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One On 1 Profile: Violinist Itzhak Perlman Puts The Future Of Classical Music In His Young Musicians' Hands

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He's performed for presidents and teaches at world-renowned Juilliard, but violinist Itzhak Perlman's latest creation harkens back to his youth, growing up with polio in Israel and the United States. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 report.

Everyone knows Itzhak Perlman loves music. But not everyone knows he loves a certain baseball team in Queens.

So when we met him last fall, there was an obvious question.

Is there a particular piece of music that is synonymous with the New York Mets?

"Well, uh, yes," Perlman said. "For this year, Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony. It’s symphony number 6."


The Mets might not bring Perlman much comfort, but comfort is the word he uses to describe the music on his most recent CD, Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul. A collaboration with Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.

Why does Perlman call this his comfort music? Because it's the Eastern European Jewish music of his youth, growing up in Israel.

"Every Saturday there was on the radio, I think it was like two o’clock in the afternoon, it was cantorial music hour," Perlman said. "How do you like that? Just, I can imagine here in New York, we’ll listen to the cantorial music hour."

Perlman's violin has taken him around the world, but New York is home.

We spoke in the room in Lincoln Center where Perlman gives lessons to his Juilliard students. He also serves regularly as their conductor in Avery Fisher Hall.

He teaches in the Perlman Music Program, created by his wife, Toby.

Perlman has dedicated much of his career to teaching young musicians. When he was young, he dreamed of playing like the greats, like Isaac Stern and Yascha Heifeitz.

But now students come to Perlman wanting to become as good as he is.

"It feels like I’m getting old. It feels like, well you know, I’m very very flattered obviously," he said. "But I keep telling them, don’t play like me. Play like you."

"Eventually you have to give it your own individuality. Your own stamp," he added.

Perlman's used television to educate as well, and as someone who has walked with braces since childhood, the lessons to young people occasionally have extended beyond the realm of music.

His talent and his gift of gab made him a frequent guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

"He was the greatest," Perlman said. "You know, the best interviewer."

Perlman has long been considered an ambassador for classical music.

He's played for presidents, from Reagan to Obama.

"The more exposure classical music has the better it is," Perlman said. "I mean, that’s one of the things. It's got to be exposure. People have to know about it. It cannot be a hidden secret."

Perlman's work has gone beyond the traditional confines of classical music, he's played jazz and ragtime as well.

But for one of his most famous recordings, the theme from Schindler's List, composed by John Williams, Perlman was able to connect to the music of his immigrant parents and his ancestors back in Poland.

"The first time I heard it, I said 'Oh my god. This is incredible,'" Perlman said. "Because he got it. He got the kind of atmosphere that this music is supposed to bring to the film. You would think, 'Oh this is a very nice piece for a nice New York Jewish audience,' you know, and so forth -- not true at all. I came from China last year. The thing they wanted to hear the most was, 'Can you play Schindler’s List?' It's totally international."

Perlman's world changed when he was only 4, the age he contracted polio.

"I did not have any periods of time where I would sit in my room depressed saying, 'What’s happening to me? I don’t know, I don’t know if I can handle it.' No. That was a natural thing of growing up," Perlman said. "So I grew up before, running around the block. And so now I had to do different things."

Like play the violin.

Perlman has long maintained that he was not a prodigy.

But when Ed Sullivan came to Israel in the late 1950s to audition acts for his show, he chose Perlman.

Sullivan brought him to the U.S. for three shows.

The young violinist and his family left Israel for New York, and eventually decided to stay.

"We have a word when we go abroad, we go for 'hishtalmut,' which means a completion of yourself," he said.

"The dream is always to go abroad," he added. "So when this chance came up there was no question, you know, would you like to go to the United States, appear on a television show and then go to the Juilliard school? It was a win-win. There was no question about whether we should do it or not."

Perlman and his wife have five grown children. He's been a New Yorker for more than 50 years.

But he says when he goes back to Israel to play or conduct, it still feels like home.

"Israeli audiences are very difficult audiences because they’ve heard everything, and if it’s if it’s bad it’s 'Oh, what is that?' If it’s good, they say, 'Well of course it’s good,'" Perlman said. "So you can’t win."

Unlike the pianist who occasionally can't stand the piano, or the tennis player who hates the racket, Perlman says he's never grown to dislike the violin.

"My life is not 150 percent on my violin, you know. I can play a concert and have a wonderful time and then the next day I’ll go and see a baseball game," he said. "Therefore, I don’t have that thing about well, today I’m not going to bother with music."

There is a direct line between the music on Perlman's latest album and the music of his youth, the latest chapter in a long and fulfilling journey.

"Isn’t that the most amazing thing? That you can make a living doing what you love so much, and that everything evolves all the time," he said. "That’s with me, everything is evolving. I learn from every performance."

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