay. When I saw him, I realized that 'okay' only meant he was still alive. I carried him home in my hands." Perlman spent a year recovering and regained the full use of his arms, but his legs remained paralyzed.
When Ed Sullivan visited Israel, looking for talented entertainers to appear on his show and to tour the U.S. as part of his Caravan of Stars, Perlman played the audition sitting down with his crutches beside him, as he does today. On Perlman's Facebook page is a tender picture of the young prodigy with Sullivan's arm around his shoulder. "He was a classy gentleman," Perlman writes of Sullivan.
Perlman looks back on those early years with a sober opinion of his abilities. "At the age of 8, I sounded like a reasonably talented 8-year-old," he told The New York Times in 1996. When I came to the United States and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and played a Mendelssohn Concerto as a 13-year-old, I sounded like a talented 13-year-old with a lot of promise. But it did not sound like a finished product."
But the world thought him a prodigy, and after his television triumph, the Perlman family moved to New York so that the precocious youngster could study at Juilliard. His teachers there included Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay. DeLay's main goal was to groom her students for the concert stage. But she also encouraged them to be well rounded and have other interests, ideas that Perlman uses in his own teaching studios.
Perlman's trademark is his passionate, soulful playing. His phrases are tenderly crafted, with sensitive use of portamento (left-hand slides). His vibrato gives the violin an almost human voice, because it resembles the natural undulations in singing. The overall effect is an outpouring of emotion reminiscent of the Jewish violin tradition of Eastern Europe where his parents were born. "If you listen to Jewish music, it is no-holds-barred music," says Greive. "It pours its heart out."
The style harks back to 19th-century Russia, where a few Jewish violin prodigies played their way out of ghettos in the Pale of Settlement, an area where Jews were forced to live. They became folk heroes for Jewish parents, who scrimped and saved to give their children violin lessons. "It was the hope of the family that little Jascha, Sascha or Mischa would get the entire family out of the ghetto," says Greive. One such violinist was Mischa Elman, and another was Perlman's hero, Heifetz.
These days, it's Perlman who wears the hero's wreath, and he has not yet passed the laurels to a younger superstar. He teaches young players, though, and he is sensitive to the pressures faced by talented prodigies. In 1996, he told The New York Times, "For every child prodigy that you know about, at least 50 burned out before you even heard about them. Any gifted child can potentially run into real trouble because of the way they are handled."
But is the golden age of classical soloists over? Perhaps not, but musicians definitely are redefining who their audience is, shifting their focus from big, glitzy venues to tinier slices of humanity.
"We are having a reemerging of talented young people making a career out of performing," says Greive. "Some are creating their own venues, playing Bach in bars and taking music to hospitals. Performers didn't do that in the 1940s and '50s."
It may be, too, that superstars abound, and we're too distracted to hear them. Had you walked through the metro subway station L'Enfante Plaza in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 12, 2007, you would have heard violinist Joshua Bell for free. In this Washington Post experiment, over 1,000 people went through the station as Bell played six Bach pieces, but only 27 stopped to listen.
In the autumn of Perlman's career, his star may be fading. Some critics have reported unevenness in his playing and, at times, a lackadaisical attitude. But when he's in good form, his sweet, soft-grained sound touches the heart. "When Perlman plays, I believe that every person in the audience feels like he's playing for him or her individually," says Greive. "That's something very special."