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Perlman Scores with Young Players
Itzhak Perlman, conducting a master class in Shanghai, instills a passion for music in his students.

Awe. Unabashed awe, written on the faces of the young musicians who are granted an audience with the world's most celebrated violinist. Was he pompous, supercilious, a strict disciplinarian who wouldn't abide a flat note? Hardly. Itzhak Perlman is a charming, funny, family man who helps children find pleasure in music.

The world's most famous living violinist was worried. "Are they OK? Why aren't they here yet?" asks Itzhak Perlman, wondering the whereabouts of the children on New York's Shelter-Island-based Perlman Music Program. The children were supposed to be joining him by now for dinner at the Donghu Hotel where he stays in the city.

The maestro had no time for food, instead wheeling himself in and out of the dining room to check about why the children were late.

"Oh, here they are!" he beams with obvious relief as the 33 children arrive. "Bravo!" he cheers, as he videotapes their arrival.

"Yes, he is unusual," laughs Chang Lin, Perlman's translator. "He is among the few maestros I know who really love children. He thinks of them as 'my kids' instead of 'my students,"' says Chang, the University of Arkansas professor and Arkansas Symphony Orchestra violinist.

Back in Shanghai on vacation, Chang eagerly accepted the translator role. "It's an honor," he says, "as well as a very real pleasure to work for a great man with such an easy-going personality, a wonderful sense of humor and such a marvelous appetite for Chinese food."

Indeed, the 57-year-old music maestro's passion for food, particularly Chinese cuisine is renowned, which he has learned how to cook. But it was another passion, his lifelong passion for music and children which brought him back after eight years to Shanghai, where he is conducting the Perlman Music Program summer camp until August 28.

"Nobody believes that Perlman will be here more than three weeks. He hates being away from home," said Shirley Young, a friend of Perlman's for the last two decades and president of the Committee of 100, a New-York-based foundation promoting exchange between Chinese and American cultures. The committee is the organizer of the music camp.

Perlman conducted his first lesson last Friday at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Sitting on the podium, the Perlman conducted Grieg's string piece, "Holberg Suite," played by the 63 students from home and abroad on the music camp. The maestro, keenly aware that the Chinese students were nervous being around him, tried to relax them with his signature humor.

Perhaps the students were also rattled by Perlman's unorthodox directives: Between movements, the children were asked to change positions.

"We believe that everybody should have the experience of playing in any part of the orchestra. Every position is important and has a particular function," says Perlman.

"It's also a game with a purpose, and they don't know what will happen," added Toby Perlman, 59, the program's founder and the maestro's wife.

Toby was, at 20, a promising young violinist attending the Meadowmount summer camp when she first heard the 18-year-old Itzhak Perlman play Ravel's "Tzigane." His talent so moved her that she rushed backstage and immediately proposed marriage to the musician. In 1967, after the couple graduated from New York's Juilliard School, they did just that. Three-and-a-half decades later, she still says: "The man I married is a great man."

While her famous husband advanced his career, traveling the world and playing concerts, Toby Perlman put hers on hold to focus on raising their five children, four of whom are professional musicians; the non-musician is a lawyer. Only in 1994, when the Perlman Music School was established, did she return to the music world.

Toby Perlman doesn't disagree with her husband's remark, recently quoted in the New York Times, that "marriage is hard." "Whose is not?" she says. "The difficulties are what make it great. When you've been married as long as we have, you also have a store of shared memories. We grew up together, when we went to Julliard together, we raised our children together. We have a deep well filled with memories that can be dipped into." Mrs. Perlman also reveals that their shared Jewish faith is another bond: "We are traditional Jews and we are very serious about that. It's another piece of the puzzle."

Before coming to China, Mrs. Perlman admits she did have some worrying of her own. Would this Jewish couple from New York and Israel be able to get along with the Chinese people? "But then I was told that the Chinese are more like the Jews than any other race in terms of standards of value, things like a very strong family life, and an emphasis on education and children, for example," she said.

Commenting Perlman's cooking, though, she protests: "Man always says much more than he does." The violinist doesn't disagree. "Oh, yes, she is right. I hardly cook at home, but I like to give direction to the cook," agrees Perlman. "I tell them what flavors I want. My wife is a good cook, but she doesn't cook much anymore because she's tied up at the school," he says.

The school is another shared mission for the Perlmans. Their philosophy, which they have brought to Shanghai, is teaching the joy of music as well as the technique. "Music teachers should be responsible for making sure that students will have a good experience with music - not a fearful one," says Perlman. "I know some students who are very talented, but after graduation, they said 'thank God, I don't have to play again.' That's terrible. One must play with pleasure and for pleasure."

And that might be the most important legacy that Itzhak Perlman leaves his Shanghai students.

Perlman will also holds a concert.

(eastday.com August 24, 2002)

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