To find a voice

Itzhak Perlman is a fully certified virtuoso violinist. If his mouth opens during performance it would ordinarily mean a bit of extra breathing as his interpretation climbs the heights. To sing? Why should he? He's in full charge of a violin.

Yet, not long ago, when Perlman appeared on television in company with the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, viewers were at first puzzled to see him sitting near the conductor with his instrument nowhere in sight. The opening of Act III of Puccini's "Tosca" was being played and sung, leading toward Pavarotti's ringing realization of the aria, "E Lucevan le Stelle," invoking the stars. And on the way there, to everyone's great astonishment, the camera moved in on Perlman who opened his mouth and also sang.

Just a few phrases it was, belonging to the part of the Jailer. But a violinistm was singing them. Unheard of, yet unmistakably heard. And admired.

Sooner or later, on the screen or off, open- mouthed or closed, literally or not, every full-fledged intrumentalist has to sing. Which means, above all, that he has to listen to singing.

This is a rule that certainly applies to pianists. I spent years struggling with the stormy first-movement Allegro of Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata (Opus 13), and then with a relieved and rather smug sense of accomplishment glided into the peaceful, lyrical Adagio Cantabile ("slow and singing") that follows. I played it one evening years ago for a highly cultivated acquaintance whose quiet verdict confounded me: "Very nice. The notes are all there, as they should be. But you don't feel it."

"If I don't feel that,m " I protested, "I don't feel anything." And I played it again, seizing handfuls, phrasefuls of feeling wherever I could reach them, and fairly thrusting them in.

"I'm sorry. It's lovely; but you still don't feel the music. You haven't experienced it."

Since then I've done more with actual singing, and a number of other things, and I think I understand a little better what this friend was listening for: it was a voice.

The voice of the singer can of course be as uncommunicative as my Beethoven evidently was. It can even be humorously anticommunicative. The cellist Piatigorsky, bored as ayoung orchestral player, entertained himself during the immensities of Bach's St. Matthew Passion by singing along with the chorus. But in the performance he failed to anticipate an extra long pause just after Pilate has offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas, and just before the crowd-chorus thunders, "Barabbas!" The dramatic silence was violated, on that occasion, by Piatigorsky's solitary, intense, but distincly unthunderous bleat.

That was a desirable moment, no doubt, for a vocal instrumentalist to get lost. There have been plenty of other moments in Piatigorsky's career, however, when we could rightly speak of an instrument having foundm its voice. And in other careers. To have heard Rachmaninoff's Preludes superbly played (by Sviatoslav Richter, for instance, or by Constance Keene -- or Rachmaninoff himself) is to feel sure that he wrote them, above all, as love songs for the piano to sing.

To find a voice is more than to cultivate the pleasing tone of the singer, or even to perfect the technical and interpretive demands of an instrument. Just a year or two after my humbling Beethoven lesson, I was singing in the small choir at Tanglewood. It was Serge Koussevitsky's last summer there, and we were rehearsing a Bach Cantata -- one of the more introspective, dark- colored ones -- with the Boston Symphony, made up then as now with musicians of consummate and mellow skills.

But "Koussie" wasn't happy. As all of us were playing and singing the slow measures of bach's inward spiritual journey, he put down his baton and gestured with his hands to confirm the pleading in his face. "Pliz. Pliz, gentlemen," in that slow, pungent accent. "Leessen ze Kharoos. Leessenm ze kharoos."

They did so. And believe me, so did we inm the chorus.

To find a voice is, perhaps most essentially, most patiently, with or without another instrument, to listen.m

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.