In 1995 or 1996 I attended a benefit concert in New York City’s Lincoln Center for Opus 1, Roberta Tzavaras’s organization which supported her teaching of violin in the city’s public schools. I had been involved with her work a couple of years earlier (no, I didn’t see the film) and had been given a ticket for the benefit.
Various performers appeared that night, but the best (excepting the children playing violin with Roberta conducting at the end) was the jazz duet of violinist Yitzhak Perlman and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
I had seen Perlman, crippled from early childhood by polio, in previous occasions and knew the drill. Most violinists came onstage holding their violin in one hand. Perlman couldn’t do that because he needed both hands for his crutches as he walked in, so his violin (a Stradivarius or one in that class) would be waiting for him in the hands of the orchestra’s First Violinist, who would hand it over once Perlman was seated on his chair at the front of the stage, ready to begin. After the performance and/or encores, Perlman would hand the violin back to the First Violinist, get up, reach for his crutches, and hobble off the stage.
When he was giving a solo recital with no orchestra or First Violinist present, an assistant would bring him his violin and also pick it up from him at the end of the recital.
That evening Perlman and Marsalis played beautifully together. Marsalis’s popularity had zoomed and people clapped enthusiastically for him. But for me, Perlman was the great treat because he was a classical musician, not jazz, but played with his unique combination of sensitivity and bravado. They finished their duets, the audience asked for more, and they planed an encore, all obviously arranged ahead of time.
At the end of the encore Marsalis got up on his feet, bowed to the joyful ovations, and walked offstage. Perlman, violin in hand, couldn’t get up to acknowledge the audience, never mind walk offstage. We waited for Marsalis to come out and take his violin from his hands, or at least a stagehand, but no one came.
Working with Roberta Tzavaras a couple of years earlier, I’d seen Perlman visiting young violinists at NYC schools. His office had strict guidelines: The building had to be accessible to crutches, which meant no stairs. He wasn’t going to get into a wheelchair and he certainly wasn’t going to be lifted upstairs. This wasn’t easy to navigate in old East Harlem schools and we had to nix various spaces that didn’t fit the bill. Once he arrived, he was cheerful and extremely generous, but he clearly had his dignity. If you wanted him, you had to meet him on his terms.
That night it didn’t happen. He sat facing the sell-out audience as moments passed. There wasn’t a soul there that didn’t get it, that didn’t understand that he couldn’t move so long as that violin was in his hand. But there must have been some glitch backstage because no one came to take from him.
He stared out at us, this most famous of violinists, having played his heart out, and we stared back. He had achieved so much in his life, but almost all of us there could have done the one thing he couldn’t: stand up and walk off stage. Some lowered their eyes in embarrassment.
I felt I was looking at a man more naked than anyone I’d ever seen, as if I’d asked: What’s left when you no longer have your family, your immense talent, and your even more immense discipline? And he was showing me the answer as the moments crept by.
Eventually a young man came out and took the violin. Perlman got up and hobbled out on his crutches.
I never appreciated him more than I did that evening.
Two years earlier he was one of the guest performers at the first benefit for Roberta Tazavaras that took place in Carnegie Hall. The last show of the concert paired a child or teenager from the East Harlem schools with a world-renowned violinist—Isaac Stern, Midori, Perlman, etc.—and the 20 played together.
At the end I went backstage where the young people were assembled. Hundreds of their family members streamed to the back to congratulate their children. Going in the opposite direction was Perlman. He was making his way on crutches to one of the Hall’s large banquet rooms in the front where $1,000 ticket-holders were waiting to see him. He limped alone against a river of humanity, many of whom nodded and smiled towards him.
He plowed on, a big smile on his face: “Yes, they did very well. They played very, very well. Yes, it was terrific,” he told the proud parents.
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