The cognito violinist
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The cognito violinist

Itzhak Perlman on klezmer, Jewish music, and Billy Joel

Itzhak Perlman joins Billy Joel in concert.
Itzhak Perlman joins Billy Joel in concert.

Itzhak Perlman is a violin virtuoso, a brilliant and beloved ambassador for classical music.

His artistry is universally acknowledged, and his personal warmth and inspirational story — the Israeli-born musician contracted polio when he was 4, and has overcome it — has done a great deal to make his art form more accessible.

Mr. Perlman turned 70 in August, and he is celebrating his birthday (more accurately, he is being celebrated for being himself, and his birthday provides as good an excuse as any) in a series of concerts and other events.

He will bring his music to bergenPAC on Sunday, October 11. (There is more information about the concert in the box on this page.)

But Mr. Perlman also has done a great deal for klezmer, the music that eastern European Jews played and brought out with them as they scattered around the world. Twenty years ago, he played violin on “In the Fiddler’s House,” a CD that was a crucial part of the klezmer revival, and this March, to mark that anniversary, he will be part of a tour playing its music around the country.

“The klezmer part of my experience really came accidentally,” Mr. Perlman said. “There were a few klezmer groups that were filming something — I think it was a PBS special — and for some reason they asked me if I would sit in with them for a couple of minutes and just jam with them.

“I never was associated with klezmer music, and I don’t know why they asked me, but simply because I was born in Israel and I’m Jewish it was in my ears.

“There was everything in Israel, all kinds of music,” he continued. “It was before television, so everything was on the radio. Everything. Klezmer, big band, cantorial, classical, rock and roll — everything. How else would we be entertained?”

So, armed with this almost preconscious knowledge, “I sort of sat in with some of the groups — the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the Klezmatics. I started to jam with them a little bit, by ear, and I felt that I was quite at home with the sound. I liked it very much.

“One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I was in it. Instead of being ‘there they are,’ it was ‘here we are.’

Itzhak Perlman feels at home in klezmer and classical.
Itzhak Perlman feels at home in klezmer and classical.

“It is fun for me. It is emotional and expressive. I’m very happy that it happened.”

He has learned a great deal about klezmer since then; “Hankus Netzky of the Klezmer Conservatory Band is like a walking encyclopedia,” he said. Because it is an improvisational form, like jazz, it is constantly changing, and it is possible to hear a player’s influences in his work. “My preference is the old-fashioned eastern European kind of klezmer,” he said.

“Klezmer is a Jewish expression, but you have to remember that a lot of if it has to do with history.” It’s easy to hear gypsy music in it, he said, along with many other influences. In fact, “It’s a little like Yiddish. When somebody speaks Yiddish in the United States, a lot of little English words come in. In South America, there’s more Spanish. Yiddish absorbs the geography. It’s the same thing with klezmer.”

Israelis love music, he added. He and his wife, Toby Perlman, run the Perlman Music Institute, which is based on Shelter Island, in between Long Island’s north and south forks at its eastern end. The institute runs programs in Israel.

Beyond that, “It seems that in Israel there is an orchestra on every corner,” he said. “When things don’t go well politically, people always seem to go to concerts. When people get worried, the concert halls are full.”

Israel is full of all kinds of ethnic music, and he thinks that’s glorious, “but for me, one thing about classical music is that it’s an international language,” Mr. Perlman said. “Anybody, from any place, can relate to classical music, and it has been like that forever.”

But Mr. Perlman is not a snob about music. One of his good friends is Billy Joel, who he occasionally joins, unheralded, on stage. “Billy Joel is a fantastic artist,” Mr. Perlman said. “He is wonderful. He is one of those people who writes his own stuff, and sings it. He creates it and then recreates it.” He also supports the Perlman Music Institute, he added.

His first appearance with Mr. Joel came when “he approached me and wanted me to play a little part in a song he recorded in his album Storm Front. There was a violin part in ‘Downeaster Alexa’.

“That was a long time ago. And then we started to see each other socially, and I said we should do it again, play together again. He plays at Madison Square Garden basically every month, and he said ‘Great! Why don’t we recreate the record?’

“The record didn’t have my name on it,” Mr. Perlman added. “I was an incognito violinist. But now I am cognito.’”

But anyone who wants to see Itzhak Perlman and Billy Joel on stage together has to rely on luck. Mr. Perlman’s appearances are not announced. “It is a total surprise,” Mr. Perlman said.

Itzhak Perlman

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