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Itzhak Perlman: Humor and Grace
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Itzhak Perlman
Click the photo to hear him play Barber's Violin Concerto, op. 14. (RealAudio)

You might hear or read about this in the coming days, but I thought you'd also appreciate an eyewitness account.

Minnesota Public Radio didn't do a live broadcast of Itzhak Perlman playing Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra this weekend, because his contract allows him right of refusal after reviewing the recordings we make of his performance. So I left our engineer and his recording machines in the broadcast booth and found a spare seat in the sold-out Orchestra Hall.

I'd never seen Perlman perform live. Never seen how slowly he makes his way on those crutches and how a violin section parts itself extra-wide so he can get to his podium and chair. The concertmaster held his violin and bow, waiting.

The audience greeted him especially warmly. The applause was still full as he planted his left crutch up on the podium and swung his left leg up. Then the right crutch. As he swung his right leg up—I can't say exactly what happened next, but for some reason his right leg missed the podium altogether, and his right crutch flew out with it.

He landed hard. Face-down on the stage between his podium and the conductor's, his arms still in the crutches, the upturned soles of his shoes facing the audience.

The applause stopped as if it'd been guillotined. And the sound—that's what I'll remember years from now—1,500 people in a choral gasp, then pin-drop silence.

Perlman didn't move. Maybe four or five seconds he didn't move. The concertmaster, the conductor, and the principal cellist all jumped toward him to help. Then he shot a hand out to wave them away. The next moment, he spun himself around and sat up. With a big smile on his face.

"And you think the piece I'm about to play is hard!" he said.

The place went nuts, none of us knowing if he'd broken bones or hit his head or if there'd be a performance at all. But he started to get one crutch under him, and he asked us, "Do you want to wait?"

More applause, and over the course of the next three, four, maybe five minutes, we saw a big piece of what his life must really be like. What it's like when he's not the World's Greatest Violinist, but just a 55-year-old guy who got polio when he was a kid.

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At first it was getting those crutches in the right spot so he could gain some kind of purchase on the floor and get himself moving. That took the longest. Frankly it wasn't all that successful; he wound up more or less crawling onto the conductor's podium. Once seated there, he reached down and grabbed his legs behind the knees and hauled them in place so he could stand. All of this done in slow, methodical stages, yet each stage punctuated by a one-liner to the audience.

He was right about asking us to wait. He knew getting himself off the floor and into his chair was not going to be quick, or pretty, yet he repeatedly waved away offers of help, even from two stagehands hovering over him, either one of whom could've easily and probably quite gladly picked him up and placed him in his chair.

No, he did it himself. And he made us laugh as he did it.

Then Barber. Last month Gramophone magazine picked Perlman's recording (Listen) as the best of eight or 10 available versions, so I was eager to hear him play it. His performance Saturday night at Orchestra Hall frankly was not flawless. How could it have been otherwise? But there was a moment in the second movement—that great song Barber created for the soloist—Lord knows what it's about exactly but I hear sadness and longing and joy all bundled together in it and... well, you should have heard him sing it out. He sat up ramrod straight for the first time all evening and just let it fly.

At the end we were on our feet immediately. Cheering hardly for Barber or even Perlman's performance. We cheered for his courage, his humor. Most of all for his utter grace. I wish you could've been there to see it.

—Brian Newhouse is a producer-host for MPR's Minnesota Orchestra broadcasts

Audio of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, op. 14, is taken from the EMI Classics recording The American Album, available from Public Radio Music Source.
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