Thirty-six years ago a young violinist appeared onstage at Kiel Opera House to perform as a soloist for the first time with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. The talented 21-year-old, named Itzhak Perlman, performed Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto.
Eleven current members of the Orchestra shared the stage with Perlman that evening in 1966: George Berry, principal bassoon; Roger Davenport, trombone; Louise Grossheider, violin; Don Martin, bass; Jim Meyer, clarinet and saxophone; Richard Muehlmann, bass; Margaret Salomon, viola; Beverly Schiebler, violin; Robert Silverman, cello; Gary Smith, trumpet; and Taki Sugitani, violin.
At the time of his SLSO debut, Perlman was in the midst of his first full coast-to-coast, 30-city tour of the United States. A lot has changed since then. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra has moved to another venue, most of the Orchestra members have changed, and Itzhak Perlman is now one of the most renowned violinists of our time‹and the recently appointed Music Advisor for the Symphony.
"While I remember that performance late in 1966, it was his next performance with us at Carnegie Hall, a little more than a year later, when he played the Brahms Concerto that was really impressive," recalls Berry. "He was called on to substitute for another violinist and after that performance the Orchestra members knew instantly that here was someone destined for greatness. He played from the heart and his virtuosity was obvious. But it was how he communicated the joy of playing to both the audience and orchestra that made him unique as a soloist."
The memories of those early days are not limited to the concert stage, however. "My first real impression of Itzhak," comments Gary Smith, "was a casual meeting the evening after a rehearsal for that first concert. Chandler Goetting and I met him outside one of the old Gaslight Square restaurants. Chandler, who was principal trumpet at the time, was a classmate of his at Juilliard.
"The charisma that is there when he is performing is there in a social setting as well," says Smith. "When I think about it, what a privilege it has been for many of us not only to have been there as his career started but also to have accompanied him many times since then."
Don Martin echoes that sentiment. "There is something about his musicianship that is contagious. We always make great music together," he says.
"His playing has a sweetness, a heartbreaking happiness to it," adds David Halen, concertmaster, recalling many great performances in his 12 years with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. "That's one of the mysteries of his artistry that sets him apart from other violinists and has made him so popular with audiences around the world."
"The appointment of a person of this magnitude‹a person with superstar status‹creates a sense of optimism here, and creativity on every level," Halen says. "It is a demonstration of commitment to greatness that for many years we have strived to achieve, and now maintain during this difficult economic period. Having him here gives me great confidence in our future. When you have a performer like this, it brings out the best in everyone involved."
Everyone agrees that Perlman's tenure will have a long-lasting impact. The Orchestra's financial difficulties left many permanent musician positions vacant and the SLSO is now moving to fill those chairs. As Music Advisor, Perlman will be involved with auditions as well as with consulting on future programming.
"I have no doubt his name will help us attract top-notch talent for these auditions," Martin says. "He can guide us to great players to fill these positions and to be future soloists."
While Perlman is noted for his long-recognized talent as a violinist and more recently as a conductor, his colleagues at the SLSO consistently come back to his charm and humanity.
"He's a very serious musician, but he also has a great sense of humor," notes Smith. "He has a way of expressing all his ideas in a way that is both humorous and easy for people to accept." To that Halen adds, "He is a 'mensch'‹a great human being‹in addition to being a great talent."