Every winter, the music-minded of Sarasota look forward to a visit from internationally acclaimed violinist and conductor, Itzhak Perlman, who comes to these sandy shores for the Perlman Music Program Sarasota Winter Residency—a 17-day intensive instructing young musicians from all over the world. This year, Perlman arrives a little bit early and with a special gift for the holiday season—the Florida West Coast premiere of Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler’s House – A Night of Klezmer. Held at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on December 17, In the Fiddler’s House sees the iconic performer revisiting an iconic work with the help of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which includes some of the original performers from Perlman’s definitive 1987 recording. Currently on the road, Perlman took a quick pit stop to talk klezmer and his love of teaching.

THIS PAGE AND THE NEXT PAGE: ISRAELI-AMERICAN VIOLINIST, CONDUCTOR AND TEACHER ITZHAK PERLMAN AT THE GENESIS (“JEWISH NOBEL”) PRIZE CEREMONY. JERUSALEM, ISRAEL, JUNE 23, 2016.

Why did you want to revisit this work? Did you have something more to say?   PERLMAN:  Well the thing is that I just find this kind of music so close to what I was growing up with. You know, I was growing up with that. It’s funny because I never played it, and then when people said to me, “How would you like to dabble in this,” I said, “I’m not sure that I can do it.” And then when I started doing it, it was very familiar, and I felt very comfortable with it. Every time that we do it, I have such a great time.

Do you know why you had that initial trepidation? Because if you don’t do something you’re not sure you can do it. You’re not sure until you try. So I tried. 

Has your appreciation or understanding grown or changed as you play this music more?  No, I just feel more comfortable in doing it. Because it’s a little bit different than playing classical music, you know? There are certain things that you do musically, in particular, with klezmer music that came from Eastern Europe. There is a different kind of improvisation that you do, and the more I do it, the more comfortable I feel with it. I just did one three days ago, and it was really a blast. It was terrific and the people that I’m playing with are terrific. So it’s always a great experience for me and the audience. I’m always looking forward to doing this.

When people think of going to a stage concert they usually think of something a little bit stiffer, but there’s room for improvisation in klezmer music?    Yes, yes, there is. There’s room. There’s always a form, a format, that you do, but within the format you can improvise, and that’s always a lot of fun.

What is the value, to you, of keeping these traditions and this musical education alive in our current society?   I always say that without music and without culture, there is no soul in our society. I’m still saying that. And people make a terrible mistake when, if they need to cut something, the first thing they want to cut is the arts, and music specifically. It’s wrong. It’s totally wrong, and our society is always better when we have culture in our background. These days it is absolutely essential.

Does this all happen in the schools?   A lot of it has to do also with parenting. It’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure that their kids are cultured. And that their kids listen to a concert or go to a ballet or go to an opera, and that they don’t feel like, “What am I doing here?” That they feel that there is familiar. It’s not like everybody has to play the violin or play the piano. But there’s got to be a familiarity, so that you can actually have pleasure from the arts. Because that’s what we’re about. That’s what separates us from the animals. 

Can you remember who you listened to the most when you were growing up and discovering your love of music?   When I was in Israel, the only entertainment that you could have was the radio, because we still had no TV or anything like that. There was a lot of classical music, and so I would listen to violinists like Heifetz and so on. Overtures for orchestra, at that time, was the pop music. There was no rock and roll. We’re talking about the early 50s and so on. It was just beginning. So it was a lot of, “Let’s listen to some Rossini,” and so on.

You are internationally acclaimed for both performing and conducting. How do you compare the experiences, and do you enjoy them differently?    I play the violin, I conduct and I teach. And all of these three activities, they help each other. Specifically, the teaching I find is incredibly useful, and of course I love to do it, to help young kids develop their talents. But while I teach, I always feel that in a sense I teach myself. When I play, I listen to what I do in different ways. Conducting is listening to the orchestra and figuring out what you want them to sound like. Everything that I do benefits the other. 

Where do you see the klezmer tradition going? Are the younger generations embracing and exploring this genre still?  Yes, I think so. There are many, many young groups that are terrific, that do klezmer music. And they also improvise and they do a little more modern klezmer, as they call it. But this music is here to stay, because it’s just wonderful.