Itzhak Perlman’s ‘good music’ recipe is in the mix

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Violinist Itzhak Perlman’s recipe for musical success is a simple one: Study hard, play well and never perform any compositions you don’t like.

And like a good chef, be sure no individual components of a performance stand out. Rather, the musical ingredients should blend seamlessly, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“I always try to compare the quality of sound to certain foods,” says Perlman, 71, who once appeared on the PBS series Artist’s Table with celebrated chef Jacques Pepin to talk about his penchant for food. “I say to my students, ‘Your sound is good, but it’s more yogurt than ice cream, and it should be like ice cream.”

The multi-award-winning Israeli-born violin virtuoso admittedly loves to eat. He finds food a good metaphor for music, especially when he’s teaching his students at the Juilliard School, which he also attended, or in the Perlman Music Program, a summer camp for exceptional string performers aged 11–18.

“Think about vibrato. I should not hear it, but it should be an essential part of the performance,” Perlman says. “No one sits down to a meal and says, ‘This dish is beautifully salted.’ You only notice if it is too salty or doesn’t have enough salt. So, too, with musical components.”

Madison audience members will have a chance to sample some of Perlman’s more flavorful musical morsels when he appears April 29 with longtime collaborator pianist Rohan De Silva at Overture Center for the Arts. Rest assured that the recipe for Perlman’s performance will contain just the right blend of seasonings.

“Throughout my career I have made it a point of never playing anything I didn’t like,” Perlman says. “I don’t believe I can perform with commitment and a connection to the composition if I don’t appreciate the music.”

The violinist’s Madison program will feature works by a variety of composers. Selections include: Vivaldi’s “Sonata in A Major for Violin Continuo Op. 2 No. 2,” Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Piano Op. 12 No. 1”, Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke Op. 73,” and Ravel’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major.”

Perlman also likely will perform a few other pieces that he will announce from the stage during the program. Certainly, they will only be from composers whose work he admires.

“My first falling-in-love-with composer was Brahms,” the violinist says. “When I was young I thought his work was amazing.”

Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, Perlman first became interested in the violin when he heard a piece of classical music on the radio. At age 3 he was denied entry to the Shulamit Conservatory because he was too small to hold a violin. He taught himself to play on a toy violin until he was finally admitted to the school and able to study with Rivka Goldgart. He gave his first recital at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv at age 10.

He moved to New York to attend Juilliard and first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show at age 13. Since that time he has become a bona fide superstar of classical music, earning numerous awards and performing in venues worldwide, including President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony.

Perlman contracted polio at age 4, but that never stopped his musical pursuits. He gets around on crutches, or with the help of an Amigo motorized scooter and performs sitting down.

The violinist’s tastes also have expanded from Brahms to include other classical composers, including Beethoven and Mozart. He also performs the works of composers he feels have not been fully appreciated.

“Take Stravinsky. Some people see him as a modern composer and think ‘What a drag. Where is the melody?” Perlman says. “I find him an amazing composer, especially given the humor you find in his music.”

Humor in music is something Perlman finds especially appealing. Sometimes the composer writes musical humor into a composition, and other times it’s added by varying the bow speed or in other aspects of the way the music is played. It may take a discerning ear and musical knowledge to pick it out, but Perlman says there is more humor in classical music than many casual listeners may think.

“It’s often a lightness in the music itself,” Perlman explains. “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 contains a lot of drama, but there is a lot of fun in the rhythms of the piece. Listen to any scherzo movement in a later Mozart symphony and you will find a lot of humor.”

Whether a composition is serious or humorous, Perlman says, it’s all part of the universal language in which music speaks. No matter where the violinist performs, he is almost assured a request for John Williams’ haunting theme he performed from Academy Award-winning score for the 1993 film Schindler’s List, clear testimony to music’s universal language.

“What a perfect example of what music means globally,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak, everyone responds the same way to a piece like that.”

Williams’ composition also speaks to he healing power music can have. Perlman believes there was never a time was music was needed more.

“Life these days is extremely stressful,” he adds. “Listening to music can be a great way to escape hardship.”

On stage

Violinist Itzhak Perlman performs with pianist Rohan De Silva April 29 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $50–$100 and can be purchased online at or by calling the Overture Center box office at 608-258-4141.