'My Goal Is To Not Be Bored By What I Do': Itzhak Perlman At 70 : Deceptive Cadence Once a kid with polio from Tel Aviv who hated practicing his instrument, the master violinist says he's still learning, even as he prepares to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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'My Goal Is To Not Be Bored By What I Do': Itzhak Perlman At 70

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'My Goal Is To Not Be Bored By What I Do': Itzhak Perlman At 70

'My Goal Is To Not Be Bored By What I Do': Itzhak Perlman At 70

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Sometimes the great violinist Itzhak Perlman takes a long drive. He listens to classical music on the car radio. And he tries to guess who's playing.

ITZHAK PERLMAN: There's always a question mark. Who is that? If it's good, boy, I hope it's me.


PERLMAN: If it's bad, I hope it's not me.

INSKEEP: Sometimes it's hard to be sure if it's him. Perlman has played so much for so long. He's 70 years old, and though the music has not changed, he attacks the notes differently.

PERLMAN: Yes, everything has changed, you know? I mean, if I were to listen right now to a recording of any work that I've done, let's say 30 years ago, I can guarantee you that today I would not quite play it the same way.

INSKEEP: He's always learning something new about a composition. And he's sometimes playing an unexpected instrument, as we'll hear in a moment. Perlman receives an honor this week. President Obama will present him with the Medal of Freedom. It's a milestone in the life of a naturalized American citizen. Perlman is an immigrant. He grew up in the 1940s and '50s in Tel Aviv. It was a rapidly growing young city being built all around him in the brand-new country of Israel.

PERLMAN: And I would see them make cement blocks. They had, like, a special machine. And they would mix the cement and so on, and they would put it in little things that would make it a block that they would use it in the building. So actually knew how building were being built from the beginning.

INSKEEP: I'm just picturing this future great violinist just sitting there for hours watching construction.

PERLMAN: That was very exciting, you know, very exciting, and another excuse not to practice (laughter) you know, 'cause I hated it.

INSKEEP: You hated practicing violin.

PERLMAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, of course. I was normal. If you tell me somebody 8, 9, 10 years old loves to practice, I would say to you either they're lying or something is wrong with the child or something. I mean, practicing is an arduous thing.

INSKEEP: He did practice. He developed his talent despite contracting polio at age 4. And 13, he was discovered by a giant American TV personality who featured Perlman on its program more than once.


ED SULLIVAN: Now, ladies and gentlemen, here, playing the final movement of Wieniawski's "Concerto No. 2," young Itzhak Perlman of Israel. So let's have a fine welcome...


INSKEEP: How did you end up, while still a kid really, on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the United States?

PERLMAN: Well, very simple - he wanted to have a show made out of all just Israeli acts. And I made the finals, you know, and I was in the cute little boy category, I guess.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PERLMAN: You know, I had polio. So I was - I sat down so it was a little boy walking with crutches then sitting down and sounding sort of decent.

INSKEEP: And did you grasp really what you were auditioning for and what a big deal it was?

PERLMAN: Yes, yes, when you live in a small country such as Israel, the dream of any musician is to go abroad.


INSKEEP: I was thinking about that moment in your life and being someone from a small country and also a very new country. Were people around you thinking of you, in a way, as a representative of Israel, a way of Israel presenting itself to the world as a real thing?

PERLMAN: I don't know. I suppose they did. All I thought was that it was the most exciting thing in my life to go out to the states. And of course the second reason to go there is to study. We called it (speaking Hebrew) which is in Hebrew which means to complete yourself. And that's where you go either to Europe or to America.


INSKEEP: Well, help me understand learning for you a little bit because, to state the obvious, you were quite accomplished at a very young age. But I am imagining you know a lot more about the violin today than you did when you were 20. What is something that it has taken you years and years to learn about that instrument?

PERLMAN: You know something, it's very funny about the actual instrument - I think that I was pretty advanced as far as technically what makes it work. So I don't think that right now if you can say, do I know much more about instrument than I did when I was 20? I think the important thing was knowing how to play the music, how to do the phrasing, how to be a musician. That thing has evolved with me.


INSKEEP: At the age of 70, Itzhak Perlman has released his first solo album in years. He managed to find a few violin sonatas he'd never recorded. We're hearing one of them now. This album is added to a body of work so massive that only part of it is collected in a new 77-CD box set.

PERLMAN: A lot of people ask me what's your goal now that you've done everything? And then I always say that my goal is to not be bored by what I do.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PERLMAN: And the only way that I - you know what I mean? I mean, because the only way that I cannot be bored by what I do is that if I play something and it's all new to me.

INSKEEP: Have you had phases of being bored with what you were doing?

PERLMAN: Very short - very short - and immediately I solve the problem (laughter).

INSKEEP: Do you solve that by playing music on, say, a blender?

PERLMAN: That is something very new to me. I'm assuming you've heard it, so that's why you're asking me.

INSKEEP: Yes, yes, you posted...

PERLMAN: So did you like my phrasing?

INSKEEP: I loved it. You posted it on Facebook. And I'd like to play a little bit of this if you don't mind so that people can hear that. Let's listen to Itzhak Perlman.

PERLMAN: Oh, please, this is NPR for heaven's sakes.

INSKEEP: That is the point, sir, so let's give a listen.


INSKEEP: (Singing) Love me tender, love (laughter).

PERLMAN: Oh, my God. You mean that's what you're going to play of my work i s a little blender music? Oh, my God.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) We're playing some violin, too.

PERLMAN: Oh, thank God for that.

INSKEEP: But I was very impressed by your blender technique. And it's a video in which you refer to the fact that you've done this before. So how long have you been being the blender and how'd you get started on that?

PERLMAN: Well, I started, you know - I had a very bad teacher to begin with, you know, and just didn't teach me very, very well. So I was self-taught. And again, you know, you need to practice methodically.


INSKEEP: That's Itzhak Perlman, who receives a presidential Medal of Freedom tomorrow.

Somebody once said of Jack Nicklaus, the great golfer, if you asked him what is the best shot you ever hit, he would reply I haven't hit it yet.

PERLMAN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Have you played your best composition?

PERLMAN: That's a very, very difficult question. Do you have to end up on something like that?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PERLMAN: Really, I mean, this is ridiculous.


INSKEEP: The violinist finally replied that he is often successful, but he'd never say anything was the best.

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