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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
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Violin legend Itzhak Perlman reinvents himself through musical tradition


Nobody questions the artistry of Itzhak Perlman, the celebrated violinist who long ago set standards for fiddle playing. Since appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1958, Perlman rose to the top of his profession through an ethic of continuous improvement and impassioned music making. Less adventurous than some musicians, he dedicated himself to what most people love: the traditional masterworks.

His performances, which usually sell out in advance, are known for their warmth, impeccable musicality, and flawless tone. He commands concert halls with an electric blend of Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz — and humor — but he remains distinctively Perlman.

Although nearly 70, he continues to teach and record, and endures the rigors of touring. His next stop: Saturday night at the Straz Center in Tampa, where he and pianist Rohan de Silva perform Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in E flat, Op. 12; Franck’s A Major Sonata; and Tartini’s G Minor Sonata, the “Devil’s Trill.’’ We caught up with Perlman by phone to talk about music, education, and his travel schedule.

Q. Your program for Saturday reflects a devotion to the core repertoire, although many people attending the concert will hear this music for the first time. How do you select works that appeal to both the informed listener and the newcomer?

A. “The program I put together is what I personally would like to hear from another fiddle player if I went to a concert. And I think it will appeal to a wide variety of audiences. It has to do with what I’ve played over the years, as well as making a change of pace for myself. What’s important is to communicate the freshness and spontaneity (in my interpretation) to the audience. The point is, I play what I like. I’ve played the Franck Violin Sonata 3,000 times, and I still love it.’’

Q. You spend much of your time educating and teaching through the Perlman Music Program. What encourages and concerns you the most about young people deciding on a career in music?

A. “I’m very optimistic about the outlook of young people because I look at it from an educational perspective. We invite people into the program through their auditions on DVDs, so I see the level of their ability at the onset. The quality and enthusiasm of these kids is very high; there’s so much amazing talent out there. But what concerns me is the level of music and arts education in the public schools. The arts are the first thing to be cut because our politicians feel it isn’t important. The question is, who decides what’s more important in a kid’s life? Art is just as significant as math, history and science.’’

Q. Not only are arts programs being cut, but classical radio stations, orchestras, and performing arts halls continue to struggle. Do you envision a more viable business model for the arts?

A. “Ideally, we’d like to have in the United States the government support that you see in Europe. But we don’t have it here, so we depend heavily on private support. The ratio of government to private support is ridiculous, and the ratio of classical music radio stations to all the other stations is insane. Certainly, the arts need more public exposure, which is why the media plays such an important part.’’

Q. Speaking of which, today’s social media allows anyone with a phone or laptop instant access to music and musical trends anywhere in the world. How has this changed our perceptions, or even how we create?

A. “Well, because everything is so much more accessible, it makes it easier to be exposed to any kind of music. If someone wants to get familiar with (Saturday’s) program, they can hear performances on the Internet. Because of technology, my students know everything, and wherever it’s being played. They can download a performance from the past because it’s on the Internet. But that’s only part of it, and it’s not enough. Appreciating music has to start in the home and in school. It has to be learned. And if they’re educated about the arts and music, then they can go to concert hall and feel at home. It’s no longer intimidating.’’

Q. You aren’t home much during these lengthy tours. Being one of the world’s most in-demand virtuosos has its perks, but traveling can’t be one of them.

A.“I hate touring. I truly hate it. You have to go through so many airports, and the security people are always checking you for everything. It’s terrible.’’

Q. And they have to inspect your violins, one of which is a priceless, 300-year old Stradivarius. That must make you cringe.

A. “They always put my violin through the X-ray machine. There’s nothing I can do about it. But if I put up a fuss, I’d miss half of my flights.’’