Lessons from “Itzhak”

The world-renowned violin soloist Itzhak Perlman needs no introduction for many people who love the violin or classical music.  I grew up with his name spoken with a reverent tone; among my teachers it went undisputed that he was one of the best living violinists. Very early in my violin studies,  I was privileged to see him perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto with my local symphony orchestra. Of course, I was blown away by impressive technique, but even more than that, I was captivated by the passion. I felt a tender thoughtfulness behind every note that held my attention fully for the whole piece.  


Thinking about all of this, I was very excited see Itzhak, a new documentary directed by Alison Chernick with this living legend as the main subject. It is less a cohesive biography and more of a casual romp that enables us to eavesdrop on this gifted musician and deeply likeable human as he rehearses with a string trio, Billy Joel, and a klezmer band, teaches and reflects on teaching, returns to his native Israel, and goes about living life.




My short review – anyone who loves the violin will likely be deeply moved and motivated and learn a lot.  (Younger children might find the pace a little slow, and might need to see it as excerpts or with breaks) Here are just a few of the main reflections I took away from the experience:


A prodigy evolves into an artist:


There is some very telling archival footage of a much younger Itzhak performing for the Ed Sullivan Show.  The film suggested that the television show patronizingly framed him as a pitiable or “inspiring” boy paralyzed from polio, but his demonstration of profound talent forced people to take him seriously.  


All of the technique a virtuoso violinist could hope for was already evident.  He whizzed through selections from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (one of the hardest classical violin pieces ever written), making it abundantly clear that he plays better than most violinists could ever hope to. Indeed he plays the piece faster than normal, coming across as a bit of a show-off. The notes fly off his instrument like sparks.  The maestro does not smile – or really show much emotion at all.


These early snippets could not be a more vivid contrast to the many times we see him perform as a more mature artist.  The passion and love of each note comes through – and it sometimes felt like he was going to burst with excitement and emotion as he put his whole body into drawing out the most beautiful sound he can out of every note.


Tone makes the difference:

In the course of a masterclass Pearlman is teaching, he expands on ideas expressed in an earlier interview made in Israel. He discussed how playing violin is not only about finding the right notes – but one must also devote a lot of care to how they enter, shape, and exit the note being played.  “It’s the decision of when to get in and out, and how, that shapes emotion.” (quoted in a review by Matt Zoller Seitz)


Our physical selves create sound through singing, using the air we breathe. There are a million ways we can change and shape the sound we make by exhaling. In the same way, a violin’s (or viola’s, cello’s, or bass’) bow can shape the sound in a million ways. Very subtle, almost microscopic differences in the physical motions of playing, such as playing with more or less pressure, playing closer or further away from the bridge, or bowing slower or faster can radically alter how a piece sounds. The ability to be careful and mindful in making these decisions can make all the difference between merely playing to show off technique, and taking the listener on a transcendent emotional journey.


“Praying with the violin”

Of all the people Itazak Perlman interacts with on this cinematic journey, perhaps the most moving is with Amnon Weinstein, a Tel Aviv-based luthier who is the driving force behind “Violins Of Hope,” that seeks to locate and restore instruments that once belonged to Jews killed in the Holocaust. Both master violin maker and master violinist approach these instruments with the utmost respect, and it is deeply powerful to hear these silenced violins sing once again.  

Weinstein describes Perlman’s playing,”praying with the violin.”  Through taking care to lovelingy draw out the maximum amount of pathos and richness from a note, Perlman’s playing does indeed often feel deeply spiritual.

Through this film, Itzhak is shown to be man with deep passions. HIs delight in joking with friends, his love for his wife Toby, his commitment to his Jewish identity,  and his honesty with struggles as a person with a disability – all of it contributes to who he is as a musician. He has committed to feeling life fully, in both its joys and struggles. Putting all of that into his music, using his technique to express his truth, creates beauty and power that leaves me speechless.   


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