DIRECTED BY ALISON CHERNICK/2018
As an elementary age child in the early 1980’s, I was introduced to classical music at school. I had heard it before, of course, but this is where I was educated on the significance of composers such as Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Grieg. While these were all great, I was enthralled to see video and hear the beautiful violin sounds of a more modern day musician. Our teacher showed us the playing of Itzhak Perlman. It really opened the door for me to love the sound of the violin, appreciate classical music in a greater way, and to better understand the importance of the arts.
Perlman is the subject of a new documentary by director Alison Chernick, appropriately entitled, Itzhak. In it, the renowned musician, along with his wife Toby, recount their lives together, their passion of music, and highlight their upbringing. From their humble beginnings, their religious background, their children, to their more modern pursuits including conducting and teaching at Julliard, as well as helping the Perlman Music Program which was started by Toby.
If you get a sense of anything about Perlman’s life through this film, it is that he loves his wife, and both of them share a passion for baseball (especially the New York Mets), music, and cooking. When receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom award from President Obama in 2015, the President recounts a time when an interviewer asks Perlman what sound he loves. The President describes Perlman’s eyes lighting up as he answered, “the sound of onions sizzling in a pan”. Apparently, the interviewer expected a much more musical answer and perhaps didn’t know about Perlman’s love of cooking or the fact that Itzhak also has a great sense of humor.
Crippled through the devastating effects of polio, Itzhak is a tireless advocate for the disabled, and can be seen discussing the need for architects to consider the disabled in their building designs so as to maximize and improve functionality and mobility. We also see some of the difficulties he still endures, being seated most of the time, such as trying to navigate New York’s snowy streets, to having to wait for the only accessible bathroom at a performance hall while they get a homeless person out of it.
Passionate about music, Perlman is equally passionate as he shows off the places he used to live in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the sacrifices his parents made so that he could pursue his gift of playing the violin. This would eventually lead to an appearance, at age 13, on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he would later go on to attend Julliard in New York, despite speaking no English at that time. Footage from a 1993 interview with his former Julliard teacher is perfect as she recounts how difficult it was to teach him with his inability to speak English, and his poor attitude that he displayed when they first met.
While Perlman has found much success, it was refreshing to see how important he sees the idea of musicians engaging in teaching is. He continues to teach students of various ages, and encourages them to the same as they find success. His methods of teaching have changed over the years, he says, and we get a sense that he picked up his style of teaching from his Julliard teacher who would never tell him what to play, how to play it, and when like his eight year teacher in Tel Aviv. Instead, he recounts, she would ask him questions (that used to drive him mad at the time) like “how do you feel about this?”, or “What does this sound make you feel?”.
At first, he wanted to be told what was expected of him with implicit directions, but he learned that such questions encouraged creativity and deeper thought about the process. His wife Toby chimes in that teachers like this want to know that students are thinking about all aspects of the piece and how it affects them because if nothing is going on in their brain as they encounter a piece of music, then the chances that anything will come through their playing is diminished.
There are great conversations between he and Toby as she is expected to challenge him and his views. Their back and forth, even in disagreement, are always supportive and you can sense that any challenge leveled at the other is meant for their betterment, and never as a personal dig. This sort of conversational style extends to others they know as Perlman isn’t shy about his discussions of arrangement ideas when he’s playing with Billy Joel, or having soup at the house with actor Alan Alda.
Itzhak is a warm, touching, and encouraging documentary that doesn’t seem to touch on anything controversial in Perlman’s life. This may be because there isn’t much in his life that would be seen as controversial. He has played for over 5 decades, been married to the same woman for over 50 years, and uses his success to pour into others. I would have liked to see more involvement from his grown children to get a sense of how he was as a dad, as that seemed to be one area that was lacking in this documentary.
The love and respect I had for Itzhak Perlman as a young student when being first exposed to his playing in Elementary School was rekindled while watching this documentary this week. I still have never seen him play live, but after Itzhak, it is something that I will certainly try to do, not just because of the quality of the music I will experience, but also because of the quality of a human being that Mr. Perlman has shown himself to be for over half a century.