One of the premier violin virtuosos of the 20th and 21st centuries, Itzhak Perlman has won 15 Grammys and four Emmys. He was honored with the Medal of Liberty by President Reagan in 1986, awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton in 2000, and given the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003. “It’s always nice to be appreciated,” says Perlman. “When you get this or that medal, it’s very, very nice, but am I saying to myself, ‘I won these things, therefore I am very special’? No.”

Locally, Perlman is most greatly heralded for the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, which was launched in 1993 by Itzhak’s wife, Toby Friedlander. At the school, 40 students gather for seven weeks every summer to study music. On Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer, there is a concert featuring a student performance, and Perlman himself occasionally conducts; the majority are free and open to the public. “I had nothing to do with this program at the onset; it was totally my wife’s baby,” Perlman says of the program, which hosts its annual Summer Benefit concert and dinner this weekend. “She asked if I would mind listening to some of them and coaching, and after the first year I was hooked. Coaching led to conducting—that’s how I began conducting. Now my musical activities are conducting, teaching, and playing. Each one helps the other.”

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1945, Perlman, at age 4, was inspired by Jascha Heifetz’s violin music on the radio and asked his parents for a violin. That same year, he contracted polio and became disabled, yet he still continued with his music lessons. “You can get used to things when you are a kid,” Perlman remembers. “Talent is a gift, but it’s not enough. You have to work at it. I always feel very lucky that I’m able to be moved by music, that when I hear certain things it can make me cry. It’s incredible because not everybody can do that. But with a talent, you need a certain organization to develop it.”

When Perlman was 13, Ed Sullivan, the host of the era’s reigning American variety show, discovered him in Israel and brought him to New York for his television program. It was Perlman’s winning of the Leventritt Competition at age 18 that catapulted him into the public eye, and that was followed by appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Over his 40-plus year career, Perlman has also appeared on Live at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic and with virtually every major orchestra in the world. Aside from classical, he has played jazz, traditional Jewish music, and film scores—his most famous being the theme for Schindler’s List by his friend John Williams. “Everywhere I go this is what the people want to hear,” he says. “Asia, China, South America, Japan—they all want to hear Schindler’s List.”

He’s also sung opera with Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo. “That was a fluke; something Zubin Mehta dared me to do,” says Perlman. “I had never sung in front of an audience before, never mind on television. Can you imagine that? My first public performance as a singer, and I’m doing it on television with Pavarotti? I was so nervous.”

Perlman and Friedlander have been married for more than 46 years; they have five children, a slew of grandchildren, and a Portuguese Water dog named Motek, who all gather at their home in East Hampton. Perlman himself still performs at 40 to 50 concerts each year, but with a clause much benefiting his distinguished nature: “I want to be able to enjoy what I do. If I think about the next plane and the next train, forget about it,” he laughs. “I don’t go to little places. If they want me to go there, I say, ‘Send me a private jet, I’ll go then.’ Otherwise I’m not changing planes... I’m too old for that.” The Perlman Music Program annual Summer Benefit concert and dinner takes place on Friday, August 2 at 73 Shore Road, Shelter Island

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