Itzhak Perlman might just be the closest thing we have to a modern-day fiddler on the roof.
Among the handful of classical musicians whose names fall trippingly from the tongue of a broad public, the 71-year-old Israeli-American violinist, conductor, teacher and advocate for the disabled (he contracted polio at the age of 4 and uses crutches or an electric Amigo scooter for mobility) is at the very top of the list.
The lush, singing sound Perlman makes on his 1741 Stradivarius — formerly owned by another great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, and considered one of the finest violins made during Stradivari’s “golden period” — is indeed golden, whether emanating from Carnegie Hall or the White House (where, in 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom). The winner of a long list of Grammy Awards, Perlman also has been heard by millions worldwide as the soloist for John Williams’ 1993 Academy Award-winning score for “Schindler’s List.”
So it is a special occasion when Perlman arrives on a Chicago stage, as he will April 23 at the Civic Opera House, for a recital played in collaboration with Rohan De Silva, the Sri Lankan-born pianist. It will be Perlman’s only concert in the city this season and comes with this bonus: the use of a large-screen video enhancement of his performance.
ITZHAK PERLMAN IN RECITAL
When: 3 p.m. April 23
Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $25 – $125
Info: (312) 827-5600;
The program for the recital is notably eclectic, spanning centuries and styles and including works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schumann and Ravel.
“In putting together a program I think about variety,” said the violinist. And, he laughingly added, “I also think about what I would like to hear. I have to be enthusiastic about playing the work.”
From the Baroque period there is Vivaldi’s “Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo.”
“It is a lot of fun to do, but not really authentic for its time — just much freer than many of his other sonatas,” said Perlman. “I played it in recital for the first time when I was a beginner, and naturally I’ve evolved [he laughs], though exactly how I can’t really tell you. I don’t listen to my old recordings, but once in a while I will hear one on the radio and think, ‘I wouldn’t play it that way now.’ The thing about recordings, though, is that they are a good record of the best you could play a piece at that time.”
“As for Beethoven [Perlman will be playing the “Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major,” known as “Spring”], well, he is the king of drama, and the challenge is in the pacing and rhythm. Timing is of the essence in this piece, an early work that is quite difficult if not as profound as his later work. The fascinating thing about Beethoven is his ability to be profound at one moment and then very childish at another. I was listening to his ‘String Quartet, Opus 132’ the other day and thought, ‘It’s really incredible how he can make one movement sound like a prayer, and then in the next shift into an almost funny country dance tune.”
Perlman first heard Schumann’s “Fantasiestucke” played on piano and clarinet (it also has been paired with the cello).
“But I wanted to play it on the violin. For me, Schumann is the true Romantic, even more than Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and he also is musically very individualistic. Is this piece the most technically difficult on the program? That’s a relative term, and it’s not always about speed or other pyrotechnical things. It’s about interpretation, about bringing out the colors, or shaping a phrase, or about being able to say what you want to say. If you are a student, getting the pyrotechnics right can be time well spent. But I want to enjoy myself now when I’m playing.”
The final work on the program will be Ravel’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major.”
“The piece is very jazz-inspired, especially in the bluesy sound of the second movement,” said Perlman. (Ravel was inspired by W.C. Handy’s classic blues band that performed St. Louis-style blues in Paris in the 1920s, when this piece was written.) “What’s interesting about the first movement is that the violin and piano are in continual juxtaposition with each other. They never do the same thing; they’re set against each other, and yet they are together. The last movement has a lot of interesting Ravelian harmonies.”
As for De Silva, “he is a pianist,” Perlman insists, noting that “accompanist” is not a politically correct term. De Silva studied at the Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay, who also was one of Perlman’s teachers. And he has played with such other violin virtuosos as Midori, Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
“He also happens to be a virtuoso travel agent,” said Perlman, chuckling. “He is a genius at making reservations; it’s one of his great hobbies.”
Asked about the threatened obliteration of the National Endowment for the Arts, Perlman was emphatic.
“The arts are the soul of a society,” he said. “To even think about cutting funding for the arts is criminal. I cannot even take it seriously, but I am very worried. I cannot imagine what would happen if the NEA were cut. And what’s next — science? Then what would we be?”