PBS’ ‘American Masters: Itzhak’ profiles a classical music giant

A lesson in perseverance

Itzhak Perlman

One needn’t be a classical music fan to appreciate the “American Masters” documentary “Itzhak.” But it couldn’t hurt.

Premiering Sunday, Oct. 14, on PBS (check local listings), the 90-minute film from Alison Chernick (“Matthew Barney: No Restraint”) paints an intimate portrait of world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman as a thoughtful, articulate and likeable man who triumped over polio at an early age to rise to the top of his profession.

“I always had to fight the people’s opinions about what a person with a disability can or cannot do,” Perlman explained to a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif. “… And then when I had this opportunity to go to the states, to ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ (in 1958), that basically solved all my problems as to … whether I could do it or not. And, of course, my parents always believed in me and that was really very, very important.”

The film captures the Israeli-born and -raised Perlman, now 73 and wheelchair-bound, at his Manhattan home with his large Jewish family, teaching music at Juilliard and in conversations with family and friends, including actor Alan Alda, singer Billy Joel, pianist Martha Argerich, cellist Mischa Maisky and his wife of 50 years, Toby.

And then of course, there are the musical performances, which are many and demonstrate his incredible technique and ability to express emotion through his violin.

“I’m transported by the actual music,” Perlman explains. “You know, I’m thinking about what the music says to me and how I can express that music. So … it consists basically of harmonies and notes and sometimes harmonies have a way of transforming somebody’s emotions. And in my case, if there is a harmonic experience, if you will, in a piece of music, it does something to me, and I react appropriately.”

And it’s something he encourages in his students.

“Sometimes when I teach, I always say to my students, ‘If it helps you to discover or to make a picture in your head … whether it’s a landscape or whether it’s somebody on stage saying something, if that helps, then by all means, do it.’ ”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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