December 17, 2017

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Legend dazzles young musicians

Students meet violin great after watching him rehearse with Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  
Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman sings a few bars of "Getting to Know You" as he interacts with school kids participating in the Sistema program in Winnipeg.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman sings a few bars of "Getting to Know You" as he interacts with school kids participating in the Sistema program in Winnipeg.

Onstage rehearsing with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman was focused, his bow moving alternately slow and fast over the strings of his violin. He paused only here and there to discuss small adjustments to the performance with the conductor ahead of the sold-out Saturday evening show.

But after, surrounded by a semicircle of eager young violinists and violists, he was friendly, almost silly. Perlman wanted to know what instrument each boy and girl played, what piece they were working on in orchestra. He joked with them about how young some parents want to start their child on an instrument these days — 17 months, in one case — and told them about the “get to know you” games he likes to use with new orchestras.

“Get to know you,” he trilled, making some of the children giggle.

Everyone would say their name and their instrument, he said, but also their favourite movie and their favourite ice cream flavour.

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Onstage rehearsing with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman was focused, his bow moving alternately slow and fast over the strings of his violin. He paused only here and there to discuss small adjustments to the performance with the conductor ahead of the sold-out Saturday evening show.

But after, surrounded by a semicircle of eager young violinists and violists, he was friendly, almost silly. Perlman wanted to know what instrument each boy and girl played, what piece they were working on in orchestra. He joked with them about how young some parents want to start their child on an instrument these days — 17 months, in one case — and told them about the "get to know you" games he likes to use with new orchestras.

"Get to know you," he trilled, making some of the children giggle.

Everyone would say their name and their instrument, he said, but also their favourite movie and their favourite ice cream flavour.

"People come up with weird things," he told them, "like lemon pistachio."

They laughed.

Saturday was a unique opportunity for the 10 students, all of whom are members of the music program Sistema Winnipeg. It’s a collaboration between the symphony and the Winnipeg and Seven Oaks school divisions.

The program, based on the Venezuelan original "El Sistema," has operated at King Edward School in the North End and Elwick School in the Maples for several years now with incredible results.

Three hours of daily music practice after school has helped the children with routine, building friendships, and increasing their confidence and self-esteem. A University of Manitoba professor is even monitoring the program to more accurately track its benefits.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  
Itzhak Perlman rehearses with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Saturday.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Itzhak Perlman rehearses with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Saturday.

A highlight, according to 10-year-old Jaeda, a violinist from King Edward School, is definitely that "we get to go on cool field trips."

On Saturday, that meant a behind-the-scenes view of Perlman with his violin. Jaeda, 10-year-old Cheylene and eight other young musicians shuffled into the mostly empty Centennial Concert Hall. The orchestra was in place, the conductor ready, and at centre stage sat Perlman.

Perlman is, by many accounts, violin’s reigning virtuoso.

He has won numerous awards, trained in Tel Aviv and the United States, and is a firm supporter of musical training programs, particularly through his work with the Perlman Music Program and the Juilliard School.

The 10 young musicians had their eyes fixed on the stage, captivated.

"I was mostly just listening to how they’re playing together," Jaeda said. "I like playing in a group because it sounds cooler than just one instrument."

Cheylene likes it too. Well, as long as she’s standing. She doesn’t like to play her violin sitting down because she gets distracted and her legs swing a little.

"I picked violin because I didn’t want to be a cellist and sit down," she said.

This year, Cheylene is looking forward to tackling more difficult music, although maybe not Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major that Perlman and the orchestra were preparing while the students watched. At least, not yet.

Her favourite piece to play right now is Canon in D.

"It’s fun," she said. "I really like the sound of it."

jane.gerster@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Jane Gerster.

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