Violin virtuoso and polio survivor Itzhak Perlman never got to meet Jonas Salk, nor benefit from the polio vaccine the acclaimed medial researcher and virologist developed six years after Perlman contracted the infectious disease at age 4, which left his legs paralyzed.
Nevertheless, speaking at the La Jolla research institute Salk founded in 1960 on Nov. 13 — the centenary of Salk’s birth — Perlman said he read about Salk constantly in his youth.
“He was ‘the guy,’ ” said Perlman, the recipient of 16 Grammy and four Emmy awards (including his hauntingly beautiful score for the film “Schindler’s List”). Perlman is also an ardent advocate for the eradication of polio and spokesperson for persons with disabilities.
The problem with eradicating polio, he said, is that people don’t view it the same way they do more imminent health threats, such as Ebola.
“You still have three countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan) that have some cases,” said Perlman, who was awarded the Salk Institute Medal for Public Service during last week’s visit. “The problem with polio is that it’s never over … until it’s over. And then it’s not over either unless you continue with vaccination.”
Perlman’s interest in the violin was cemented at age 3, the year before he contracted polio. Living in Tel Aviv with his parents, he practiced three hours a day while his parents sought hope in the slightest movement of a toe or special diets they were told might hold the cure for his affliction.
Perlman taught himself to play on a toy fiddle until he was old enough to study with Rivka Goldgart at the Shulamit Conservatory and at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. He gave his first recital at age 10, moving on to study at the Juilliard School in the United States.
Perlman learned to walk on crutches and today performs and travels with the assistance of an electric scooter.
Despite his early promise, Perlman was told he would never have a successful career as a touring artist due his physical limitations.
“People assumed that I was not going to be able to do this because of the travel involved and I absolutely did not understand that at all,” he said. “I didn’t take it seriously, but I did have to prove that I was able to physically go any place and physically do the traveling. If you look at some of my early reviews they always had to mention the fact I was walking on crutches or in a chair and it was a part of the review — and then it stopped, because people got used to it.”
Asked what inspires his playing today, Perlman said it remains the music.
“When you think about somebody who sometimes has to play the same pieces over and over again, you’ve got to be inspired by the music,” he said. “If you’re not, every day you’re going to just play the same thing all over again, the same way you’ve done it a year ago or a week ago.
“If I play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, I can play it 25 times in a row and still find other things in it that inspire me. … When people ask me, ‘What’s your goal?’ I always say ‘My goal is not to be bored, ever, by what I do’ — and so far, I’m not.”
Asked how he gauges the success of a performance, Perlman feigned a clap in which the palms of his hands fail to connect. “If they don’t clap like this,” he joked.
“Unless I really bomb, (an audience) will show their enthusiasm,” he said, noting that people around the world express their appreciation in vastly different ways. “If you go to Scandinavia it will sound very polite, but if you go to Italy it will sound like they’re going out of their minds.”
Regarding the confluence of art and science, Perlman confided he has long questioned the extent to which talent is innate, and which it can be developed.
“What makes somebody tone deaf and somebody (else) a great painter?” he mused. “All of it, you can explain medically — but maybe not. Maybe you can say, ‘It’s from God,’ but still, there’s got to be an explanation. I mean, what makes somebody be natural at math, and somebody else, like me, be totally like, ‘Duh, what’s going on here?’
“I’ve known conductors who have a photographic memory. They would look at a music score and immediately know it by heart. That’s something you’re born with. That’s not something you study and study and finally you develop this photographic memory. You don’t.”
Perlman, who with his wife, Toby (also a classically trained violinist), runs a summer camp for gifted string musicians, ages 11-18, said he finds it interesting that so many musicians do their best work when they are young.
Interjecting, William Brody, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, noted that in math or theoretical physics, “if you haven’t done your best work by 25 it’s probably not going to happen, but we have biologists who are still very creative into their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s — and there are a couple who have won multiple Nobel Prizes in science at different points in their lives.”
However, in music, Perlman said, it is his experience that those who become successful almost always show promise at a young age.
“There’s always those instances where you hear somebody at the age of 12 or 13 play and it’s phenomenal — and then they lose it eight or nine years later,” he said. “You can call it burnout, whatever it is.”
His wife refers to the decline as “the loss of innocence,” he said. “You play and you don’t know how difficult it is. Then, when you discover how difficult it is, you say, ‘Uh-oh, this is too difficult; I’m not supposed to do this,’ ” … Whenever we see somebody (in our program) who’s very young and really amazing, we always say, ‘Oh my God, will they survive their gift?’ — and 90 percent don’t.”