His parents left Poland to live in Israel before it was Israel. In 1945 their first child, a son, was born. As a toddler all he wanted to do was play the violin. When told he was not old enough to hold a violin, the boy settled for a toy fiddle and sawed happily away.
When he was old enough to hold a violin it became evident that little Itzhak Perlman was a prodigy. He performed his first recital at age ten. Three years later he appeared on a newfangled media device called television, on The Ed Sullivan Show. Viewers noticed Itzhak wore crutches. He had contracted polio at age four, but had learned to walk with crutches.
Itzhak moved to America to study at the Juilliard School of Music under violin master Ivan Galamian. In 1964 he performed on the Ed Sullivan show again, along with the Rolling Stones. That same year Perlman won the renowned Leventritt Competition. From then until today, fifty years later, Itzhak Perlman has repeatedly moved from triumph to triumph.
He is the premier violinist in the world. His recordings are all best sellers; fifteen have won Grammy awards. He has performed with every major orchestra to sell out crowds around the entire world. Perlman was a member of a landmark tour to Soviet Russia by the Israel Philharmonic in 1990. The event became an Emmy winning PBS documentary called “Perlman in Russia.”
During his five decades of playing music Itzhak Perlman has become a beloved figure: not only for his violin playing, but for his charm, wit, and humanity. He is able to communicate his love of music to audiences large and small. He is a determined advocate for people with disabilities, and has founded a classical music educational program for children.
He is married to a musician and together they have raised five children. Perlman likes talking to children about music. He takes time to talk to the students in his classical music program: answering their questions, sharing his wisdom, and enchanting children with his humor and joy and wisdom.
Itzhak Perlman moves easily from small people to larger than life people. In 2007 he performed for Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, who were guests of President George W. Bush at the White House. In January 2009 Mr. Perlman was invited to the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, where he performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Perlman has been honored with awards by Presidents Reagan and Clinton. He has been given numerous honorary degrees. He has also appeared on Sesame Street, David Letterman’s Late Show, The Frugal Gourmet, the Tonight Show, numerous PBS specials, and many Live from Lincoln Center broadcasts. He collaborated with John Williams in the film score for Academy Award winning Schindler’s List. Perlman played the violin solos on the movie soundtrack.
All of which brings us to “the artist’s task.” Despite his fifty years on stage, Perlman shows few signs of slowing down. Of course, some nights are more challenging than others. Like the concert he performed with the New York Symphony at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Perlman came on stage with his crutches, set them on the floor, and sat on a chair. He tuned his violin, an antique Soil Stradivarius made in 1714, considered one of the finest violins in the world. He began playing a Beethoven violin concerto when something unusual happened.
Halfway through the performance a loud crack came from Itzhak Perlman’s three hundred year old violin. A string broke. The concert hall fell silent. All eyes were on Perlman. Most people expected him to either go offstage to get another violin, or have someone come on stage to restring the instrument. Instead, Perlman nodded to the conductor to continue the concerto, and the symphony resumed playing.
In a remarkable feat of musicianship, Perlman played the rest of the concerto with only three strings on his violin. Somehow he reconfigured his part to play every note on a three string violin. When Perlman finished there was silence. Then the audience rose and cheered.
Perlman caught his breath as the applause died down. Then he spoke to the audience in a quiet, thoughtful tone of voice: “Sometimes,” he said, “it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
This humble self-appraisal applies, I believe, to any artist, whatever their medium, whatever their age. We owe it to ourselves, to our fellow artists, and to our audiences to be true to our art, our creative process, and to persevere in our craft whatever the obstacles.