08/09/2012 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Conversation With Itzhak Perlman


Violinist Itzhak Perlman (r.) and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot (l.)

Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco, used by permission of Sony Music

Itzhak Perlman is one of the greatest violinists of his or any other generation. With a new CD coming out on September 4th and the upcoming 50th anniversary of his debut at Carnegie Hall, Maestro Perlman took some time to talk about the music that is close to his heart. He was, as always, full of good humor and brimming with enthusiasm for his latest project, an album of songs combining the traditions of Klezmer and Jewish cantorial music in collaboration with Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, one of the world's preeminent singers in an ancient tradition.

Q: It will soon be 50 years since your debut at Carnegie Hall -- how does it feel?
IP: Fifty?! Oh my God, terrible... no, really it feels like it was only yesterday.

Do you remember what you played?
Yes, I do. Is this a test? Do you know what I played?

No, I have no idea. I just wondered how fresh it felt in your memory.
It's etched in my memory forever. I even remember it was the fifth of March (1963). I played the Wieniawski Violin Concerto No. 1 in F# with the National Orchestral Association conducted by John Barnett. That was kind of my debut but it was before my career really started which was in 1965 after I had finished my studies. That was a great opportunity for me but it was before things started to happen.

Are you going to celebrate?
No, not at all. A lot of people do that with farewell tours and anniversary tours. I'm just going on as usual. I don't find that it's necessary to give it a special name.

What made you decide to record this album right now?
I heard through the grapevine that Cantor Helfgot was absolutely wonderful. I didn't know him personally. But a couple of years ago I was in Israel conducting the Israel Philharmonic and had a free night. Somebody said that Cantor Helfgot was giving a performance so I said let's go and so we did. He completely took me over. I was so impressed with how he sounded. When I was growing up in Israel, Cantorial music was something I heard over and over on the radio so it wasn't at all strange to me. I was very familiar with the music. I always felt that the violin and Jewish music were very connected so I went backstage after his performance to introduce myself and asked if he would like to do something together and he thought it was a great idea. I couldn't be more pleased.

Are you and Cantor Helfgot going to have any concerts together?
Yes, we absolutely are going to perform together. We already have a few concerts scheduled.

Concert Schedule

You didn't sing on the record -- why not?
No, I'm sticking to my day job. I know when I'm not needed.

This music is from the Golden Age of Cantors like Mordechai Hershman and Moshe Koussevitzky. It's really the music of your parents' and grandparents' generation, isn't it?
Yes, it is. And also of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt who is a favorite of Cantor Helfgot. Rosenblatt wrote a couple of the songs on the album. I suppose it's like food from childhood in a way. Whether it's music or food, we all like to travel back to childhood and this is another way of reminiscing. This music is just so poignant and visceral. It's something that I enjoy very, very much.

It seems that Cantorial singing is enjoying a revival.
When you have someone of the caliber of Cantor Helfgot it makes it a real pleasure to listen to the music.

The style of this recording is restrained and intimate. There are none of the usual pyrotechnics with double stops and flashy pizzicato in your playing.
No, I feel that it should be very supportive of him and melodic of me. This kind of music is not for showing off. That's the style we're talking about.

Working with Hankus Netsky (conductor and arranger) you've come up with a smaller and more intimate sound for the album.
That was the idea. I've heard some recordings that were very large, full orchestra and full of reverberation but I wanted this to be smaller and more personal. I had in mind a sound like what I heard on the radio as a child. Working with Hankus we decided to go with just a horn and a few winds and so on. All the string players are from the Perlman Music Program. I was extremely happy because I already knew how everyone played because they had been in the program.

Cantor Helfgot's singing style is quite different from the style of the Golden Age cantors like Koussevitzky and Hershman.
Yes. His Cantorial style is wonderful. I love it. One of the things that struck me about the way that he sings is the ease with which he sings. He doesn't force at all. I love the timbre of his voice. It has a little bit of iron in it. There's a grit inside the voice that's fantastic. I had a great time making the recording and I'm looking forward to performing with him.

Dudele from the new album, Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

What should people who don't know this music do to learn to enjoy it?
If you listen to it once you may say that's interesting. But you should listen to several different people doing this music to develop a point of view. The more you hear it the more familiar it becomes. We talk a lot about style in music with violin playing and listen to old recordings to get an idea of how other people used to play pieces 60 and 70 years ago. With this music it's good to hear the old ones like Rosenblatt, Hershman and Koussevitzky. The style of this album is really an olden style. Just to listen to it once is not enough because it takes time to become familiar with it.

The Mizmor L'Dovid is a beautiful song. It features an unusual ascent into the falsetto register at the end - whose idea was that?
The falsetto was my suggestion. I thought it was great. We had a great rapport during recording and Cantor Helfgot had no hesitation about trying new things and was open to my ideas. He also wasn't afraid to say what he wanted. He is just so good and so facile that I never even had to think about any limitations. I never had any hesitation about asking him to try something different. I love how it came out.

Do you have any favorites among the songs on the album?
I chose all of the songs because I thought they were great tunes. But one I really love is Shoyfer Shel Moshiach. It's terrific. In the second half there's a march.

It reminded me of a miniature Verdi opera.
Yes. It's quite wonderful.

Sheyibone Beis Hamikdosh is a big song -- it sounds like a song that you would program at the end of the performance to let people know it's time to grab their coats.
(laughs) Yes it is. It's a song I heard all the time growing up. This is kind of the Pops of Cantorial music.

How about the instrumental, Romanian Doyne?
I heard a recording of it made by Dave Tarras, a great, great clarinet player and I fell in love with it. Then I said I have to do this for the violin. I wanted to include it here for variety.

What would you say to convey to people the importance of Kol Nidrei?
Kol Nidrei is probably the most important prayer in the Jewish religion. It comes on the evening of Yom Kippur. There are so many different renditions of it.

Yes! I even listened to Neil Diamond singing it.
Right. There was a movie... The Jazz Singer? So that song, basically the beginning of it is the same. After that, there are so many variations. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. I was on tour in Europe once and went to a synagogue in Warsaw and there was a Kol Nidrei that I didn't even recognize. During the recording, when Hankus Netsky was working with the cantor, they went back and forth several times over what they were going to do. With a different cantor you could get a completely different recording because they all do it differently. This is a simple Kol Nidrei with a piano accompaniment.

What does a musician have to do to keep it fresh?
First of all, if the music is great, it's very easy. You just concentrate on the music. The music is not the problem. The danger is if you play it like it's supposed to go. Don't play it like it's supposed to go. It isn't supposed to go any certain way. It's supposed to go the way you want it to go. If you do it the way it's supposed to go it gets stale. Every performance is a fresh experience. It's a very good question. It's one of the great challenges, especially when you reach a point where you have to repeat something over and over again. You just concentrate on what the music tells you and do it every time you play.

Do you have a music bucket list and if so, have you covered everything on it?
I've played everything I wanted to play. There are still people I would like to play with but some of them are already dead.

That's terribly inconvenient. A fiftieth anniversary concert is a good way of getting people to come who otherwise might not.
You've put an idea in my head. I'll start thinking about it.

You could get Martin Scorsese to film it.
Oh, very funny! You could call it The GoodMusicians.

(If this happens I call dibs on carrying the Maestro's fiddle and bow onstage.)