Itzhak Perlman on the Spontaneity and Connection of Performance

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Itzhak Perlman: The challenge of playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto for the first time is because you don’t know whether you’ll survive it. But once you survive it, the challenge is what do you do the second time? What do you do the third time? What do you do the tenth time? You have to have something inside of you that says “This is something special.”
I talked with Itzhak Perlman, one of the world’s greatest violinists, about one of the world’s oldest forms of communication – music.
We recorded our talk in his apartment in Manhattan and as soon as we began I couldn’t resist asking him about his unusual style – unusual for classical musicians, anyway – relating to his audience.
Alan Alda: You know what I love, is the way you talk to the audience. Do you talk to all audiences at recitals, or just a few.
Itzhak Perlman: Let me tell you what I do, I usually don’t talk to the audience to begin with at all.
Alan Alda: Uh-huh.
Itzhak Perlman: The first half of the concert I usually just play, with no talking.
Alan Alda: [00:06:00] And then the second half?
Itzhak Perlman: And then the second half, I talk a little bit, yeah.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah because I just wanna … it’s a concert. It’s not [crosstalk 00:06:11]
Alan Alda: Yeah, of course, it’s not a standup.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah. Well, I don’t do standup, I usually do sit down, you know. But…I always thought it would be nice to have a little communication with the audience. They feel like there’s a barrier that you cannot see between the stage and the audience, and the minute you start to talk, the barrier goes away.
Alan Alda: So this is a new thing [00:00:30] now, I was talking to [crosstalk 00:00:31].
Itzhak Perlman: With other people, yeah.
Alan Alda: Yeah, other people. Renee Fleming I was talking to the other day, she talks to the audience at recitals. Are more people doing it do you think?
Itzhak Perlman: Well I know that we are. You know, my wife’s program, the Perlman Music Program, we encourage the kids to always announce what they’re gonna play, or tell some anecdotes about the piece and so on. So to make them more comfortable on stage.
Alan Alda: [00:01:00] Right. Because there seems to me the thing about a musical performance is that it’s not showing the audience how you figured out how to play this. It’s to communicate with them the music, right?
Itzhak Perlman: Absolutely, yes. It’s to tell the audience “This is my opinion.” Or my way of playing this particular piece, it’s me.
Alan Alda: And it’s for you.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah.
Alan Alda: Do you get a sense of the audience while you’re playing? Especially after [00:01:30] you talk to them. Is there a greater sense on your part of them or where are you in your head when you’re playing.
Itzhak Perlman: There’s … it’s very funny because I just played a couple of concerts where the audience were really quite different. Both audiences were very enthusiastic, but they showed it in different ways. For example, sometimes when you have one person that is just ready to be entertained, [00:02:00] and just ready to laugh at anything you say. It’s like I could say “Ladies and Gentleman,” “Ha ha ha ha ha!” You know, I mean, I didn’t say anything! It’s really true. So that was the first audience, where I said “I’m gonna play something right now by Kreisler,” “Oh, ho, ho, ho!”
Alan Alda: Kreisler, what a a funny name.
Itzhak Perlman: Exactly, and that’s the person that’s usually sitting in the second row.
Alan Alda: Right. So you get warmed up by that person.
Itzhak Perlman: Oh, yes. Or kind of a little upset about it. But no, [00:02:30] you always have … and then there is the kind of audience that basically you know that they’re very, very knowledgeable and they really appreciate what you do and so on and so forth, but they are definitely different audiences. You know, for example in Japan, audience is very quiet. Very quiet.
Alan Alda: Do you speak to them?
Itzhak Perlman: I try to tell them American jokes. Most of the time [00:03:00] it does not work.
Alan Alda: What would be an example of that?
Itzhak Perlman: Well you know, like I’m playing this piece by Franz Ries, it was a violinist who lived in 1890 or something like that, and it’s Perpetuum Motion. So I say to them “I’m playing this piece by Ries and it’s a single piece by Ries.”
Alan Alda: It’s a Ries piece.
Itzhak Perlman: Exactly, it’s a Ries Piece. [00:03:30] So that joke works very, very well in the United States, and so [crosstalk 00:03:35]. So I’m trying to tell this joke in Japan, okay, so you have a bunch of people sitting there, and nothing is happening, I mean as far as interchange, they’re kind of very polite, and so I’m always hoping that there’ll be maybe one or two Americans in the audience that would get it. Sure enough, I did it one time and somebody “Ah, ha [00:04:00] ah!” So I knew there was a person from the States that understood it.
Alan Alda: You really do love jokes. We never meet without your saying “I got a new joke for you.”
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, well it’s kind of fun, you know.
Alan Alda: I love that.
Itzhak Perlman: It’s a way of entertaining.
Alan Alda: As I left the house today, Arlene said “We don’t have a new joke for Itzhak.” I’m sorry.
Itzhak Perlman: Well I’m waiting.
Alan Alda: I know. Well you’re the only one I know who tells me new ones. I mostly have 80 year old jokes.
Itzhak Perlman: So the other day I was telling this story. It was the [00:04:30] day before yesterday, I guess that’s another day, right?
Alan Alda: It’s another day.
Itzhak Perlman: You can say the other day for the day before yesterday?
Alan Alda: Yeah, yesterday is another day.
Itzhak Perlman: Exactly. So I was talking about this piece that I was playing, and it’s called Song Without Words by Tchaikovsky. Now in French, Song Without Words is called Chanson Sans Paroles. So I tell the audience, this is in Canada now, I tell the audience [00:05:00] Tchaikovsky wrote this piece for a friend of his. He was accused of a minor misdemeanor and put in jail for a very, very long time, and it’s called Chanson Sans Parole. Well they cracked up and then I said “This joke really works only well in Canada.” And they totally agreed, you know, because you need to speak English and French to get the pun. Anyway.
Now I told … all my jokes, I cannot use it [00:05:30] now anymore.
Alan Alda: Nah, it’s okay. Nobody will remember, that’s good. So here’s what I’m wondering.
I’m very interested in what happens to you. We’ve talked about this at the dinner table a few times, the comparison between the performance of music and what I do on the stage as an actor.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: There are some things that are very similar and some that seem to be different. I get the impression that you value, as [00:07:30] I do, something that can happen in the moment that you didn’t expect.
Itzhak Perlman: Correct.
Alan Alda: I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re playing a piece of Beethoven, or let’s say Bach.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah.
Alan Alda: Because Bach didn’t give you a whole lot of instructions in the music about how to do it, right?
Itzhak Perlman: A little limited, yeah.
Alan Alda: So [00:08:00] how do you let things happen spontaneously that don’t violate what you think Bach would’ve liked you to do?
Itzhak Perlman: Ah, you’re asking a very, very important question. And it has to do with, I suppose, a kind of a censor. [00:08:30] so if I play for example, Bach, I’m not gonna play Bach like I play Tchaikovsky.
Alan Alda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Itzhak Perlman: In other words, it’s not a romantic kind of concert.
Alan Alda: Right.
Itzhak Perlman: But I like … there’s a lot of stuff that goes on. You mention Bach, which is very interesting because I always find that to teach Bach, I have students that bring me Bach and I always say to them “You should know that when you play this piece, half of the people will love it and half of the people [00:09:00] will hate it.” Because it has to do with the style, you know, people are now doing this early music style, that means that you can’t vibrate and you have to play in a certain way that used to be the way that they played during Bach’s time. We of course don’t know.
Alan Alda: Are they sure of that? Yeah, I mean, it’s like the guy in the play who says “I’m now going to impersonate Alexander Hamilton.”
Itzhak Perlman: That’s right.
Alan Alda: He says “Hi, how are you?” He says “Wasn’t that fantastic?”
Itzhak Perlman: Exactly.
Alan Alda: Who [00:09:30] knows.
Itzhak Perlman: But there’s books, there’s stuff that’s written that gives you an indication of what they used to do and so on.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: I like to play Bach in a classical way. That means not too zaftig [00:09:43], but not like a piece of toast. You know what I mean? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And a piece of toast with no butter or no nothing, just a piece of toast. I like my Bach to be a little bit [00:10:00] representative of what I’m doing, am I going to slide all over the place when I play Bach? No, of course not.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: That’s a question of … you know, it’s a matter of taste. Am I going to play a Tchaikovsky concerto like Bach? Also not. Because with that you can take more freedom as to what you wanna do.
Alan Alda: So how do you feel when you hear Jacques Loussier for instance, who plays Bach as a piece of jazz. Does that offend you? Or do you give him that leeway?
Itzhak Perlman: [00:10:30] Look, I’m not gonna do that myself, but if it works, fine.
I’m not [00:11:30] one of those purists that “Oh I would never do that.” I would only do something like that if I personally feel comfortable.
Alan Alda: Right.
Itzhak Perlman: And that’s the whole thing, is how comfortable do you feel? And you know, there’s so may times that I get invitations to do some crossover and it, again, it depends on how I feel my music will play a part.
Alan Alda: When you do crossover, do you [00:12:00] have to study the medium?
Itzhak Perlman: If I have to study the medium that means I don’t know it. So I’m not gonna do it, you know.
Alan Alda: What about klezmer?
Itzhak Perlman: You see, klezmer is different.
Alan Alda: At your daughter Ariella’s wedding, you played about ten minutes of klezmer, that I was shocked to hear you were improvising.
Itzhak Perlman: Yes.
Alan Alda: Were you improvising on a known tune? Or were you making the tune up?
Itzhak Perlman: No, no, I was … there’s a tune and then you improvise on it, yes.
Alan Alda: Some people may not be familiar with the term Klezmer, how old is the klezmer?
Itzhak Perlman: Well klezmer-
Alan Alda: It’s a style of Jewish music.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, well klezmer goes way into the 1800s. Klezmer means instrument of song.
Alan Alda: Oh, I didn’t know that. Is that in Yiddish?
Itzhak Perlman: It’s sort of … a little Hebrew.
Alan Alda: Uh-huh.
Itzhak Perlman: Because [kli 00:13:31] is instrument, and [00:13:30] zemer is song. So klezmer is kind of a combination. And everything … you know, anything went as far as the kind of instruments that they used. They used the violin, they used trombone, they used clarinet. Right now anybody uses anything in those … like anything that they could carry. Like a Jewish group, they would play for weddings at that time, [00:14:00] well you’re not gonna carry a piano. So they would carry, you know-
Alan Alda: An accordion.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, well accordion can also be …. right now, so a lot of the klezmer groups are sort of evolving. So a lot of stuff that happens didn’t happen before. One of the great things about klezmer that helped me is listening to old recordings.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: That’s also the case when you talk about people who play jazz. [00:14:30] How do you evolve? You listen to what happened before, and then you sort of make an embellishment, your own thing.
Alan Alda: And it’s so similar to what Billy Collins, the poet said. I took a poetry class with him and he said “You find your own voice by reading the poetry of others.”
Itzhak Perlman: Right, right. Well let me ask you something, is there a difference between …
Is something different from doing a play now than doing it 50 years ago, let’s say, 60 years ago, where you can actually have recordings?
Alan Alda: You know, there are some technical things that really interest me. For instance, there is [00:16:00] hardly any play on Broadway that isn’t amplified.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: Including straight plays. That’s taking place in theaters where 50 years ago, the same theater-
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: … no amplification.
Itzhak Perlman: So how does that make a difference in what happens by the actor, what does-
Alan Alda: Well the actor still … I suppose it’s possible for the actor to be personal and not [00:16:30] be so big, so loud and …
Itzhak Perlman: So would the actor use more energy without amplification? And would that affect the performance?
Alan Alda: I don’t know, because there have always been actors who could speak in almost a whisper, and hardly move a muscle, and affect people in the back row. There’s a mysterious thing about filling an auditorium just with your presence. I don’t really know [00:17:00] how it works, but some people can do it and other people struggle to capture your attention, and are a little annoying to me because of that. It’s not modest, it’s not generous, it’s “Come to me” rather than me-
Itzhak Perlman: Coming to you.
Alan Alda: Me giving you something.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: How does that relate to music? At all?
Itzhak Perlman: Well you know, I always, when I work with my students, I always say that there [00:17:30] should be a core to the sound. So that the sound is like … the thing about a tube, for example, and inside of the tube you have a steel core, so that the tube has a certain kind of quality to it.
Alan Alda: How do you do that to a sound? What’s the connection.
Itzhak Perlman: Well, okay, well what you do is that, it’s the way that you play, the way you use [00:18:00] technique. With your bow, or with your left hand, basically with your bow as to where you put your bow and how you do it.
Alan Alda: So is the steel in the tube an image of strength, energy in playing each note?
Itzhak Perlman: Well it’s an image of … yes, and it’s also, it carries.
Alan Alda: Ah.
Itzhak Perlman: To the end of the hall. Think about steel in [00:18:30] a tone. The best example that I can think about in a singer is Pavarotti. You see, because when you hear Pavarotti there is always a metal thing in the middle of the silken voice. And some singers you don’t have that. Some singers may sound very beautiful, but they don’t have that edge.
Alan Alda: Do you have a special way of communicating with the students? If you want the student to think about a passage a different way, how do you go about it?
Itzhak Perlman: I ask them. You see, I don’t believe in particularly telling them what to do, although [00:28:30] sometimes you tell them, and you say “Why don’t you try and do this and see what you think?” But I try to involve them in the process. That’s really the most important thing. Then if they do something and it sounds good, they did it.
Alan Alda: They own it.
Itzhak Perlman: They own it, exactly. That’s why I also don’t like to show too much. I mean there are a lot of teachers that used to … yeah.
Alan Alda: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve heard there are a lot of teachers who play it. They play it and say “Do it like this.”
Itzhak Perlman: Exactly, I don’t like to do that.
Alan Alda: That’s similar to a director giving [00:29:00] an actor a line reading.
Itzhak Perlman: Do director’s actually say “Do it like this,” and then they say it?
Alan Alda: I think directors have learned not to do that mostly. Then they’ll say “This is not a line reading, but do it like this.”
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, yeah. “Do it like this and it’ll be good.”
Alan Alda: Yeah. And what happens is the actor doesn’t own it, it doesn’t come up out of the actor’s own-
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, because you just imitate.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: Well it’s the same thing, and especially with young kids [00:29:30] if you show them something, they’re so quick today, and they listen so well that they will just imitate it right away. But will they apply it to another phrase? That’s the question.
Alan Alda: And will it sound … I have an even deeper question, maybe I’m not right about this, but if they just imitate the teacher, will it sound as good as if it came from their guts?
Itzhak Perlman: No. No, it won’t sound original.
Alan Alda: Yeah, [00:30:00] it won’t sound like them.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah. You see the thing is that’s why I try not to show anything, but today, these days, it’s kind of a little difficult. The reason that it’s difficult is because you’ve got YouTube and you know, when you teach them something, they turn on the YouTube and there is a recording of mine on there, so it’s easy for them to listen to. I don’t have to show them.
The other day somebody played something for me, and he was … very good [00:30:30] bowing.
Alan Alda: Sounded familiar?
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, well the bowings were my bowings. But I didn’t give them my bowings, you know? And they said “Well I tried, when I listened to your performance on the video, I tried to see what kind of bowings you were using and then I wrote them down.” So today it’s a little bit … it’s different. It’s different today.
Alan Alda: Do they watch other performers now?
Itzhak Perlman: Oh yes.
Alan Alda: Who are dead and do they gain something from that?
Itzhak Perlman: I encourage them to watch performers who are dead.
Alan Alda: [00:31:00] Puts more life in their playing.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, that’s right. No, it’s like, look, it’s like learning history.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: Because we wanna know where we came from, so that when you hear a phrase today … they did not play that phrase 50 years ago the same way. The style was different. And I don’t know whether there is a parallel in acting. Is there such a thing as that … like, if you say a phrase today of let’s say a classic play, is there something [00:32:00] that 50 years ago was allowed and today “Oh, that’s a no-no.” Is there such a thing?
Alan Alda: I’m not classically trained, so I’m not really qualified to answer that question, but I [00:32:30] know there was a change in … around the fifties in our country, maybe a little earlier, where we borrowed the teachings of Stanislavski from Russia.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: And that was in direct opposition to a style of acting that was pretty common in Europe and America called Delsarte, where you had a series of gestures that [00:33:00] were supposed to convey certain emotions. The back of your hand to your forehead was fear, or worry.
Itzhak Perlman: Oh I see. So what is somebody like Marlon Brando, what style did … I’m only choosing him because he was kind of like-
Alan Alda: Yeah, well he was at the forefront of the Actor’s Studio Movement, which was a much more internal examination of your emotions and your past life, which supposed to make it more-
Itzhak Perlman: So not quite as vociferous, not [00:33:30] quite as outgoing.
Alan Alda: And the interesting thing for me, watching old movies now, is that new style which was supposed to eliminate mannerisms, was really a set of new mannerisms in many ways.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: They look like mannerisms to me now. The style changes, and we’re not aware of the style changing. Look at our hair length. When we had those long sideburns and droopy mustaches and things, [00:34:00] it seemed totally normal. Now you look at a photograph and you say “What came over me? Why did I do that?”
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah. Well yesterday, we were watching a baseball game, and we realized that almost every player has a beard of some sort. You know, it’s either a mustache or a beard, a lot of heavy beards. And we were saying that in the 1960s, nobody ever had any hair on their face. None of the players, they were all clean shaven. It’s [00:34:30] kind of a style.
Alan Alda: That same style, as I think you were saying, happens in music, it happens in acting, it happens in all art. That’s an interaction, I think, between the artist and the audience, that may not even be noticed by either of them.
Itzhak Perlman: That’s true.
When we come back…Itzhak tells me about what he experienced WHEN HE PICKED UP HIS STRADIVARIUS FOR THE FIRST TIME. It was love at first sound.
This is clear and vivid … back to my conversation with Itzhak Perlman and the moment he fell in love with his violin.
Alan Alda: How did you know when you picked up that particular instrument that it was for you?
Itzhak Perlman: Oh god. It took me about ten seconds.
Alan Alda: [00:20:30] Yeah, really. What did you do? What note did you play?
Itzhak Perlman: I don’t remember what I played, I was too taken aback by what … the violin belonged to Yehudi Menuhin, a wonderful, wonderful violinist. I visited him because I was looking for another violin, and I knew he knew where that violin was. [00:21:00] So we talked about it, and then I said to him “By the way, what do you play on right now?” So he said “I’m playing on a Strad, you wanna see it?” And I said “Yeah, I’d like to see it.” And then I said “Can I try it?” And he said “Of course.”
So I tried it, like for ten seconds, and I thought that I’d died and went to heaven. I thought it was the most amazing … the immediacy of the sound, you know, because a lot of the time when you play you have to sort of try [00:21:30] and dig into the sound to get the sound of an instrument. This instrument had the sound right there. There was no question about it. And the beauty of the sound, and the total … it like, hit you in the head. It was incredible.
Alan Alda: Do you think that there-
Itzhak Perlman: So I knew that was the violin for me.
Alan Alda: Yeah, immediately.
Itzhak Perlman: Immediately.
Alan Alda: How did you wrest it from Yehudi’s hands?
Itzhak Perlman: Took about 25 years, 30 years.
Alan Alda: Wow.
Itzhak Perlman: [00:22:00] You see, I had spies.
Alan Alda: What do you mean?
Itzhak Perlman: I had a friend who was a very good friend of Menuhin, and he was telling me “I’ll watch out for the violin. If he thinks of selling it I’ll know it.”
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: So I had a spy. One morning at 6:00 in the morning, I get a call from London, and my friend says “It happened.” I said “What happened? What happened?” And he says “I have it in my house, [00:22:30] it’s for sale. If you want it, it’s yours.”
Alan Alda: And what did you do, fly over?
Itzhak Perlman: No, I didn’t fly over, I remembered the violin. You know, I didn’t have to fly over. And it was a time that we had no money, and we had just bought a house, so I had no money, nothing.
Alan Alda: What’d you do?
Itzhak Perlman: So I turned to my wife and I said “What are we gonna do?” She said “Well, we borrow some more money.” So we’re borrowing … I’m still paying it back! No, I’m just kidding. But you know, the violin was so [00:23:00] good. First of all, so beautiful that even if it sounded horribly, it was worth the money just to look at it. But I was … and I did not try it. It’s very funny, I did not try the violin.
Alan Alda: Beyond that ten seconds.
Itzhak Perlman: I remembered, behind those ten seconds that I tried a long time ago.
Alan Alda: Is there something about the way you play that makes that violin sound the way it does with somebody else on it?
Itzhak Perlman: Yes.
Alan Alda: A very good player still-
Itzhak Perlman: The violin, yes, [00:23:30] the violin develops the player’s characteristics.
Alan Alda: That’s interesting.
Itzhak Perlman: And you develop … and you basically are, you know, reacting to what the violin has to give you.
Alan Alda: Yeah,
Itzhak Perlman: You know, because every violin gives you something else. You know what the violin has to give you, you know how to control colors and so on by [00:24:00] what you’ve got in your hand. And the more you play on it, the more you know “Well I know that is something that I can do.”
Alan Alda: It’s interesting to hear you talk about responding to what the violin is giving you, because I’m thinking of when you play with another musician, or with several others, are you very aware of responding to them and they’re responding to you, is there communication going on?
Itzhak Perlman: Well you’re talking about [00:24:30] chamber music, then now.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah, of course. Of course, it’s-
Alan Alda: You can’t do it without responding to one another.
Itzhak Perlman: No, you have to breathe together. You have to listen to each other. That’s what makes chamber music such an incredibly important musical expression. For me any musician that can really, really feel comfortable [00:25:00] and play chamber music is a much better musician. Chamber music for me is probably the most important thing in music.
Alan Alda: Why?
Itzhak Perlman: As a musician. Because first of all, the repertoire of chamber music, it happens to be … I’m talking about, you know, your major composers. So you’re talking about Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven and Brahms and so on, they wrote [00:25:30] practically their best pieces for the chamber music, for string quartets. When you think about late Beethoven string quartets, that’s probably one of the greatest things that he’s ever written. Now you have to get four people to think in a certain way.
Alan Alda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Itzhak Perlman: To breathe in a certain [00:26:00] way, to get energy from one person to another and so on. That’s a very challenging thing, but musically, it’s what music is all about.
Alan Alda: So even when-
Itzhak Perlman: Is listening and so on.
Alan Alda: If you’ve rehearsed a piece and you’ve together decided the way a certain passage should go, nevertheless in performance, does somebody [00:26:30] come up with something that you feel compelled to respond to in the moment.
Itzhak Perlman: That could be, absolutely. Could be, yes.
Alan Alda: What’s it like to play with someone who doesn’t respond to you?
Itzhak Perlman: I don’t play with them anymore. No, usually when you choose to play with somebody-
Alan Alda: Yeah, you know.
Itzhak Perlman: … you already know what kind of musicians they are, so you’ve already made a choice as to do I wanna [00:27:00] play with this person.
Alan Alda: And play is really a good word, because there is, at least in acting it’s play. It’s like tossing a ball back and forth.
Itzhak Perlman: Oh yes, no, absolutely. And you want to be like one basically.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: At least in a string quartet.
Alan Alda: It’s like dancing. The two of you each contribute something.
Itzhak Perlman: Well I wouldn’t know that.
Alan Alda: You’d know from looking. You’d know from looking. [00:27:30] You’re so good natured about that whole subject. I never met anybody who took such inconvenience and stride as you.
Itzhak Perlman: Have I got a choice?
Alan Alda: Yeah, you’ve got a choice. You could be passive in the face of it and go “Oy oy oy!”
Itzhak Perlman: Yes, right.
Alan Alda: But it’s not like that at all. I personally find that inspiring in you.
Alan Alda: You know, you mentioned Toby before. [00:35:00] Your wife, Toby. In the movie about you that’s out now, it’s called Itzhak, right? That’s the name of the movie? Two wonderful things happen in that movie, your personality comes out and Toby’s personality comes out.
Itzhak Perlman: Well that’s her movie, really, everybody says that. I’m in it also, but she’s terrific in that movie.
Alan Alda: She really … she has your ear. [00:35:30] I mean, one of the biggest laughs in the movie is when she says that she corrects you when you’re too sharp or too flat.
Itzhak Perlman: Oh, absolutely.
Alan Alda: She has a really powerful-
Itzhak Perlman: But you see, the thing is that she knows that I appreciate, and I demand that she be truthful with me and not give me any of those false “You were just wonderful!” You know. And I know she doesn’t, she never did that. That’s why I feel that she’s the only person, in many ways, [00:36:00] that I really trust after a concert. That if she likes it, then I know that it was pretty good. And if she says “Oh, it was okay.” I know her style when she doesn’t like something, she goes “It was okay.” And then the next day we go into why wasn’t it.
Alan Alda: The next day. Of course you have to stew about it.
Itzhak Perlman: No, no. You know, I think it was you that said at some point, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that after a performance, [00:36:30] the person who performed, all they wanna hear is “Bravo, well done, terrific.”
Alan Alda: “You were wonderful.”
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah. You said that, right?
Alan Alda: I did. I broke it down. I said you have to say you … you can’t say to an actor “We had good seats.”
Itzhak Perlman: Oh yeah, or “Congratulations.”
Alan Alda: Congratulations, yeah. Even thank you is pretty weak. You gotta say “you” meaning you in particular, not the other guy on stage, were wonderful. You gotta say were wonderful. You can’t say you “are” wonderful, that means [00:37:00] usually you’re good but not tonight.
Itzhak Perlman: Not tonight!
Alan Alda: And you gotta say wonderful, or you can say brilliant, but you can’t say nice or good.
Itzhak Perlman: Yeah.
Alan Alda: You know, because when you go back stage, you’re walking into a burn ward.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: The people have taken off their skin and exposed their soul to the audience. They’re tender, they’re still tender. My friend Marlo Thomas was in a car on the way to a cast party after an opening night, and the [00:37:30] other people in the car said “Oh my god, what are we gonna say? That was horrible! What are we gonna say to them?” She said “What are you talking about? We’re not under oath! I’m going to tell them how great it was.”
Itzhak Perlman: Well just say bravo.
Alan Alda: Yeah, right?
Itzhak Perlman: You know, I mean I remember … I remember I was listening to a violinist, I won’t mention the name, you know, was playing on a new fiddle. I went back stage, and it was another particularly good performance. And he said to me “How was the balance? Could you hear the violin [00:38:00] above the orchestra?”
Alan Alda: and you said “Unfortunately, yes.”
Itzhak Perlman: I said “Yes!” And he said “Pity.”
Alan Alda: Oh, he knew, huh?
Itzhak Perlman: Oh yes.
Alan Alda: He knew.
Itzhak Perlman: We all know.
Alan Alda: Yeah, we do know. But what about this, you can’t help sometimes, evaluate how you did. I did it more when I was younger, now I let it go as soon as I do it. But I think I notice that if I came within two percent of what I think is the best I can do, [00:38:30] it hurt more than if I came within 85%. I came so close to something really good, it weighed on my mind. Has anything like that ever happened in your head?
Itzhak Perlman: No, I mean I just … the way I judge what I do is that … these days, I judge it by the way I feel. And if I feel like I can do anything I want, that’s good.
Alan Alda: In the performance.
Itzhak Perlman: In the performance, yeah.
Alan Alda: [00:39:00] Isn’t that a great feeling.
Itzhak Perlman: Oh, it’s the best.
Alan Alda: Where there’s no constraints, you trust yourself.
Itzhak Perlman: I feel like I’m … maybe I’m tired, but I can do anything I want. And so I do!
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: The other day I was doing something and then I just said “Alright, I’m gonna put it on.” And then I just went like that, it’s like putting on the accelerator. The accelerator of [00:39:30] expression.
Alan Alda: Yes.
Itzhak Perlman: And the accelerator of expression can be very slow, or very fast, or very soft, or very … you know, as long as it, that it’s natural and not affected. It’s another danger is to be affected. You know, to have those little quirks that “Oh, I’m bored. I’ll put quirk number B.”
Alan Alda: Now let me translate that into acting [00:40:00] and see how it comes out to you in music. In acting, and I’ve done this, I can put on the accelerator, and it’s something as hollow as just raising my voice, but if I put on the accelerator through the medium of who I am in this situation, what the character is, what the situation is, and I’m doing it as the person, the accelerator isn’t [00:40:30] hollow, the acceleration isn’t hollow.
Itzhak Perlman: Right, it’s genuine.
Alan Alda: It comes out like something that happened to somebody once on earth.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: You know, not somebody trying to act like that.
Itzhak Perlman: Right.
Alan Alda: So what’s that like in music? How would you describe that?
Itzhak Perlman: Well it’s the affect. I always tell my students “When you do something I don’t want to know what you’re doing. I don’t want to know, [00:41:00] I just want to relax and say that sounds good. I don’t want to know that you played softer here, you took a little time there, you did this, you did that.” I said “It’s gotta be like a magic trick.”
Alan Alda: Yeah, good.
Itzhak Perlman: It’s like sleight of hand. We are doing something and the phrase for some reason works. Then that’s good. But the minute I said “Well it’s a little too slow,” then [00:41:30] you do faster, or if it’s a little too fast you make a ritardando, you know, you slow it down and then you slow it down a little bit too much, and so on and so forth.
Another example I like to give my students is when you have a full glass of water, how much water does it take for it to spill? And basically, it’s one drop. So the difference between let’s say, if you wanna slow down in a phrase, the difference [00:42:00] between slowing down a lot and just slowing down that much so that the listener doesn’t know you’re slowing down, but the listener knows that there is a relaxation there. That’s successful.
Alan Alda: Right. It’s so interesting, you’re describing work put in in preparing to play, work put in during playing, and all of it aimed at the effect it’s gonna have on the listener. Not so much “This is the perfect way to play it.”
Itzhak Perlman: No, no. And then of course, you don’t wanna play [00:42:30] it every night the same way.
Alan Alda: Yeah. You want new discoveries.
Itzhak Perlman: One of the difficult things is, I say to the kids, you know, sometimes when they have a performance of a well known piece, like let’s say Mendelssohn violin concerto. I say to them “The challenge of playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto for the first time is because you don’t know whether you’ll survive it. But once you survive it, the challenge is what do you [00:43:00] do the second time?”
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: What do you do the third time? What do you do the tenth time? I mean, do you do it the same way as you did it the first time? Obviously not. Or do you have like, a recipe? “In this phrase I play it this way, and the next phrase I play it this way.”
Alan Alda: And is the danger that it’ll sound like you’re playing from a recipe?
Itzhak Perlman: Yes. Oh, absolutely.
Alan Alda: Yeah. To stay alive, no matter how many times you’ve done it. What do you personally do to stay fresh and alive?
Itzhak Perlman: [00:43:30] I try to listen to the music. Because the music, especially when the piece is good, the music really gives you … it’s like a road map. And sometimes you can take a detour to get to the same point, and you still get to the same point, but it can be a little bit different. You have to be interested in the music, and then just to say ” [00:44:00] I’m gonna play this phrase in such a way right now.”
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: I played it twenty times, but this time I’m gonna do something slightly different. And the accent, of course, is on slightly. It’s gotta be so subtle that I feel it-
Alan Alda: And that it still doesn’t violate what Beethoven or Brahms wrote.
Itzhak Perlman: Of course. And that I feel it, and then the audience … the minute I feel something, I believe that when I feel something [00:44:30] about the music, no matter how subtle it is, it translates itself to the audience.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: You have to have something inside of you that says “This is something special.” The minute you do that, the music starts to get interesting.
Alan Alda: And you have this wonderful piece of advice to students that I really sense means a lot to you, and has meant a lot to your students, and that is “Practice slowly.”
Itzhak Perlman: Slowly, absolutely.
Alan Alda: What do you get out of practicing slowly?
Itzhak Perlman: [00:46:00] You know what I say to them, I say if you practice slowly, you forget slowly.
So I’ll explain, you know, when you practice slowly, everything … your brain is like a sponge. You soak all of this stuff in the sponge and it stays there. If you practice fast, it’s like putting a sponge in the water and quickly taking it out.
Alan Alda: Okay-
Itzhak Perlman: It does not retain any water, so you forget quickly.
Alan Alda: [00:46:30] Help me understand.
Itzhak Perlman: Yes.
Alan Alda: And then we’ll … help me understand what you mean by practice slowly? Would you just hum a phrase, and then hum it slowly?
Itzhak Perlman: Okay. So if … the last movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, it goes … you know, it’s a lot of notes, okay. So if you want to practice it very slowly, you go … you know, [00:47:00] so everything becomes slower, and then your brain is able to soak in what you’re practicing for. And of course, obviously, there are so many things you practice for intonation, you practice for facility, you practice for bow crossing, you practice just for the fingers to know where they are going and so on.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: That, you know, if you do it very fast, maybe today it’ll sound pretty good, but tomorrow you’re not gonna sound … [00:47:30] you’re gonna have to redo it. Slower is better. It’s just better. And then eventually you increase the speed, and then you’ve got more stuff.
Alan Alda: Well as always, I could talk to you all day. We’ve talked long into the night at the dinner many times.
Itzhak Perlman: Well this went very quickly, and I know we only talked for five minutes, but still, it went like it was a minute.
Alan Alda: With your permission, we do this with everybody, I hope it’s okay with you, we have seven quick questions.
Itzhak Perlman: Uh-oh. I don’t know.
Alan Alda: I’m asking it to give quick answers.
Itzhak Perlman: Yes, okay.
Alan Alda: You know, it’s that kind of thing. And it’s not embarrassing.
Itzhak Perlman: Okay.
Alan Alda: Okay. So here are our seven questions. Here’s the first question, what do you wish you really understood?
Itzhak Perlman: [00:48:30] What do I wish I really understood?
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Itzhak Perlman: Oy gevalt! What was in Beethoven’s mind when he wrote all these quartets. How his mind worked.
Alan Alda: Wouldn’t we all benefit from your knowing that, wow. Okay, number two, what do you wish other people understood about you?
Itzhak Perlman: Oh. Well … [00:49:00] I’m only a violinist, you know? I’m here to play music. I’m trying my best.
Alan Alda: Good, that’s great. Okay, number three. What’s the strangest question anyone ever asked you?
Itzhak Perlman: The previous one you just asked me. No, the strangest question … oh yes! Yes, well I was sitting [00:49:30] down at dinner two or three years ago, and somebody says “Are you still playing?” I thought that was kind of strange.
Alan Alda: Not at the moment.
Itzhak Perlman: And I said “Yes.”
Alan Alda: Okay. Number five, is there anyone that you just can’t feel empathy for?
Itzhak Perlman: Are we gonna start in politics again?
Alan Alda: Okay, okay, we got that. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
[00:50:00] This is it, this is the example. You just … just a silent look.
Itzhak Perlman: No, no, you just … you just say “Yes, yes, uh-huh.”
Alan Alda: And eventually they stop?
Itzhak Perlman: Oh, and then you look at your watch, “Sorry, gotta go. Sorry.”
Alan Alda: Okay. Here’s an interesting one. How do you like to deliver bad news, in person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Itzhak Perlman: Oy god. No, unfortunately, the way to [00:50:30] do it is in person.
Alan Alda: So how do you like to do it?
Itzhak Perlman: So far I don’t want to think about it. No, in person.
Alan Alda: Yeah, you do.
Itzhak Perlman: You know, I mean … well you see, it depends what bad news means. You know, what is bad news? Is bad news that somebody died or is bad news that … I think it’s always, in some way, depending on if you’re trying to give somebody a criticism, it’s always nice to do it in person.
Alan Alda: Oh.
Itzhak Perlman: [00:51:00] Because then you can modify, you know, you can modulate your voice. What I don’t like to do about bad news, is I don’t like to deliver it via email, because I feel that email can be read in a different way. You know, I can say “I have some bad news.” Or somebody can say “Oh, I have some bad news!” Or “I have some bad news.” Depending on how you read it.
Alan Alda: Right.
Itzhak Perlman: So that’s why I don’t like to do it in email, I talk on the phone.
Alan Alda: And you have to be careful with email lingo, [00:51:30] there’s the grandmother who said “Grandpa died today, LOL.” Meaning lots of love.
Itzhak Perlman: Well it’s … no, what is it like? The story about the rabbi and the priest, and the priest opens a YMCA, and the rabbi calls him up, he’s a very good friend and he says “Father!” He says “I’m a little surprised of the antisemitism that you are displaying.” So he says “What do you mean?” And he [00:52:00] says “Well, outside of the YMCA, it says Christians only, no Jews allowed!” And he says “But Rabbi, yore not reading it right.” He says “What do you mean?” He says “No, it says Christians only? No, Jews allowed!”
So it depends on how you see it.
Alan Alda: You gotta do it in person.
Itzhak Perlman: Exactly.
Alan Alda: Okay, our last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Itzhak Perlman: [00:52:30] Well, dishonesty.
Alan Alda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Itzhak Perlman: I would say that. And then you can apply that to-
Alan Alda: Except when you’re going backstage to compliment somebody.
Itzhak Perlman: That kind of dishonesty, I welcome.
Alan Alda: Thanks so much, Itzhak, it was just great talking with you.
Itzhak Perlman: Oh, my pleasure. My pleasure always.

This has been Clear+Vivid, at least I hope so.

I’d like to thank my friend Itzhak for welcoming us into his home to record this session. If you haven’t already seen it, check out Alison Chernick’s new film about his life and music. The film is now in theatres and you can find out more at

This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill.
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Thanks for listening.

Bye bye!