The Kennedy Center

Itzhak Perlman


The world falls in love with music when Itzhak Perlman takes up his violin. A superstar by any standard and a rarity in the classical field, Perlman has taken hold of the public imagination as few violin virtuosos ever have, bringing joy to millions with his playing. Having lost the use of his legs after falling victim to polio at the age of four, Perlman always sits as he plays. But he never fails to bring audiences to their feet. Perlman's tone has been described as aristocratic, but his playing is decidedly populist: from the most jaded music lovers to the youngest initiates whose love of music Perlman loves to encourage, it is all but impossible to remain unmoved by the musician and his music. His adventurous repertory encompasses virtually the entire classical repertory for the violin as well as some of the most challenging and exciting music of today. A master of baroque, classical, romantic and modern music, he also has lavished his intensely joyful string sounds on everything from the brave old world of klezmer to the limitless frontiers of jazz. His own arrangements of Scott Joplin's ragtime classics have added immeasurably to performance tradition of the American repertory. His heartrending violin solos in the John Williams soundtrack score for Steve Spielberg's Oscar-winning picture Schindler's List proved to be one of Perlman's own proudest achievements. His most surprising, so far, has been his operatic debut, as a bass, singing the small role of the Jailer in James Levine's recording of Puccini's Tosca starring Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo.

His further collaborations with musicians as varied as Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma, and Jessye Norman, together with his growing solo discography, are the stuff of recording history. He has entertained millions beyond the concert hall, with appearances on television shows from "Sesame Street" and "The Late Show with David Letterman" to the "Grammy Awards" and "Live from Lincoln Center." He has hosted the Three Tenors Encore! concert from Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, brought his klezmer tour to the Hollywood Bowl, celebrated Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg on the 150th birthday salute to the great composer, and he has paid tribute to Dvorak in Prague. Perlman even has moved to the conductor's podium, not only as principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony but also by leading the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. Everywhere, before every sort of audience, the response to Perlman's music most often is rapture.

He was born in Israel in 1945, the son of a barber. Undeterred by his early bout with polio, the young man persevered in his music studies and excelled at the Shulamit Academy in Tel Aviv, where he was taught the violin by Rivka Goldgart. Soon he was performing with the Israel Broadcasting Orchestra. He emigrated to the United States in 1958, and in 1959 he was featured in "Ed Sullivan's Caravan of Stars," a showcase of gifted young artists where the future master came out and played "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" as well as the demanding final movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He won a scholarship to the Juilliard School, where he studied under the legendary Dorothy Delay and Ivan Galamian. His professional debut came in1963, at Carnegie Hall, playing the Wienawski F-sharp Violin Concerto. In 1964, Perlman won the prestigious Leventritt Competition and his international career was launched.

He returned to Israel in 1965 for a season of concerts, making his British debut the same year at Festival Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. Never forgetting his early encouragement, from his teachers as well as from Isaac Stern, Perlman from the beginning of his career made a habit of encouraging young talent and has over the years held a variety of teaching posts, including master classes at London's South Bank Summer Music Series beginning in 1968, the Meadowbrooks Music Festival in 1970, and close involvement, alongside his wife Toby, in Perlman Music program for young people, beginning in 1998. On the Fourth of July, 1986, Perlman was one of twelve first-generation Americans to be honored with the Medal of Liberty in recognition and appreciation of his contributions to the United States. In December 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Perlman the National Medal of Arts.

"Why such affection for Perlman?" asked Tim Page in The Washington Post. "To begin with, he reciprocates." Perlman's fellow Kennedy Center Honoree Isaac Stern once described the younger violinist's talent as "utterly limitless." Veteran critic Andrew Porter, writing in The New Yorker, echoed the feelings of countless fans when he described the experience of Perlman in performance as "everything one wants a violin sound to be." Perlman's tone is warm and rich, the very definition of what has come to be known as the Russian-Israeli school of violin, whose generous influence on American music-making is difficult to overestimate. Like the greatest and most sensitive singers, Perlman deploys his ravishing instrument with the inflections and drama of a universal language. Perlman means every note he plays. His profound musicianship and technical prowess, his command of the most delicate articulation as well as the most staggering raw power, this violinist's boundless generosity, exuberance and sheer love of music make for the sort of artistry any age is fortunate to boast.
Photo of Itzhak Perlman