Itzhak Perlman didn’t become a maestro of the violin by playing the best student violin or knowing the benefits of playing an instrument. He was simply gifted from birth so even his hard work in becoming one of the best came naturally to this legendary violinist, conductor, and music teacher.
Who Is Itzhak Perlman?
In short, Itzhak Perlman is an American violinist, conductor, and music teacher of Israeli origin. From 1958 until the 2020s he has accomplished quite a career for himself, performing all through the world, including at a State Dinner in the honor of Queen Elizabeth II at the White House and the Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama.
He also worked as a conductor for the Westchester Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Itzhak garnered much praise for his work, being one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. He also received four Emmy Awards and 16 Grammy Awards plus a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
His early years
Itzhak was born on the 31st of August 1945 in the British Mandate of Palestine, Tel Aviv, present-day Israel. His father was named Chaim and his mother Shoshana. They were immigrants from Poland and managed to reach the Palestine territory separately, without knowing each other, somewhere in the mid-1930s.
It is here that they first met and soon started a family with their son, Itzhak, who would become one of the most celebrated violinists of all time.
When he was only four years old, Itzhak got polio, as the vaccine for it would not be available worldwide until the mid-1950s. As a result of the disease, he had to use leg braces and crutches. Today he still uses crutches but also an electric scooter for better mobility. This is why during his performances, you’ll find him seated on a chair.
Itzhak developed an interest in the instrument that would define his career at a very young age while listening to classical music performances that were being played on the radio. When he was only three years old, he applied to study at the Shulamit Conservatory but was rejected as he was too small to actually be able to hold a violin properly.
Because of this, Itzhak learned how to play the violin by himself, practicing on a toy fiddle until the age when he was considered to be old enough to become a student of Rivka Goldgart at the aforementioned institution, but also at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. This is here where, at only 10 years old, he held his very first recital.
At only 13 years of age, Itzhak moved to the United States of America as he wanted to study at the famous Juilliard School under the direction of famous violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian and his also famous assistant, Dorothy DeLay.
Life as a performer
The same year he moved to America, Itzhak made two appearances on the iconic “Ed Sullivan Show” which was a launching platform for many artists of the day. He would return to perform on the show in 1964 on an episode that also featured the Rolling Stones.
In 1963 Itzhak had already made his debut at the Carnegie Hall, being one of the youngest people to ever perform there, while the following year he was the recipient of the prestigious Leventritt Competition award. This competition was famous for not always giving an award if the jury felt nobody deserved it.
When he received the prize, Itzhak was only the 15th person to do so, despite the fact that the competition was established in 1939. Until 1981, only 6 other people were declared winners, and only 3 of them for the violin.
As a result of this fame, Itzhak could afford to go on tours across the world, making him more famous. He also made occasional appearances on American TV shows like “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “Sesame Street” in addition to his touring schedule. In the meantime, Itzhak also became a recording artist.
Due to his popularity with both the critics and the fans, he was also often asked to perform at different functions at the White House under various administrations.
On occasion, Itzhak also proved he could sing vocally such as his performance of “A Jailer” from Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1980 that also featured Luciano Pavarotti as a performer and Zubin Mehta as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This was done as part of the Pension Fund Benefit Concert that was telecast as part of “Live from Lincoln Center”.
He would resume the role for the 1981 EMI release of the opera that also included Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto, and Renato Bruson, while the conductor was James Levine.
On the 5th of July 1986, the Statue of Liberty celebrated 100 years since it was built a century before. The New York Philharmonic held a concert as part of the anniversary in Central Park. The conductor was Zubin Mehta again and Itzhak was one of the violinists. The concert was transmitted live by ABC across the country.
The next year, Itzhak became a part of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour that visited Eastern Europe in cities like Warsaw and Budapest. He returned to this Philharmonic Orchestra during the spring of 1990 for a tour of the Soviet Union (present-day Russia), despite the instability in the region. Visited cities included Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Itzhak reunited with the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1994 this time for a tour of Asia that included India and China.
Despite the fact that most of his career had been based on being a solo performer, on occasion, Itzhak worked with other musicians of his day, such as Yuri Temirkanov, Yo-Yo Ma, Jessye Norman, and Pinchas Zukerman when St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) celebrated 150 years of Tchaikovsky.
His most common collaborator was Pinchas Zukerman, who is also an Israeli-American conductor and violinist. In 2015 it was revealed that Itzhak performed on the famous violin solo from Billy Joel’s 1990 single, “The Downeaster Alexa”.
The single peaked at 57 in the United States and 76 in the United Kingdom but found greater success in Japan where it reached the top 10 and peaked at number 6.
Itzhak and the movies
Itzhak has also dabbled in music outside the classical genre, such as jazz, and klezmer, the music of Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. He even released a jazz album with the iconic Canadian jazz piano player, Oscar Peterson.
One of his most famous contributions was for the 1993 Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List”. The score for the film was composed by the famous John Williams (“Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “Home Alone”) while the main theme was performed by Itzhak Perlman. The film won several awards for the score, including the Academy Award.
Another famous film for which Itzhak lent his talent to is “Memoirs of a Geisha” from 2005 where he was the violin soloist; this was also another collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He would go on to perform selections of the musical scores of the nominated films for “Best Original Score” in 2001 and 2006.
His teaching career
In 1975, Itzhak became part of the Conservatory of Music from Brooklyn College. In 2003 he succeeded his music teacher, Dorothy DeLay, for the holder of the Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Chair in Violin Studies at his former school, Juilliard School.
The Perlman music program was created in 1995 by Itzhak’s wife, Toby Perlman and Suki Sandler as a summer camp for kids between 11 and 18 who show a special talent when it comes to string instruments. It has since evolved into a program that covers the entire year. Itzhak became a teacher there as well.
Those who take part in the program are encouraged to practice together so they’ll develop a connection of friendship when working instead of being by themselves when it comes to practice – the result is that the students find a place in which they feel like they belong.
At the start of the 21st century, Itzhak also became a conductor by being the principal guest conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 2007 he became principal conductor and artistic director of the Westchester Philharmonic.
Despite being in his 70s, Itzhak Perlman doesn’t show signs of slowing down as he continues to treat us to his amazing talents.