When Itzhak Perlman takes the stage at Avery Fisher Hall next week, it will mark his first solo recital in New York City in seven years.
What’s wrong, Mr. P? Don’t you love us anymore?
Perlman’s bass-baritone laugh rings across the phone lines when he hears the question.
“It’s not like I haven’t played in New York in all that time,” he replies. “I’ve played with orchestras, I just haven’t done a solo recital. I think it has something to do with the seven fat cows and seven lean cows of Pharaoh’s dream.”
He laughs again, then adds, “It doesn’t really have any significance. Time goes fast, though.”
On Dec. 3, Perlman won’t be alone on that vast stage. His frequent collaborator Rohan De Silva will be at the piano. The two have been playing together since the death of Samuel Sanders, another long-time musical partner of Perlman’s, in 1999.
“When Samuel Sanders passed away, I was looking for someone to play with, and I knew about Rohan because he worked with my violin teacher, Dorothy DeLay,” Perlman recalls. “The thing about working with a collaborative pianist is that you have to be on the same page musically, but you have to get along as well.”
When touring, a soloist will probably spend as much time with his accompanist as he would with a spouse.
“You fly together, you check into a hotel together, you rehearse, you perform; it’s got to click on many levels,” Perlman says.
The musical requirements are no less rigorous but easier to define.
“You look for somebody that can perform the pieces that you’re interested in,” the famed violinist says. “They have to be flexible performing the repertoire, and they have to be on a musical level where you can actually discuss things you want to do. Of course, they have to be technically proficient, but they have to have a certain amount of musical flexibility. Not everyone likes a particular way of performing a Beethoven sonata.”
For that matter, not everyone likes the same Beethoven sonatas, and that is a consideration when you are putting together a recital program.
“I like to play the pieces I like to hear,” Perlman says emphatically. “I’m not going to say, ‘I’ll play that because the audience likes it.’ I have to be convinced that I will enjoy it and do it justice. I believe the audience will enjoy hearing what you have to say now. For me planning a recital is like creating a menu for a dinner party. What shall we have for an appetizer? Soup? Main course? Dessert?”
Perlman usually likes to start with an earlier piece from his large repertoire. “Something Baroque or Classical, then move on to something Romantic,” he says.
For this recital, however, he says he’s “doing it upside down, based on the way I felt the pieces played out and their lengths.”
He has a pretty infallible gauge for measuring whether the sequencing works.
“I’ve tried it and I’m having a good time,” Perlman says. “If I’m convinced, the audience will be convinced.”
However, on stage he does something a little different for dessert.
“I like to finish with encores of the sort that violinists played long ago — something by Fritz Kreisler or a [Jascha] Heifetz transcription,” he says. “I think of them like bonbons.”
He and De Silva approach the encores with a deliberate insouciance. They don’t choose the piece until it’s time to play it.
“Rohan brings a stack of music on stage with him,” Perlman says. “We’ll go through them, ‘How about this?’ ‘No, what about that?’ It makes the experience a bit more interesting for us and the audience. It enables us to be more spontaneous.”
Spontaneity is a quality that Perlman believes is key to playing the nearly endless global circuit of recitals.
“If a piece is getting tired for me, as far as my interest in playing it is concerned, I put it aside,” he says. “Great pieces will always have great longevity. I may play something for a season and decide afterwards to put it aside and go to something else for the next season. Sometimes I may change [the program] in the middle of the season. It depends on how I feel. The important thing is for me to be convincing to the audience, and that only happens if I’m convinced myself. Once it starts to be an effort to play something…”
Perlman is one of those fortunate musicians whose musical interests are wide enough that he has no trouble finding other ways to amuse himself — and an audience — with a change of gears. Over the years he has recorded with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and done film music with John Williams. He’s even played bluegrass with John Denver.
But two projects outside the classical music umbrella are particularly close to his heart, and he keeps returning to them. In the past year he has recorded and performed with Cantor Yitzhak Meir Helfgot in a program that blends hazanut and a bit of klezmer; they were backed a band led by Hankus Netsky that included several young string players from the Perelman Music Project, the music camp run by Perlman’s wife Toby. And the 20th anniversary of his best-selling klezmer project, “In the Fiddler’s House,” is approaching, which means a new round of live performances of that material as well.
“The music [from those two programs] is in my DNA as a Jew,” he says. “These are things I’ve lived and experienced since I was a boy in Israel. I hadn’t played much of this music when I was growing up, but when the opportunity presented itself it came very naturally to me. It’s something I was brought up listening to.”
Even more important, he adds gleefully, “I like the stuff! It happens to be that I’m Jewish and I love it, so it’s a win-win situation for me. But you don’t have to be Jewish to like this music. When we recorded with Cantor Helfgot we had members of the orchestra from the Perlman Music Project, a lot of whom were not Jewish, and they went crazy listening to it. The music is just so accessible.”
As he has gotten older, besides performing and teaching, Perlman has begun conducting more. (His four-year stint at the helm of the Westchester Philharmonic ended in 2011 when he abruptly resigned; the orchestra was reportedly facing financial problems.) He turns 70 next August.
“Getting older has affected my music in a totally positive way,” he asserts. “What keeps an artist going is their ability to keep the freshness and spontaneity of what they’re doing. Right now I’m playing better than ever. A lot has to do with my ability to hear and listen in a clearer way, and that has to do with my experiences as a teacher and conductor. Both of those jobs involve listening.”
Is retirement visible on the horizon?
“I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t like to plan. As long as I’m happy with what I’m doing I’ll keep playing.”
And we’ll keep listening. Happily.
Itzhak Perlman will perform a solo violin recital with Rohan De Silva at the piano on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. The program will include works by Vivaldi, Schumann, Beethoven and Ravel. For information call (212) 721-6500 or go to http://lc.lincolncenter.org.