Internationally renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman and acclaimed Chazzan Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, chief cantor at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, have collaborated on a forthcoming CD titled “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul.”
The Jewish Press recently interviewed Perlman at his summer home in the Hamptons.
The Jewish Press: The combination of you on violin and Cantor Helfgot singing will be a unique treat to listeners. How did this collaboration come about?
Perlman: Someone close to my family kept telling my wife and me that we must go hear Cantor Helfgot. Last year we were in Israel and we found out he was performing, so we went to hear him. It was extraordinary. A voice like that comes around once in a generation. After hearing him sing I knew I wanted to do something with him. We contacted him and he was equally excited at the prospect of collaborating on a CD.
Is the music on the CD related to the upcoming High Holidays? And have you done any High Holiday instrumentals in the past?
I have never done High Holiday instrumentals. There are three selections for the High Holidays on this CD. We do Kol Nidre. As you know, there are many different tunes for Kol Nidre. Helfgot is a devotee of the late Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and he models his tunes after his.
But these are not just compositions for the High Holidays. “Eternal Echoes” takes one through the ages in Jewish song, and people will relate to all ten pieces.
Who chose the pieces?
I did. We discussed them, and Helfgot would tell me if he wasn’t comfortable with something, but for the most part he appreciated everything I suggested.
Do you play your Stradivarius on this CD?
Yes, of course.
You were born in Israel. Is that where you first started violin lessons? How supportive were your parents?
I started playing violin at the age of four. When my parents saw how much I wanted to play, they helped me accomplish it. By the time I came to America I had been studying in Israel for quite a few years.
There is more consideration and public accommodation today for people with physical disabilities than was the case years ago. Was it very hard to manage then?
It isn’t as easy today as people imagine. With all the laws that have been enacted, there still are many places I cannot enter, even in Manhattan. But when I was growing up in Israel I didn’t think I needed any special accommodation. My music lessons were up a flight of stairs and my father carried me up. I did whatever I had to do and didn’t think about it.
Itzhak Perlman performing at a White House state dinner in 2007.
Today when I travel all over the world it can still be hard to find a hotel with wheelchair-accessible rooms. Let me tell you a story about the time I was performing in Santiago, Chile. The hotel was supposed to have rooms that were suitable. When I got to my room, it was indeed all right, but the bathroom had a big step up to enter. I called the manager and he told me he would take care of it. When I returned to my room many hours later, workers had chiseled the step away and in its place was a smooth surface. Of course, that doesn’t always happen.
Did your children inherit your talent?
My three daughters all play musical instruments and are very talented, as is my wife, who also is a violinist. My two sons have talent but are not at the present time doing anything in the music field.
Do you spend the summer in the Hamptons?
My wife started the Perlman Summer Music School out here. We take about forty students each summer and I teach them and they have the chance to devote themselves to their music during this time. In fact, on the new CD there are some pieces with orchestra backing, and it is these students who are performing.
I have granddaughters in Israel who have been playing violin since they were very young, and a few years ago when you were in Israel you had an evening in Tel Aviv for students of violin to come onstage and play with you. These two granddaughters were among them. And it was a wonderful experience for them.
Naomi Klass Mauer