Most people know Itzhak Perlman as a master of the violin and celebrated symphony orchestra conductor. But there’s much more to the 72-year-old maestro, and that personal side is the focus of the new documentary “Itzhak,” now playing in New York and Los Angeles with select cities to follow. Written and directed by Alison Chernick, the film captures Perlman at work, at leisure, and follows him in his travels around the world. Here are some things we learned from watching the film, and in a recent telephone conversation with the maestro himself.
He has Israeli roots
Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945 to parents who had emigrated from Poland. “They came from Europe on a boat, going to a land where they didn’t know anybody. They had a hard life. They went to Israel and made a life there,” he tells From The Grapevine. The family relocated to the United States in 1958, but he returns to Israel at least once a year. “My relationship with the Israel Philharmonic goes way back, and now there’s an extra reason to go because of the school,” he says, referring to the students he teaches there via the Perlman Music Program.
He’s an advocate for the disabled
Afflicted with polio at age 4, Perlman walks with the aid of crutches and uses a motorized scooter to get around. His New York City home has an elevator. But air travel and navigating public spaces like bathrooms, hotels and concert halls is “not getting any easier,” he says. He’s pleased that “Itzhak” will be shown on PBS for National Disabilities Month in October. “I always champion anything that will improve the lives of people with disabilities and put it on the front burner,” he said.
His favorite violin is more than 300 years old
He took out a loan years ago to buy his rare Stradivarius, which was previously owned by violinist Yehudi Menuhin. “It’s my dream violin,” he says. “It responds to my concept of sound.”
He has four Emmy Awards, 16 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conductor Itzhak Perlman in a 2015 White House ceremony.
“Emmys and Grammys are nice to have, but receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama was very meaningful,” says Perlman, who had performed at Obama’s inauguration in 2009 six years earlier.
He’s pals with Billy Joel
The musicians have been friends since Joel asked him to play on a recording of “The Downeaster Alexa,” and Perlman has joined him at concerts to play that and other Joel songs, like “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” “Every now and then I do a surprise appearance,” Perlman says, noting that Joel has been a big supporter of his Perlman Music Program. “I’m a big fan,” Perlman says. “I do it because I really like his songs.”
Actor Alan Alda is also Perlman’s good friend
In “Itzhak,” they’re seen chatting over wine, talking about how acting and musicianship are alike. Alda reveals that he also had polio as a child, but the treatment he was given prevented paralysis.
He and his wife Toby have been married for 51 years
When they met as teenagers at a summer music program, it was love at first sight – for her. She wanted to get married. He didn’t. “I was too young,” says Perlman, who was 17 at the time. They dated other people before getting back together, this time for good. Today they have five children and 12 grandchildren, several musicians among them.
He’s a huge fan of the New York Mets
Perlman has visited the team at spring training and has a collection of autographed baseballs. He has played the National Anthem at Mets games several times, but every time he has, they’ve lost. “Maybe I’m bad luck for them,” he admits.
He’d love to be a chef
“I love to cook, but cooking is difficult,” Perlman tells us. “I’m a big fan of food. Because I’m old, I’ve graduated to microwave cooking.” Fortunately for his sake, “My wife and children are wonderful cooks.
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