Itzhak Perlman's appearances with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, which date back to 1970, have included the great works of the concerto repertoire, like Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Bartók, Tchaikovsky. This week, Perlman will return to the RPO — performing for the first time with Music Director Ward Stare — in a program of a different kind of classics: classic movie themes.
Perlman has been considered one of the world's great violinists ever since he appeared as a teenage virtuoso on the Ed Sullivan Show in the late-1950's and early-1960's. You could start just at the top of his honors: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honors, four Emmy Awards, 16 Grammys (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), and a performance at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. His recordings cover a range of music, from Vivaldi and Bach to Klezmer, jazz, and even opera; he once sang a cameo part as the Jailer in a recording of Puccini's "Tosca."
More to our point, Perlman has also lent his talent to two bestselling "Cinema Serenade" albums of movie themes performed with orchestra. The music, from great Hollywood movie scores old and new, was arranged and conducted — and in many cases, originally written — by John Williams, and provides the material for this weekend's RPO concert, which draws on music from "Casablanca" to "Cinema Paradiso."
Perlman has worked several times with Williams, first on the composer's theme to "Schindler's List," and again, with Yo-Yo Ma, in the score for "Memoirs of a Geisha." Other works by Williams on Perlman's RPO concert include themes from "Far and Away" and "Sabrina."
Perlman offered his thoughts on this musical repertoire, and shared his affection for it, in a brief interview. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: Have you played a similar program with other orchestras? What do you think is the appeal of the music?
Itzhak Perlman: Well, it's simply very pleasant, beautiful, lush music, and people enjoy it. I've found that it's a very popular program with orchestras for special occasions or when they are looking for dollars.
What are some other highlights on this program?
These are John Williams's arrangements, so they're great, even if they're not always his music. Some of the music is from Golden Age Hollywood, like the theme from "Robin Hood" — the 30's one, with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. Some is more modern, like "Cinema Paradiso," "Schindler's List," and the tango from "Scent of a Woman" — used in a very memorable scene with Al Pacino.
What they all have in common is that they're all sweet and old-fashioned, like the music you always used to hear in the movies and don't any more. Many of the older movie composers, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, came to America from Europe and went straight to Hollywood.
I know you performed on the "Schindler's List" soundtrack, and I see several other John Williams titles listed on the program. How did you meet him?
When John was writing the score for "Schindler's List," he called me and said, "I have a theme, and I have a particular violin sound in my head. I had you especially in mind when I wrote it. Come listen to it and tell me what you think." Well, of course, it was the main theme, and of course, I said yes.
With so much of John's music for movies, I feel it is a part of that great Hollywood tradition of Korngold, Steiner, and other composers.
Has John Williams written a violin concerto? That would seem like a given.
He has, though I've never performed it. Korngold, by the way, also wrote a violin concerto, for Jascha Heifetz, and it's a terrific piece, based on several of his movie themes.
Do you enjoy performing with the RPO?
Yes, I do. I haven't worked with Ward Stare, but I remember performing several times with David Zinman when he was your music director. [Perlman and Zinman collaborated on four performances, in 1970, 1978, 1980, and 1983.] I recall one concert scheduled in January, when a huge snowstorm was predicted for that Thursday and Friday. All of downtown Rochester shut down — but the storm never arrived. I predict better weather for this concert.
In touring and performing with different orchestras so frequently, do you have the chance to get to know the other musicians?
When you're touring, you are often in a city one day and out of it the next, but if you return regularly you do get to know individual musicians. I've known your associate concertmaster in Rochester, Willy Degláns, for many years.
As you know, my wife and I founded the Itzhak Perlman Music Program many years ago — it will be celebrating its 23rd birthday — and I find more and more alumni of our program playing in major orchestras.