Musical Genres,

The Most Famous Violinist – Itzhak Perlman

February 23, 2017

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Summary

Itzhak Perlman is violinist that you simply cannot, not know about. In this episode, we will explore his story and what makes him a great violinist.

But Itzhak Perlman is not only a sweet-tone violinist, he’s also a legitimate virtuoso violinist.

If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s when you can play the most sophisticated and challenging repertoire which was developed in the early 19th century by composers like Franz Liszt and Niccolo Paganini. To play this repertoire a violinist must master an incredible scope of insanely difficult techniques which we will cover in this episode.

Perlman has become a deeply revered musician who played with nearly all of the world’s renowned orchestras, and at venues which have included a State Dinner at the White House honoring Queen Elizabeth II, and a Presidential Inauguration.

In 2015, Itzhak Perlman was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama for his meritorious contributions to cultural endeavors of the United States and for being a powerful advocate for people with disabilities. In June of last year, he received the 2016 Genesis Prize.

Itzhak Perlman’s recordings have garnered 16 GRAMMY® Awards and regularly appear on the best-seller charts. 

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Transcript

The year was 1948 when it all began. As a 3 year old boy living in Tel Aviv, Perlman heard a violin concerto playing on the radio and his childhood imagination was instantly gripped and over overwhelmed with passion for the instrument.

But Perlman was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and you could say, in the wrong body. Let me explain:

First, he was Born to a family in poverty, which lived in a tiny apartment and would receive care packages from relatives in Toronto. Home-made chicken soup in a jar, a can of Del Monte fruit cocktail, and a check for a few dollars.

Second, when Perlman was 4 years old, he contracted polio, and his legs became permanently disabled. Even though the doctors expressed much skepticism and he was denied admission to the music Conservatory for being too small to hold a violin, he taught himself how to play the instrument using a toy fiddle until he was old enough to study at the at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv.

Imagine the scene.

A Jewish boy, living in poverty, barely old enough to hold a violin, stricken with polio, practicing his violin daily on crutches.

It’s amazing that young children can be so gripped by music that they would undergo the most un-childlike conditions to create it! What kind of a 4 year old desires stand still and hold a chunk of wood uncomfortably between their chin and shoulder while scraping horsehair on thin strands of metal which produce nothing more than screeching noise for the first few years. Can you image how powerful the aesthetic imagination is, to produce such masochistic behavior!

Fortunately, Perlman was eventually admitted to the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and by the age of 10, he was giving public concerts.

His fortunes especially turned when he received an America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship and had the opportunity to move to New York to study at Juilliard with Ivan Gala’mian (who was considered the greatest violin instructor in the world) and Dorothy DeLay.

And Perlman shined. His talent did not go unrecognized as he soon won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in 1964, and performed at Carnegie Hall, which led to an incredible worldwide career.

Perlman has become a deeply revered musician who played with nearly all of the world’s renowned orchestras, and at venues which have included a State Dinner at the White House honoring Queen Elizabeth II, and a Presidential Inauguration.

In 2015, Itzhak Perlman was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama for his meritorious contributions to cultural endeavors of the United States and for being a powerful advocate for people of disabilities. In June of last year, he received the 2016 Genesis Prize.

Itzhak Perlman’s recordings have garnered 16 GRAMMY® Awards and regularly appear on the best-seller charts.

Music critics often remark on the sweet tone of Perlman’s performances. One composition which especially highlights this is the main theme from Spielberg’s Academy Award—winning film called, Schindler’s List. Film composer John Williams brought out the tragedy of the holocaust in the stunning main theme which has become a favorite of many.

When you listen to this theme, it’s as-if someone is retelling you the story of Schindler. Notice the progression. The theme begins in the lower octave, than jumps to the second octave, followed by a bridge and finally the composition climaxes with the theme in the third octave. Take a listen:

But Itzhak Perlman is not only a sweet-tone violinist, he’s also a legitimate virtuoso violinist.

If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s basically when you can play sophisticated and challenging repertoire which was developed in the early 19th century by composers like Franz Lizst and Niccolo Paganini. To play this repertoire a violinist must master an incredible scope of insanely difficult techniques.

As a violinist myself, and for any of you who have tried to learn the violin, you can appreciate how incredibly difficult of an instrument it is. Unlike guitars and many other stringed instruments which have frets, the violin is small, and the placement of your fingers on the neck have to be exact to a millimeter. Especially when you’re in higher positions, literally, every millimeter is a completely different note.

I remember the first time I saw Perlman play, and I was absolutely dumbfounded because typically violinists have long skinny fingers. It is recounted that Paganini was able to play third position notes in the first position because of how long his fingers were. But Perlman’s hands defied all odds. His fingers are neither skinny nor long! But he plays with impeccable precision!

Besides the basic techniques of bowing, vibrato, etc, Let me highlight some of the techniques which a violinist is required to master before even thinking about virtuoso repertoire.

First, there’s left hand pizzicato, which is when you pluck the strings with your left hand. The challenge is that you need to pluck the right note, so with one finger you’re plucking and with the others, you’re pressing on the string while your right hand also bows notes in between.

Second is double stops, which is playing two strings at the same time. And apart from the fact that you now have to play two notes perfectly in tune, you bow has to have at the exact angle to vibrate two strings simultaneously. The permissible fluctuation in the angle of the bow is probably less than one degree.

But double stops are especially challenging when you’re playing octaves or 10ths, which are intervals that especially sound bad if you’re even slightly out of tune. What makes is so difficult, is that when you’re ascending with octaves on the piano, your fingers maintain the same distance and you’re always in tune. But on the violin, with each note, the distance between your fingers needs to decrease by a fraction of a millimeter, because the string gets shorter. And if you’re off even a little bit, everyone will hear it.

Then there are also triple and quadruple stops, which, btw, is the only way a violin can play chords. And this is done by running the bow and up and down the strings or strumming them with your right hand.

You also have to master harmonics, which is a complex technique to pull off on the violin. Harmonics access the overtones of any note and produce a unique flute-like texture in the sound. This is achieved by lightly touching the string at specific points, and dividing the string either in half, thirds, or fourths. The tricky part again, is that with every position, the harmonic placement changes and if you’re gently touching a string in a place where the harmonics cannot be accessed, it sounds more like nails on a chalk-board rather than a gentle flute.

There are also many bow techniques where are extremely difficult to master, such as rapid spiccato, and up bow staccato. The challenge is that the bouncing of the bow and the left hand fingering must be absolutely coordinated or it simply doesn’t work.

Now that you’re familiar with some of these techniques, take a listen to how masterfully Perlman navigates through them in the famous Carmen Fantasy, written by Pablo de Sarasate on themes from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet.

Even if you wouldn’t regularly listen to Paganini Caprices, you can’t, not appreciate the skill and technique required to pull this off.

Finally, here are some fun facts about Itzhak Perlman:

Perlman plays a Stradivarius violin made in 1714 which is worth many millions of dollars. It’s simply amazing that a violin could be worth so much.

Over the past two decades, Perlman has become more actively involved in music education, alongside his wife Toby, his close involvement in the Perlman Music Program has been one of his favorite activities as has taught full-time each summer since its founding in 1993.

Perlman resides in New York City with his wife, Toby, also a classically trained violinist. They have five children: Noah, Navah, Leora, Rami and Ariella.

Many don’t know this about Perlman. But he’s a real family man. He loves his children dearly and hates to travel if it means being away from his family.

Finally, Perlman is a real food and wine connoisseur. If you’re ever thinking of taking him out for lunch, be sure to do your homework and properly match the wine with the meal.

Itzhak Perlman is a violin player you simply cannot, not know about. He has been the quintessential violinist in the United States for nearly half a century and will remain a legend and an inspiration for many generations to come. His optimistic demeanor, his personality full of laughter, self-deprecation, and warmth makes him all the more lovable and admirable.

If you ever have a chance to see this legend play his violin for you, be sure not to miss it.

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