Few would deny that Itzhak Perlman speaks most eloquently through his violin, from which he coaxes some of the most golden sounds ever to emerge from that instrument.
But on Wednesday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, in a free lunchtime program presented in partnership with Access Living (the Chicago non-profit devoted to providing practical help and advocacy for those with disabilities), the musician, who contracted polio at the age of four, spoke eloquently – and with characteristic humor – about the other crucial aspect of his life.
Zipping on stage in a sleek electric Amigo scooter, the now 70-year-old Perlman, who looks as fit as a fiddle, chatted with Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living. The occasion was the culminating day in the celebration of ADA 25 Chicago – part of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On Wednesday evening Perlman was to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky program at the Harris, which, coincidentally, has just installed welcome new railings in its seating area, installed two large, high-speed elevators, and opened up its lobby area for greater flow.
Perlman, the Grammy and Emmy Award-winning musician who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House this past November (where he was in the company of friends Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand, as well as “the amazing Willie Mays and a woman who worked for NASA long before many women did that”), laughingly recalled that when he went to the White House under a different administration he was given a giant KitKat bar. Then he got down to more serious matters, talking about how his own attitudes about his disability have evolved almost as dramatically as the attitudes of the wider public.
“I didn’t like it when, early on in my career, the media invariably mentioned how I came on stage using crutches and played sitting down,” he confessed. “I wanted to be judged as a musician, to know if I was worthwhile as an artist. And eventually the stories stopped mentioning that. But once I was established I came full circle. I had no problem that people mentioned it. I just didn’t want the two things to be mixed up.”
Perlman quipped that throughout his early years in Israel his parents’ only concern (and they were not musicians), was that he practiced.
“So I filled the air with notes, and invented easy exercises to look busy and make them happy,” he said, adding that he did practice three hours a day. He also recalled he was chosen to be the goalie in neighborhood soccer games played in narrow streets “because my crutches were a good barrier.”
Perlman’s disability only became an issue when, at 13, he was invited to the U.S. to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, “that variety hour in which monkeys and ballet dancers shared the stage.” He soon entered the Juilliard School where he said he never felt stigmatized by his classmates, but questions about travel, and about playing concerts from a chair (“even though only solo violinists stand, while all those in orchestras and chamber groups sit, just like me”) did begin to arise.
“The thing is, disability is not just one thing,” said Perlman. “I might not be able to move my legs, but I can move my brain. To a large extent it’s a matter of attitude. Back in the 1990s, in a ‘Sesame Street’ scene I did, a little girl violinist ran easily up the stairs to the stage, but had trouble playing the violin, while the steps were the curse of the world for me, but the violin was easy.”
Although “accessibility” has improved greatly in recent decades, Perlman said he still faces major roadblocks: Wranglinbg for permission to use his scooter in order to get to his seat on a plane; entering restaurants (where he sometimes has to use the kitchen entrance); using garbage elevators in hotels, and having to deal with badly planned “so-called accessible bathtubs” and super-high beds.”
“If designers would just get into a wheelchair and ride around a building many of the problems would be solved,” said Perlman.