Itzhak Perlman Talks Beethoven Ahead of Houston Symphony Concert

Itzhak Perlman’s laugh echoing through the phone is warm and rich; its slight gravelly edge adding an extra bounce of resonance, much like how the deep tones of a double bass ring in the ear following a particularly masterful sonata.

What’s the question I’ve asked the world’s living legend of the violin to elicit such a resounding response? How his seemingly innate understanding of the instrument that made him a household name has grown since it first captured his heart at age 3?

“It has changed by my understanding—it really is a very difficult instrument,” he chuckles from his home in Long Island, where he’s been taking his “enforced vacation” amid the pandemic. “I appreciate more and more how difficult it is.”

Perlman’s mastery of the violin—one that’s earned him endless Grammys, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among a wealth of other distinctions—has filled the halls of Houston over the decades since his Bayou City debut in 1967. But his sold-out performances with the Houston Symphony May 22–23 (don’t worry classical fans, you can still watch a livestream), as well as his newly announced open rehearsal the day before, have an extra layer of importance.

The All-Beethoven fête will not only be his first live show since the pandemic began, but it will also mark his first appearance as Artistic Partner of the symphony, a three-year partnership that was announced last year.

And there’s never a better way to celebrate than with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Perlman says.

“It’s music that always gives something,” he says. “There was nothing more appropriate for a first performance.”

In between accepting a delivery for a long-awaited shade (ah, pandemic interviews), Perlman shared his thoughts on his special Houston connection, the legacy of Beethoven, and the artist’s role into moments of upheaval.

You’re already a virtuoso of the classical world, but you took on a new role of internet lockdown hero with your videos during the pandemic. What do you think is the artist’s role in times of unrest?

When people are in trouble, as we are with a pandemic, there’s a tendency to want to escape, and the only way to escape is through the arts, through music. Music is the great escape. It’s been with us for so many generations, and it’s not going away. It’s always something that when in trouble, we turn to music.

Still, performing online just isn’t the same.

There is a certain amount of, shall we say, value in figuring out how do you communicate with people online, knowing that you’re not going to see them for a while. But I feel that I need the presence of live people; it makes me feel better. Otherwise, you’re performing for Microsoft. I did not really do any serious concerts or recitals or songs during the pandemic, so I welcome the opportunity to do it the old-fashioned way.

Do you think this show in Houston will have a little extra something because it’s the first one back after so long? 

I have no idea. [Laughs] We’ll see when I’ve gone onstage! I suppose it’s like once you learn you ride a bicycle, you don’t forget the steps. I’m very excited because, first of all, I’m conducting a very fine orchestra, and playing with them, and so on. And, I have family in Houston. My son-in-law [Robert Johnson] plays in the orchestra—he is the associate principal French horn—and my daughter lives there with the grandkids. So, I have a good time on many levels.

You’ve said in the past that playing and performing Beethoven is a lifelong journey. Can you tell me the journey audiences will experience during this concert? 

I’m playing the Romances, which are extremely lyrical, and then we’re doing the Coriolan Overture, and then we’re doing Beethoven’s  seventh symphony. The lyricism that’s represented with a Romances has a very great contrast to, the overture, which starts with incredibly tense chord. That’s the intensity of Beethoven, as opposed to the lyricism of Beethoven. And the Symphony No. 7, of course, is a lesson in rhythmic tension and drama.

We’ve talked a little bit about Beethoven’s legacy at 251. Have you thought about your legacy?

As long as I can continue to be fascinated with music, I think that means it hasn’t come to an end. And that, for me, is really very important: not to just go through the paces because I’ve done it so many years, but that I’m still excited about what I’m doing. And I’m sure I will continue to be so. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity

May 22–23. From $25 (livestream is $20). Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713.224.7575. More info and tickets

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