World's Greatest Living Violinist Itzhak Perlman on Anti-Semitism, Trump, Obama & New Documentary
Driving up to the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman’s leafy East Hampton, New York, estate, the first things one encounters on an unseasonably warm fall day are the family’s two Portuguese water dogs, Muttek and Boychick, gleefully bounding from the front door of the great white house to greet visitors. Perlman jokes that the two fluff balls are “the stars” of the new documentary about him, Itzhak, playing at documentary film festival Doc NYC on Nov. 16.
The evening prior, the film had its world premiere as the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival's opening-night centerpiece, following which Perlman and graduates of the Perlman Music Program gave a surprise performance. Under the watchful gaze of a massive Chuck Close portrait in the family’s sun-dappled open kitchen, the 72-year-old Israeli-born violin legend widely regarded as the world’s greatest living player, sat down to discuss the project with his wife, Toby, who runs the Perlman Music Program, and filmmaker Alison Chernick.
A love story on many levels -- Perlman’s love of music, of the violin, of life itself -- Itzhak is also a testament to his and Toby’s enduring bond more than 50 years after his wife proposed to him (as she proudly mentions -- twice -- in the film). When Perlman entered the room on his motorized scooter, his wife rushed over to fix the upturned collar on his shirt. “See, what would I do without her?” said Perlman, who listens from everything from '50s rock like Elvis and the Beatles to live opera on satellite radio when he’s not playing his violin. The pair held forth on anti-Semitism, their love of President Obama and how he would decline an invitation to the Trump White House. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Billboard: What was it like for you to see this footage?
Toby Perlman: You know that black-and-white section -- it’s a very small clip in Mr. Galamian’s studio where he’s playing [Violin Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor op. 14 III - Rondo. Allegro Giocoso, Wieniawski]. It is just awe-inspiring. Itzhak was 16 or 17. I deal with this age group all day long, every day. The best of the best of the best. This was just... And I don’t think you have to be a violinist to understand that. Alison could have very easily not used that clip. In many ways, the way in which she picked and chose and put it all together, it’s a picture of the reality of who he was and who he is now, and it’s pretty accurate.
Alison Chernick: It’s an evolution of an artist. It was important for us, even if it’s a thin thread throughout, to show it from Ed Sullivan and the early footage to see how he evolved not only as a person, but as a musician, and at the end to hear the confidence changed in his playing as he got older.
There are some great scenes in the film of you back in Israel, including one of you at the studio of violin maker Amnon Weinstein, discussing a violin that was defaced by Nazis during WWII. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise, or at least is being displayed more openly than we’ve seen here in the U.S. and around the world in recent times. Can you talk a little bit about the artist’s role in times of social unrest like this and how best to combat anti-Semitism?
Itzhak Perlman: I don’t think there’s a rise. Usually the rise is with people talking more about it, but it’s always there. I say to everybody, “Don’t ever forget. Always remember.” When you see things happening, you see that nothing has changed really. I never deny who I am. I’m Jewish, I’m from Israel. That’s who I am. Sometimes people say, “We don’t want to talk about it,” but I don’t mind talking about it. And what I believe in.
Toby Perlman: It’s always been there. Right now, it’s come to the surface again.
Itzhak Perlman: It’s the same thing with racism. Every now and then you see where it is really.
Alison Chernick: It was important for me to get some of this into the film. The scene with the violin-maker was tapping into all that.
Itzhak Perlman: The important thing is just to remember. Never forget. Look at what’s going on. Especially for the younger people, because sometimes reality can be twisted. And these days with the words “fake news,” people might think, "Oh, no, it’s probably fake news." No.
What do you make of musicians like Roger Waters, who also lives part-time out here in the Hamptons, who boycott Israel?
Toby Perlman: Who’s Roger Waters?
He was the main songwriter in Pink Floyd. He's very vocal in the boycott of Israel -- the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Itzhak Perlman: So, fine. What am I going to say? He's entitled to his opinion. There’s nothing I say that will convince people otherwise, so that’s it. What can you do? There are many, many people who are on the bandwagon of boycotting Israel.
It’s a larger question, not specific to him, but he does live out here and is a famous musician.
Itzhak Perlman: He’s no friend of mine, so…
Can you tell me a little bit about the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island and your role as a teacher?
Itzhak Perlman: Well, my wife started it, so I think she should talk to you about that because that’s her baby. I just work there.
Toby Perlman: He works for me. [Laughs]
Itzhak Perlman: She is the boss. Seriously.
Toby Perlman: This will be our 24th summer coming up. We keep the program very small. During the seven-week program we take 40 or fewer students, aged 12 to 18. Community is important, so they need to behave as a community and trust one another, which means we have to be honest all the time. The music is an excuse. It’s really all about community.
In the film, you joked that your parents and your teacher made up the triangle of hell for you. What motivates you as a teacher and what do you strive to instill in your students?
Itzhak Perlman: I believe the students should feel that they own the solutions. I want to make sure they don’t just come to the lesson and think, "OK, I’m going to wait and see what the teacher says." When they come to a lesson I let them play a little bit and after they finish, I ask, “So what do you think?” Sometimes they come up with perfect answers and I think, you don’t need me. Why don’t you just listen to yourself and do what you think? I say, “Imagine if you were a critic and you were criticizing your own playing.” I want to make sure that they’re involved in the process. Sometimes when we have studio classes where kids play and the other students comment, when they make comments that sound like me, I think, I’m doing a good job.
Itzhak, you had polio as a young child and it affected your ability to walk. There was a moment in the film where you said something to the effect of, “Judge me by what I do, not by what I can’t do.” Can you recall when that first started to change -- when people first started to judge you for what you do?
Itzhak Perlman: From the very beginning people had to mention the fact that I was walking with crutches and that was a heroic thing and blah, blah, blah and then I sat down [to play] and all was forgotten. When I played Carnegie Hall, just when I was dying for a review, The New York Times went on strike. It was 1963. When you’re a kid and nothing happens and you have that one day at Carnegie Hall, it stays in your head: March 5, 1963. So I’m playing this thing and at the end of the concert people stood up. So no review, but apparently the writers kept writing even though this paper was on strike, just in case if the strike ended, they will have stuff to print. We actually got a hold of the reviewer for the concert and he didn’t like it very much, but what was for me most unforgettable was he raised the question: I’m not sure that the standing ovation was because Mr. Perlman was sitting down or if it was because of the way he played. That’s an example of the way people were thinking and I always had to prove myself. I also said in the film, “Separate your abilities from your disabilities.” I say that about everybody with a disability. What you can't do, you can’t do, but what you can do, let’s not let the other one affect it.
How has the experience of overcoming limitations and people’s perceptions colored your worldview?
Itzhak Perlman: I don’t know. These days I’m so old I’m just concentrating on what’s accessible and what’s not accessible and it’s kind of taking over. When I was younger I was more mobile, but now I use a scooter. A little step, boom I’ve had it. My dream is to have a big convention of interior designers to really talk about what makes a room accessible, because I have [difficulty with] all of these rooms in hotels or getting into airplanes or trains. So many places around the world are unfriendly and it’s not so much because they want to be unfriendly, it’s lack of knowledge and lack of logic. Here, we have the Americans With Disabilities Act and they have codes that are almost meaningless... They put a bar here and a bar there and the room is accessible. Not true. I don’t know if I can do anything about it.
Alison Chernick: With the Genesis Prize, you were able to give money to organizations that support people living with disabilities.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, that’s right.
Toby Perlman: Specifically the problem with us is that this movement, the disability movement or the access movement, it needs a leader and in a certain way, he’s an excellent leader. The only problem is he has a day job. He works so hard. He doesn’t have a spare minute.
What is your time like when you’re out here?
Itzhak Perlman: I go shopping. [Laughs]
Toby Perlman: Almost all the time we’re here we’re working. The retreat at our Shelter Island Music Program starts in a couple of days, so we took off these couple of days.
Itzhak Perlman: So, I don’t want to make you feel guilty. This is our vacation. Don’t feel guilty. No pressure. [Laughs]
There are so many great guest stars in the documentary. Alan Alda, Billy Joel, Barack Obama -- of all the people you’ve collaborated with and performed for, is there anyone you could say has left the most lasting impression?
Toby Perlman: That’s easy. He’s my president.
Itzhak Perlman: When Obama spoke the other day, I was so upset, because I miss those days. What happened? You listen to someone like that...
Toby Perlman: And to be in the same space with him. The intelligence in the room. It crackled.
Itzhak Perlman: The energy was sparkling.
Toby Perlman: And then you felt, OK, there are a lot of problems, but this is the future. We have the smartest president.
How long did it take you?
Alison Chernick: About nine months of filming. It was really over the course of a year.
Itzhak Perlman: Really? Nine months? It seemed like years. [Laughs]
Toby Perlman: There were surprises in that time. We didn't know that we’d be having tea with the prime minister of Israel [Benjamin Netanyahu]. That was also problematic because [of his politics]…
How do you negotiate a time like that?
Toby Perlman: Be polite -- and he has a dog; that changes everything.
Itzhak Perlman: You have to look at it as a respecting the office of the person.
Alison Chernick: It’s great to meet the head of state -- of any state.
Toby Perlman: But with Trump, you just don’t go. You say, “No, I’m sorry, I’m busy.”
Alison Chernick: “I’m sick that day.” He had just won this amazing award. It was an honor so we tried to get it in the film, but not in any way that necessarily showed support with his politics.
And the case would be different if Donald Trump extended an invitation?
Itzhak Perlman: My argument about respecting the office? In this case I would definitely make an exception.
Toby Perlman: I want to say something else on the record. When I think of President Obama, there was an incident with him that is etched in my memory, I will never forget it. When you go to the White House, there’s a protocol. A Marine takes care of you. When you’re going to see the president, you give the Marine your handbag.... The Marine introduces you. You’re told what to do. The first time we went to see the Obamas, they took the handbag, we go in and instead of standing there like all the other presidents had done, he rushed right over to Itzhak, embraced him and said, “When the going gets rough, I listen to you.” It wasn’t his words, which were of course touching; it was his instinct to run over, and I’ll never forget it. It’s not that I disliked all of his predecessors, only some of them, but it showed me absolutely, graphically who this guy is. And that’s in my memory forever.
Alison Chernick: Unlike Trump, who makes fun of disabled people.
What are your thoughts on that encounter?
Itzhak Perlman: Well, I’m always very flattered. We had dinner together when the former late president of Israel received the Congressional Medal. We were lucky to sit with the Obamas right next to me at a round table with six people. That was surreal.
Toby Perlman: We all talked about our children and our grandchildren and our dogs -- the most ordinary, human conversation.
Itzhak Perlman: Every time I go to see him, I go like this [whips out iPhone to show the screensaver of the couple’s two Portuguese water dogs, the same breed the Obamas have] and he’ll say, “Hey Michelle, we have to do a date with the dogs together.”