Friday, January 16, 2004

Artist's Task

"You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out howmuch music you can still make with what you have left."

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came onstage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at LincolnCenter in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlmanconcert, you know that getting on stage is no smallachievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child,and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid oftwo crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step ata time, painfully and slowly, is an unforgettable sight. Hewalks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair.Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor,undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back andextends the other foot forward. Then he bends down andpicks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to theconductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience isused to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes hisway across the stage to his chair. They remain reverentlysilent while he undoes the clasps on his legs.

They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finishedthe first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke.You could hear it snap - it went off like gunfire across theroom. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. Therewas no mistaking what he had to do. People who were therethat night thought to themselves: We figured that he wouldhave to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutchesand limp his way off stage, to either find another violin orelse find another string for this one. But he didn't.

Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and thensignaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began,and he played from where he had left off. And he played withsuch passion and such power and such purity as we had neverheard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossibleto play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that,and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused toacknowledge that. You could see him modulating, changing,recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it soundedlike he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from themthat they had never made before.

When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room.And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinaryoutburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. Wewere all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everythingwe could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow toquiet us, and then he said, not boastfully but in a quiet,pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out howmuch music you can still make with what you have left."

What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind eversince I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the way oflife - not just for artists but for all of us. So, perhapsour task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world inwhich we live is to make music, at first with all that wehave and then, when that is no longer possible, to still makemusic with all that we have left.

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