He played for the queen of England. He played for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. And on Feb. 11, he will play for Las Vegas. Even if you’re no fan of classical music, you’ve heard of Itzhak Perlman. The 66-year-old violinist, teacher and conductor first made a name for himself on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. He’s since won four Emmys, 15 Grammys and even appeared on Sesame Street. In his only interview with a Las Vegas publication, Perlman discusses a range of topics, from his emotional response to music to his feelings about teaching to his willingness to play a Strip residency.
Your music is so emotional; you must be very romantic. On Valentine’s Day, you’re performing in Mesa, Ariz. Nonetheless, do you have any plans with your wife?
We’ll probably say hello on the phone. My wife is always busy. She has this wonderful music program she started about 17 years ago. We don’t travel together very often unless it’s sometimes with the kids. [Perlman has five children.]
So you’re not as romantic as one would gather from watching you play?
My job as a musician is to relay what I feel about the music. I’m a player of the Grand Tradition. Grand Tradition, I suppose, has a lot of romantic notes in it, in the style of the playing. I like to feel that if I play Mozart, I’d be more of a classic kind of a player as opposed to Brahms, which will be romantic. In other words, I would like to think my style of playing changes with the style of that particular composer.
How does it feel emotionally to go through the highs and low of a song?
The thing is that, emotionally, it’s all tied up to what goes on in the music harmonically. Whenever we feel something about the music, the reason we are affected is what goes on harmonically there. When we hear something and we get goose bumps, it has to do with the harmonies. And you know not everybody’s affected the same way by a particular piece of music.
What are your emotional reactions when performing?
When I was growing up, the composer that really got to me was Brahms. Whenever I would listen to [his] solo works or chamber music, I would just go crazy. I’d get goose bumps from listening. I’m doing Brahms during this recital, so let’s see what would happen. Of course, a lot of this stuff has to do with how many times you repeat the songs. That is one of the great challenges in playing concerts: When you repeat the same piece over and over again, how can you get the spontaneity and the freshness? The answer to that is that if the piece is great, it’s very easy to do because all you do is just concentrate on the music.
Talk about conducting.
Conducting for me is another way of expressing oneself. It’s a very interesting way because you don’t physically play an instrument. But what you do is with [the things you] say to members of an orchestra and the way that you move onstage, so they are supposed to get your ideas about the music. I never understood how that works, and I’m very happy I don’t understand. Because it’s nice to have something that’s kind of mysterious that you don’t understand. When I get the sound that I have in my ear from the orchestra, that’s such a great feeling.
What is your favorite part about teaching?
Teaching is quite … well, it’s a challenging profession. First of all, it’s not enough just to know what you’re doing on the instrument, but [you need] to know how to handle specific personalities in students. Every kid has a different schedule of development. You listen to someone who is 12 years old, and you have to make a judgment what’s going to happen when they are 15 or 16 or 17. … It’s a great gift when you hear somebody and all of a sudden their understanding of a piece opens up and you go, “Yeah! Now they’ve got it.”
You’ve been teaching long enough to see some of your students grow up. What is that like?
It’s fantastic. For example, the summer program that my wife started is going to be 18 years old. We have people who are alums already. It’s incredible. Yesterday we had a little concert at our house, and we remember how this particular kid played when he was 12 and now he’s 21 or 22, and you know what happens and so on. It’s a rush to hear something, to hear the development. It’s a slow process, and when it works there’s nothing like it.
Is there any genre of music that people would be surprised to know that you enjoy?
I always love to listen to rock ’n’ roll, to ’50s and ’60s stuff like that. I’m sure people know that. In this day and age, with Facebook and Google, everybody knows everything about everybody. I don’t play that, but I play certain things. Besides classical music, I play Klezmer, which is sort of Jewish music, which I grew up with. It’s fun for me to do all these things.
What is next for you?
Well, I’m continuing to play concerts, to conduct, to teach. There’s some recordings and some other concerts and stuff. It’s just a normal kind of musical experience right now as you can see. I’m doing three things in music: I’m teaching, I’m conducting, I’m playing concerts. That really helps me keep my enthusiasm for music. I go abroad, I go on tours. And I teach, so I’m having a great time.
Your tour schedule looks very strenuous. Would you ever consider doing a Strip residency where you could stay in one place and have everybody come to you?
That’s very funny. You mean just to stay in one place? I’d love to stay in one place. One of the things I’ve always imagined is that wouldn’t it be nice if I could actually get beamed to distant places in the world. Just beam up and beam me back so I can skip all the travel, the airplanes and all that stuff. It’s just a dream. It would be great.