Nurturing young musicians was the name of the game in Tel Aviv recently when a bunch of local teenagers from Israel joined counterparts from around the world in a once-in-a lifetime experience.
The venue was the Tel Aviv Conservatory and the occasion was the latest installment of the 20-year-old Perlman Music Program (PMP).
The eponymous hands-on program director is legendary Israeli-born American violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman who, along with his wife Toby, has been doing his utmost to help enhance the budding string playing abilities of youngsters in the United States, Israel and elsewhere.
The two-and-a-half-week residency program incorporated 37 gifted musicians, aged 13 to 19, with 18 students from Australia, Canada, Hungary, Norway and the United States living and working alongside 19 talented Israelis in the same age bracket.
At a press conference which took place at the conservatory Perlman appeared relaxed alongside some of the foreign students, and one Israeli musician and happy to be back in his hometown of Tel Aviv.
“To do this program in this neighborhood, which is not far from where I grew up, is quite special,” said the maestro. “Also it gives me a chance to practice my Hebrew,” he added with a laugh.
Perlman peppered his replies to the journalists’ questions with wisecracks and colorful anecdotes, and that was characteristic of the PMP ethos as a whole. But, while he and the young students beside him on the stage appeared to be perfectly at ease, there was nothing laid back about the musical endeavor undertaken during the program, as evidenced by the open rehearsal that followed.
It was fascinating to follow the interchanges between the 68-year-old conductor and his young charges, both from Israel and abroad, as Perlman put them through their paces. He asked for a softer approach to one phrase, while losing nothing of the intensity, and at another juncture urged the players to rein in the vibrato level. The students were clearly tuned in to Perlman’s requests and responded in kind, but there was no sense of dogma from on high from the celebrated teacher.
The conductor exuded an air of avuncular bonhomie as he conveyed his wishes in Hebrew and English, giggling at his own occasional lapses in his command of his mother tongue.
When asked if the young Israeli classical music scene has any unique attributes compared with elsewhere around the globe, Perlman said he had not noted any differences in the level of enthusiasm or skill, but added that the fact that most young Israelis spend two or three of their formative years in the army might impact on their development.
“I am sure they do their best not to allow doing the army affect their musical development, although I am not sure if that is possible,” he observed.
One of the American students offered some intriguing insight on her experiences on the local program.
“Coming to Israel and working with Israelis here is a really great reminder that music is truly universal,” she said.
“I rehearse with three Israeli students and even if they are all speaking in Hebrew we all understand what we’re saying because of the music.”
Meanwhile, another student offered a glimpse of what he and his counterparts go through, on a daily basis, in order to maintain their progress curve.
“I try to balance music and high school,” he said. “I try to balance music and high school. I may get home at 4 o’clock, then I’ll have an hour or two of homework, and then on top of that I want to practice for a few hours.” However, there’s comfort in company. “It is really good to meet all these kids at PMP who go through the same thing I go through. That’s very inspiring.”
Toby Perlman, who has been a driving force behind the venture from the outset, said that while the aim was to help the youngsters scale new heights of musical proficiency, the tutorial approach was designed to make the road as user friendly as possible.
“This is the 21st century and we don’t use strict methods from the past.
Yes, we want the students to improve and learn, and become better musicians, but there is also a definite fun element to the program. I think of it as a humane and human teaching style.”
That was evident throughout the Q&A session, and the subsequent rehearsal, and students and maestro had clearly found a generous interpersonal comfort zone. The youngsters often referred to Perlman as “Mr. P.”
and did not give the impression of being unduly in awe of him, despite his lofty status in the global music arena.
“I don’t think they are intimidated by me. I try to make them feel comfortable,” he said in an earlier interview.
Mrs. Perlman also goes along with the ease factor, and says the program does not encourage competition between the young participants.
“If you ask for something positive and not judgmental I think you get a better response,” she says. “Art is not about winning a race. It is about making a statement from your heart, and creating.”
“We don’t have levels of playing. Everyone is doing the best that they can,” adds the maestro Perlman. Part of that is conveyed through onstage logistics. “We rotate the places where everyone sits, so just because you are sitting in the front row does not mean you are better than sitting further back.”
Perlman might be offering the teenagers a considerable push in the right direction, but he says his own playing skills are enhanced by the PMP experience.
“We are here to make the students better people and to change their lives, and that’s what we do. We train future players and future teachers too.
As a teacher a different part of your brain is active and, as a result of that, when you play you play differently.
You have a different attitude. I know teaching has helped my playing a lot over the years.”
Should be interesting to see what happens with the PMP students, here and abroad, a few years down the line.