On a long drive, Itzhak Perlman will sometimes listen to classical music on the radio and try to guess who’s playing.
“There is always a question mark,” he says. “If it’s good, boy, I hope it’s me. If it’s bad, I hope it’s not me.”
Sometimes it’s hard to be sure: Perlman has played so much, for so long, and says he’s still learning, even at 70. This week, the great violinist will be honored by President Obama with the Medal of Freedom, a milestone in the life of a naturalized American citizen. Perlman grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in Tel Aviv, then a burgeoning young city being built in the brand-new country of Israel.
“I would see them make cement blocks,” Perlman tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “They would mix the cement and so on, and they would put it in little things that would make it a block that they would use in the buildings. So I actually knew how buildings were being built from the beginning. That was very exciting. And another excuse not to practice.”
Though as a child he hated practicing and contracted polio, Perlman developed his talent early. At 13, he was discovered by a giant of American TV: Ed Sullivan, who featured Perlman on his show more than once.
“He wanted to have a show made out of just Israeli acts. I made the finals, and I was in the cute little boy category, I guess,” Perlman says. “When you live in a small country such as Israel, the dream of any musician is to go abroad. All I thought was that it was the most exciting thing in my life — to go out to the States.”
Perlman’s work was recently compiled in a 77-CD box set, but even that massive collection doesn’t cover his entire career. And if you’ve kept up to date on viral videos lately, you may have spotted him conjuring music from a certain kitchen appliance.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘What is your goal now that you have done everything?’ And I always say that my goal is to not be bored by what I do,” Perlman says. “The only way that I cannot be bored by what I do is if I play something and it’s all new to me.”
Asked if his understanding of the violin has changed since his early days, he says it’s not the instrument that really matters.
“I think that I was pretty advanced as far as, technically, what makes it work — so I don’t think that right now you can say I know much more about the instrument than I did when I was 20,” he says. “I think the important thing was knowing how to play the music, how to do the phrasing, how to be a musician. That thing has evolved with me.”