Itzhak Perlman explores his Jewish roots

The legendary violinist unites with Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot to present a unique concert combining ‘some good fiddlin, great singing and a little Yiddish.’

Itzhak Perlman 311 (photo credit: Shimon Gifter)
Itzhak Perlman 311
(photo credit: Shimon Gifter)
Arranging a concert program is like planning a dinner, says Itzhak Perlman.
First comes an appetizer, then the main course, and finally something to clear the palate.
By that yardstick, the violin virtuoso is preparing a menu for The Soul of Jewish Music concert unlike anything else in his 50-year career, featuring Perlman, famed Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot, musical director Hankus Netsky, a klezmer band and an orchestra. Comedian Elon Gold will introduce the program.
“There’ll be some good fiddlin, great singing and a little Yiddish,”.Perlman promised. The show will debut April 10 in Los Angeles, as the first stop in an anticipated national, and perhaps international, tour.
About his collaboration with Helfgot, Perlman noted, “I’m not exactly a stranger to playing the violin along some of the world’s great voices, but I’ve never done it in a Jewish context.”
“When I was a kid growing up in Israel, on Saturdays I always listened to the chazzonish (cantorial) radio programs,” he reminisced.
“That was my Jewish comfort music.”
A Perlman program is usually planned a year or so in advance, but the Soul Music event came together in a few weeks, thanks mainly to the obsessive enthusiasm of producer Dan Adler.
“Dan first contacted me about this event less than two months ago,” Perlman recalled.
“We had no concert hall, no advance publicity, but Dan said he would take care of all these details.”
Perlman had heard Helfgot sing a year earlier and was stirred by his voice. Now he presented the idea of a joint performance to the cantor, who replied, “Why not?” Helfgot, alternately dubbed the “Jewish Domingo” or the “Jewish Pavarotti” is, like Perlman, a Tel Aviv native and former child prodigy. He is chief cantor at New York’s Park East Synagogue and in 2006 presented the first cantorial solo concert in the then 123-year history of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Netsky, a multi-instrumentalist, is the founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and teaches jazz and contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory.
He previously collaborated with Perlman in the 1995 PBS special In the Fiddler’s House.
PERLMAN FIRST came to America’s attention at 13 when he appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and he cemented his reputation five years later in his Carnegie Hall debut.
In his teens, he helped support his family by entertaining at fundraising dinners for the United Jewish Appeal, Zionist Organization of America and Israel Bonds.
Critics frequently comment on his rapport with audiences and unfailing enthusiasm.
Perlman explained that “I am constantly stimulated and amazed by the music and the different ways of interpreting it. The work keeps me young.”
He also keeps switching roles. At 65, he triples as violinist, conductor and teacher, giving one-on-one lessons to some 15 students at The Juilliard School in New York.
Perlman estimates that he spends half of his year on the road, playing in different cities and countries. He enjoys the performances but hates the traveling.
A polio victim at four, he requires crutches or a wheelchair, which means long body searches each time he boards a plane.
“Sometimes the security checker will say, ‘Sorry, Mr Perlman, we have to do this,’ but travelling is always a huge pain,” he said.
It’s equally challenging to find accessible hotel lodging for a man with his disabilities.
Asked whether he didn’t have an assistant to scout ahead, Perlman answered, “Yes, but in the end it’s up to me, I have to be the judge.”
Perlman descibes himself as a “traditional Jew,” who keeps a kosher home, won’t perform on Friday nights, and, as the father of five and grandfather of nine, usually has some 12 family members around the Shabbat dinner table.
He shied away from talking about Israel’s domestic and foreign problems, but noted, “I am an eternal optimist, I always say ‘Yihyeh Tov’ or ‘It’ll get better.’” At the end of the interview, Perlman excused himself to teach a lesson and then catch a plane to Texas.
He left behind a video shot during rehearsal, in which Helfgot promises ticket buyers, “You’ll be treated music that’s old, but new,” to which Perlman added, “and Jewish.” Beneficiary of the concert is the Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, a national coalition, under the auspices of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, to provide dignity and resources to survivors.