On November 18, 1995, the world renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman came on stage to give a concert at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks 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 and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor – then he proceeds to play.
By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent 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 finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.
People who were there that night thought to themselves: “We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – to either find another violin or else find another string for this one.” But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signalled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began and Perlman played from where he had left off. He played with such passion, such power and such purity as they had never heard before.
Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.
When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then all the people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. They were all on their feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything they could to show how much they appreciated what he had just done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said – not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, humble and reverent tone – almost like he was the teacher in a classroom and said, “You know, sometimes it’s the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”