Itzhak Perlman is a classical music rock star. His return to BYU was a reminder
Few classical music artists have a rock star status, but Itzhak Perlman is indisputably one of them
Few classical music artists have a rock star status, but Itzhak Perlman is indisputably one of them. He’s won 16 Grammys and four Emmys. He helped popularize classical music with appearances on “Sesame Street” and his work on the “Schindler’s List” soundtrack — not to mention a performance of the national anthem at a New York Mets game. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
On Wednesday night, Perlman performed at Brigham Young University for just the second time in his decadeslong career. He didn’t even need to play a note to get a standing ovation. The second he came onto the stage of the BYU School of Music’s new concert hall, everyone leapt to their feet to welcome this extraordinary artist.
During his first performance at BYU — which came just two months before the pandemic began in 2020 — Perlman didn’t say a word to his audience (aside from mouthing “thank you” several times during a standing ovation that lasted for 3 minutes and 40 seconds).
But this time, when the Israeli American violinist took the stage, conductor Kory Katseanes handed him a microphone. Before diving into his 30-minute performance, Perlman made note of an ongoing matter that for him hits close to home.
“I’d feel remiss if I did not mention the horrible situation that’s going on in Israel over the last three days,” Perlman said quietly. “It is quite tragic and I hope that this wild violence will stop soon and that we can find some peace.”
And then, for the rest of the evening, Perlman let his music do the talking.
In the words of one of Perlman’s friends, featured in the 2017 documentary “Itzhak,” the violinist doesn’t just play the violin; he prays through it.
And that’s an accurate assessment.
Itzhak Perlman returns to BYU
On Wednesday night, the 78-year-old violinist approached the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — a piece he has played for more than 65 years — like a trusted old friend. There’s very little downtime for the soloist in this piece, no long orchestral introduction that builds up to the violinist’s entrance. Instead, Perlman dove right in with a remarkable smoothness. His fingers rapidly darted up and down the fingerboard as he performed the technically challenging piece with the peaceful calm of a figure skater gliding across the ice.
And that’s one of the most unique facets of Perlman’s artistry: He performs with such little fanfare, such effortlessness, that it can be hard to recognize just how good he is.
He’s played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for so long — he performed it as a 13-year-old on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1958 — that he doesn’t have to think too much about engaging with it. There’s no apprehension when he gets to the daunting cadenza partway through the first movement. He knows this piece backward and forward. And even after more than six decades, his fingers haven’t slowed down a bit.
Perlman approaches his music with such an ease and comfortability that you almost forget you’re watching a master craftsman at work.
Katseanes — the BYU Philharmonic conductor who was a violinist in the Utah Symphony when the orchestra accompanied Perlman at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in the 1970s — watched Perlman intently throughout the performance, following the violinist’s tempos and making sure the orchestra stayed with him every step of the way.
And when it was all done, Perlman got a 31⁄2-minute standing ovation.
A memory of a lifetime
For roughly the past two decades, Perlman has put a lot of emphasis on music education, making his concert appearances more selective. As of now, his website only lists a handful of performances for the remainder of the year — and three of them are in Utah.
Those in attendance Wednesday night seemed to recognize the significance of Perlman’s appearance — not to mention the beauty of hearing him perform in the intimate setting of a 1,000-seat concert hall.
Moments like these don’t come often. Who knows when — or if — Perlman will return to Utah. But this much is for certain: The violinist left his listeners with a memory that’ll last a lifetime.