Friday, April 27, 2012



The line about the heavenly voice is from Revelation, the last book of the Bible that scared the hell out of me when I was a boy.
That voice turned out to be harps. In my case, it was a priceless 300-year-old violin played by the superstar with a first name that is as unique as the rest of him.
I felt I was sitting at the foot of a musical god. My son Mark's subscription seats to the Toronto Symphony are in the front row directly below the guests when they perform. So I could almost reach out and touch the heavy boots and braces of Itzhak Perlman, crippled by polio 60 years ago when he was four, who clumped out with awkward arm canes that makes his ascent up the one step to a platform a precarious balancing act where I felt for one terrible movement he would fall.
But Peter Oundjian, the TSO conductor, knows all about the master because he studied violin under Perlman. And when he didn't reach out as Perlman seemed suspended and about to crash to the polished wood, I put aside the fear that Perlman would topple to my feet.
There is a nice bit of stage business when the conductor carried Perlman's violin and bow as Perlman dragged himself through the orchestra to his chair and then, when he makes it, Oundjian hands over his violin and bow and Perlman hands over the conductor's baton as he reaches the platform needed because he plays while seated.
Then Perlman immersed himself as the orchestra plays the first of Ludwig Van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 61, the giant's only violin concerto, Beethoven played the violin as a boy and never did it well. When Perlman first wanted to play the violin, he was only three, so no one would be his teacher because they said he couldn't even hold the instrument. So he taught himself.
Now he has graduated from that toy violin to the Soil Stradivairus made in 1714, which was warmed up for him by the previous owner, Yehudi Menuhin.
This superstar mugs as well as he plays. He grimaces as if in the throes of sex, his face contorting as if it was a melting mask. I would love to see a TV program where the camera just concentrates on his face but since the concerto lasts 42 minutes, I doubt it will ever happen.
Fortunately, from my vantage point, I could see the twitch of every muscle as the music poured over me, sweet and high or then rasping as if the old instrument was clearing its throat.
Just wonderful! Ironically, as Mary and I drove home, Classical 96 played the same concerto. I hoped it would be an encore from Perlman but it was some lesser player.
There can be disadvantages when you are that close to that action.
 I recall sitting in the front row at a West End performance of Chorus Line and the dancers' sweat occasionally hit me.
 I recall covering a speech by John Diefenbaker from the front row and found that the prime minister may have been a great orator but he spit a lot.
Mary and I arrived late at a chamber music concert in Budapest staged just for the elite newspaper conference where I was a delegate and found that for some strange reason, the only seats left were in the front row. Unfortunately the superstar French flautist, Jean-Pierre Rampal, had a terrible head cold. I felt I was suspended between Rampal's snuffles and sneezes and his hanky.
But nothing like that marred Itzhak Perlman's start of a rare week's stay in Toronto of concerts and coaching of young violinists.
Truly a night. Two standing ovations (real ones instead of those offered by dumb audiences who would cheer the breaking of a wet bag) where Perlman dragged himself back to the front and centre, and then another one which he acknowledged from just outside the stage door.
 No doubt he was exhausted. But I was exhilarated.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once said: "Had I learned to fiddle, I should have done nothing else." This admiration for the violin came from a man still famous after several hundred years as one of the most renowned Renaissance men of letters ever in Britain, an author moving easily from poetry to essays to criticism to biography.
The countless listeners over the decades of the pearls of notes flowing from Perlman's "fiddle" know exactly what Dr. Johnson meant.

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