VIOLINIST ITZHAK PERLMAN, WINNER OF ISRAEL’S NEW GENESIS PRIZE, OVER THE DECADES HAS FIDDLED HIS WAY AROUND THE WORLD AND INTO THE HEARTS OF MILLIONS. IN SPITE OF LIFELONG HANDICAP, HE PERSEVERED AND BECAME AN INSPIRATION TO THE WORLD THROUGH TALENT AND A DEEP LOVE OF MUSIC.
By Evan Berkowitz
Last June, the world-renowned violinist, conductor and classical music icon, Itzhak Perlman, received the third annual Genesis Prize from his home state of Israel. The Genesis Prize honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel.
The relatively new Genesis Prize was established by a unique partnership among the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, and the Office of the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Time Magazine dubbed it the “Jewish Nobel.”
Perlman, beloved for his charm and humanity as well as his talent, is treasured by audiences throughout the world who respond not only to his remarkable artistry, but also to his irrepressible joy of making music.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1945 to émigrés from Poland, Perlman showed an interest and talent for playing the violin from an early age. He contracted polio at the age of four and has been forced to use crutches to walk ever since, however this ailment did not stop him from pursuing a career in musical performance or hurt his creative and fighting spirit.
In 1958 at the age of 13, Perlman attended the legendary arts training school Juilliard, in New York City, where he was able to study under some of the great figures in violin scholarship of the day. He also performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on American television. By the mid-1960s he had performed at Carnegie Hall and since then, Perlman has played with most of the world’s great orchestras, been featured in special events across the globe and appeared in a variety of media programs, garnering a very large array of awards. To date, he’s won 16 Grammys, including the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, and 4 Emmys. He also has numerous honorary degrees from universities such as Harvard and Yale.
His extensive recording career includes performing the works of Antonin Dvorak, Wolfgang Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Antonio Vivaldi and Ludwig van Beethoven. In addition, he has collaborated with contemporary figures such as Yo-Yo Ma, Zubin Mehta, Isaac Stern, and Placido Domingo.
He has performed and stared on numerous Public Broadcasting specials about music, making frequent appearances on Live From Lincoln Center. But Perlman has also served as an ambassador of classical music to non–fans, when appearing on popular programs such as The Tonight Show, The Late Show with David Letterman and the children’s program Sesame Street.
Never miss an opportunity to teach; when you teach others, you teach yourself
A good example of Perlman reaching the masses would be the 78th Annual Academy Awards telecast, in 2006, when a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions saw him perform live. Perlman did a medley from five film scores nominated in the category of Best Original Score that year. He said one of his proudest achievements was working on the musical score for Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s award winning film about the Holocaust, for which he performed violin solos. In more recent years, Perlman has started working as an orchestra conductor.
“Never miss an opportunity to teach; when you teach others, you teach yourself” he said. And this new maestro has been actively involved in bringing up a new generation of world-class string musicians through his Perlman music program. Perlman teaches violin and chamber music in Juilliard’s College Division and Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. His distinguished contribution to culture and education was acknowledged by an official Honor of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He is also a recipient of national awards from three US presidents, including the Medal of Liberty, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“You are an advocate for those whose bodies are disabled but whose spirits never are,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Perlman in his speech at the June 23 Genesis Prize award event in Jerusalem. “I think you are a source of inspiration for those without special needs, because it tells us what we can achieve if we choose to overcome our disabilities.”
Prize money of a reported 3 million dollars from different sources will be given in conjunction with this award. Approximately 80% of this fund will be invested in projects to foster greater integration of people with disabilities into society in Israel and North America, particularly in the fiddler’s adopted hometown of New York City. The remaining 20% of the prize award will be invested in developing advanced training for highly talented musicians in Israel in order to provide them with an opportunity to bring their talents to the stage.
In a recent interview with the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Perlman said his home country has far to go in making society properly accessible to people like him. “People with talent are seen through the lens of their disability, rather than ability,” he said. “Society stands to lose from this unfulfilled potential.”
He said he envisions an educational program for architects and interior designers that would show them what it is like for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver in a closed space.
As a globetrotting performer, Perlman has experienced traveling to many places and said he has encountered countless hotels with little or no accessibility to the handicapped.
“We have to have a way of life so we don’t have to worry about what, if anything; is accessible. I want to be able to go to a concert and say I know I can get in there,” he said. Coming from someone who has been everywhere and given to so many, we cannot but follow the ubiquitous fiddler in his mission to develop a better world for all.