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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Best in the World

I can make this statement without fear of contradiction: Itzhak Perlman is the greatest violinist in the world.

Make a similar claim about a baseball pitcher or an NFL quarterback and you’re certain to get an argument about whether so-in-so is better than such-and-such. With Perlman no such argument is possible. He is the best – period.

I’ve heard him play twice now once some years ago at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and more recently with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. The Kennedy Center performance was unique for me. I arrived in the big city late in the day, checked the Washington Post to see what entertainment might be available and notice the Perlman concert. Expecting to be disappointed, I called the box office and was told only single tickets remained and that they were “stage seats” – 15 or 20 chairs, really, arranged in a row right on the stage. I grabbed a ticket and watched the great artist from a wonderful vantage point – better than front row center – and even closer. The recent Tucson performance was more conventional, but no less stunning.

I’ll go again to listen to his beautiful music if I ever get a chance. You should, too.

As the San Diego Union-Tribune noted after Perlman’s recent concert in that city the violinist made his second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 sharing the bill with The Rolling Stones. Perlman is now arguably just as famous as The Stones and, as the U-T reviewer wrote, “he’s aging a lot more gracefully than Mick Jagger.” Perlman is routinely greeted by standing ovations when he comes on stage the kind of recognition typically received for rock stars and movie celebs.

My musical training begins and ends with inserting a CD into the player or, more recently, downloading a song or album on my hand held device, so I am hardly qualified to comment on Perlman’s performance of the Beethoven violin concerto – but, for me it was soul touching. He plays with eloquence, but no showing off. He is a pro the same way that Meryl Streep or Arnold Palmer are professionals. He commands his medium with quiet grace and a stunning show of, well, complete professionalism and command.

One can’t help but be moved by Perlman’s courage and strength in performing at the absolute top of his craft, while dealing with the effects of polio that he contracted at age four. It is both inspirational and humbling to watch him make his way to center stage with crutches and braces. When the concert master hands him his instrument after he gets himself seated he smiles as if to say, “I trust you are as ready for this as I am.” He is simply an inspiration with a Stradivarius; a man who has mastered his music, while quietly telling we mere mortals that we should be able to do anything, as well.

I love music in all its variety. Diana Krall with her sophisticated jazz, Idaho’s own Curtis Stigers with his great range and sax, Mahler symphonies and Ray Price ballads, Pink Martini and Nick Lowe. All great. But now I know I’ve been to the classical music mountain top with the great Itzhak Perlman. Another great violinist will come along when he’s left the stage – not soon, I hope – but I doubt anyone will ever take his place. He is simply the best in the world.

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