- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman is delighted to have been named a Kennedy Center honoree. It’s the latest in a distinguished series of awards that includes the

Medal of Liberty (1986) and the National Medal of Arts (2000).

“I’m extremely flattered,” he says. Yet he is also a bit pensive. Honors like this can mean that “you’re already far enough along in your career to look back on your past accomplishments.” Happily, however, Mr. Perlman is looking ahead, as well.

Mr. Perlman’s prodigious talent was recognized at an early age. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1945, he received his initial music education at the Academy of Music in that city. Emigrating to the United States in 1958, he made an appearance in 1959 on TV’s popular “Ed Sullivan’s Caravan of Stars,” where he played Rimsky-Korsakov’s whirring “Flight of the Bumblebee” and the energetic finale of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He eventually enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School and won the important Leventritt Competition in 1964. The rest, of course, has been musical history.

Since his early successes, Mr. Perlman has gone on to become perhaps the most universally acclaimed classical violinist of the late 20th century, achieving additional triumphs in what are arguably crossover genres for a classical musician. He has performed in public and made recordings of traditional klezmer music and jazz. Most notably, he also collaborated with composer John Williams, performing the achingly tragic violin solos in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film, “Schindler’s List.”

Mr. Perlman’s career has been going in some interesting directions over the past several years. Closest to his heart are his efforts in the Perlman Music Program, a summer institute for training talented young string players ages 12 to 18.

“I do a lot more teaching now,” he says. “Everything, including your success, has to do with your ability to listen and figure out what you want to sound like.” Successful is what the Perlman Music Program has been. It has given many young string players a real boost and was even featured on a PBS documentary called “Fiddling for the Future” that “lets viewers in on what goes on in our classes,” he says. Mr. Perlman believes that an “ease of execution” is what helps develop excellence in an up-and-coming musician.

Mr. Perlman is troubled, however, by the diminishing quality and availability of music education in American public schools. “I’m not very happy with this,” he says. “Programs in the schools are not good enough. Music programs are being taken less seriously than sports, which is cockeyed, and music programs are the first things to get cut” in a budget crunch.

Children are simply getting less access to classical music today, according to Mr. Perlman. “Once you could regularly hear classical music on the radio, on television,” he says, but no more. Serious music has fallen victim to the endless battle for ratings and advertising dollars, leaving the music of the masters — and indeed high culture — behind.

Without more and better music programs in the schools, students are less likely than ever to get exposed to high culture. Instead of relentlessly cutting back, “schools need to hire more and better teachers who give their students a passion for music, who make the subject come alive,” he says.

In addition to his solo work, his recordings, and his work with his music program, Mr. Perlman serves as principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and has conducted major orchestras around the globe. He initially fell into conducting as an outgrowth of his music program. To teach his young charges ensemble playing, he assembled them into a string orchestra, and ended up leading it.

Now, Itzhak Perlman, conductor, is helming major orchestras in performances of “music I love, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms.” He finds conducting to be unpredictable and fascinating. “One conductor conducts an orchestra and the piece sounds one way, but then another conductor comes in and the very same piece with the very same orchestra can sound completely different. To me, it’s a mystery,” he laughs

With a busy career as a soloist, conductor, and teacher, Mr. Perlman is looking forward to more of the same in 2004. “I’ll be playing a normal season,” he says, “New York Philharmonic, San Francisco, Europe, Israel. And hopefully, I’ll give everyone a good time.”

Asked whether there was anything he hadn’t yet done that he’d like to do, Mr. Perlman pondered the question for a moment and then said, “Well, I’d like to play the oboe. I’ve tried other instruments, but never the oboe.”

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