''The first time I picked up a violin, I wanted to sound like Jascha Heifetz immediately,'' says this puckish prince of pizzicato. ''But it was monthsm before I could manage that.''
No, that's not Franz Schubert incarnate behind that cherubic grin, and yes, he's kidding. Itzhak Perlman was 31/2 when his ears first twitched to the violin's velvet tones. Now, 35 years later, he is the brightest star in the violin firmament, producing sounds, says one critic, ''one hardly expects to hear this side of heaven.''
More than any violinist, perhaps more than any other classical musician, Israeli-born Perlman has fiddled his way beyond the rarefied world of classics into the popular mainstream. He has performed jazz and country-music concerts, and appeared on TV series and in commercials. And he has harnessed the exposure to bring attention to concerns close to home and heart, such as the plight of the disabled, to what he calls the ''pathetic state of music education,'' to encouraging new composers, and to exposing more people to classical violin and the arts.
''I think there is a rise in popularity of the arts because of television,'' Perlman says. ''Many times people have come to my concerts, come backstage to announce, 'I saw you on television, came to my first concert, and I'm so excited.' That, to me, is a very good sign.''
Before he could ride onto TV's Sesame Street, pull strings with the Muppets, fish on-camera with John Denver, or hustle American Express cards, Perlman needed more than the antic soul of a born ham. Despite a physical disability that has crippled him since childhood, he has become, quite simply, the best classical violin virtuoso in the world. Newsweek magazine called him just that - ''World's Top Fiddle'' - in 1980.
There he was - just past 30 - mentioned in the same breath with the century's great line of solo performers: Joseph Joachim, Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Szigeti from the past, and more recently Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, and above all, Heifetz.
When the latter retired in 1972, the violin world looked for an heir to the performing crown. With a new generation of sizzling string soloists emerging, there were many to choose from. The Soviet Union's Vladimir Spivakov and Gidon Kremer, South Korea's Kyung-Wha Chung, Italy's Salvatore Accardo. But the most dazzling of all came from Israel: Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Miriam Fried, and Shlomo Mintz.
With the latter two less experienced, and Zukerman turning toward conducting (with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra), Perlman was coronated. There have been few arguments.
''There is a kind of insolent ease with which he relates to the instrument that translates to the audience in a very positive way,'' says one orchestra's artistic director. ''You know that no matter what the repertoire, this guy's not going to have any trouble. And that's confidence inspiring - audiences adore it.'' The adoration translates into $10,000 or more per performance for Perlman, and a sell-out guarantee for managements in the most famous concert halls in the world.
''It's a silly title,'' says Perlman of being called ''top fiddle.'' ''The most important thing to me is what my colleagues and audience think of my music. All the money, glamour, and glitter that's been associated with this is very, very nice, but I still feel I should not forget what I am dedicated to. I'm a musician first, and I hope to grow nicely old with music.''
Visits with Perlman in between his 100-plus annual concerts are very rare. But one recent mid-winter Wednesday, the virtuoso was found at his 11-room Manhattan penthouse once owned by Babe Ruth.
In pink turtleneck and jeans, Perlman answers the door on an electric tricycle with rubber tires the size of donuts. His wife, Toby, is in the kitchen unloading dinner-for-50 for a Friday arts fund-raiser. The youngest of four children, son Rami, and friend have donned Superman capes and are running about the apartment, roaring like airplanes.
Leading his interviewer into the den, Perlman introduces representatives from a New Jersey architectural firm. They have stopped by for his advice on handicapped access to a concert hall they are renovating. Stuck between overlapping guests, Perlman clowns his way out:
''I was born in Israel in 1945,'' he says to his new arrival. Then, with an abrupt about-face he turns to the architects. ''Be sure all the elevators open wide.'' Another about-face. ''I was trained at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv.'' About-face: ''Don't give the disabled a separate entrance so they must tell their friends, 'See you later, guys.' '' About-face: ''I came to the US when I was 13 to study at the Juilliard School under Dorothy DeLay.''
The Pillsbury-doughboy smile, the mirthmaking, and propensity toward obliging his audience are the Perlman trademarks on and off stage. Today, they are infectious to the point of making his guests forget they are working. At his next concert, those qualities will make the audience forget he is working. It is his embrace of life as well as instrument and music that, when added to his flawless technique, translate into transcendental musicmaking.
The overlapping visits of reporter and architects are, one suspects, deft orchestration on Perlman's part. He will make clear later that both concerns - violin and the disabled - are integral parts of his raison d'etre. ''It's not a hobby that I happen to do when I'm not playing violin,'' he says of his championing of the handicapped. ''It's part of what my life is about.''
He once told a Louisville television audience, ''I know all the freight and garbage elevators in the major music halls of the world. I've stayed in makeshift dressing rooms that had to be built for me because the real dressing room was on the second floor.'' He serves on the boards of hospitals for disabled children both in the United States and Israel, and frequently plays benefit concerts in the wards.
Perlman spends hours on long-distance phone calls, telling architects how to design barrier-free buildings. ''I began refusing to play in some halls,'' he says, ''because of access problems - for the audience or for me. Last year I played in Atlanta, where there was no access to the backstage. I said, 'You want me to come next year to play? Make a ramp.' So this year they made a ramp and invited me back, and they interviewed me on TV.''
Perlman says he has enough requests to lecture full time. ''I talk about attitudes,'' he says, ''because those are the things that cause architectural barriers to begin with.'' Part of this is lack of awareness, he says. So he insists on being shown at his televised concerts entering the stage on crutches rather than already seated and ready to play.
At those concerts he is preceded by the bearer of his $400,000 1714 Stradivarius. That is usually the symphony conductor for concertos, or accompanist Samuel Sanders for solo recitals. Unlike most soloists, Perlman performs while sitting (''like the other 99 percent'' of the violinists, he says). While playing, his face has been described as enraptured, like the ecstatic saints in Renaissance paintings.
Even with mammoth hands (not considered ideal for violin), his fingers dance nimbly at lightning-fast speed. Because they are broad-tipped, he has a more-than-usual need to keep them out of each other's way. This is especially true in the upper registers, when pitch changes are effected with more delicate movements. And it has caused many critics to wonder if he is double jointed.
Although big hands can be an advantage in certain repertoire, where strength is needed to maintain pressure on the strings while the hand is very far extended, Perlman frowns on them.
''They're too big,'' he says. ''Good for piano, yes. Cello, yes. Fiddle, no.''
Perlman also attacks one other aspect of performing. Unlike violinists who list four or five concertos they are ready to play any given season, he will play any piece in the violin repertoire upon demand. This is a boon to managements scrambling to provide diversity for local ticket holders both within seasons and from year to year.
Playing at the sensuous, juicy end of the violin spectrum, Perlman is often lumped in with Zukerman and others coming out of Israel playing in the ''Jewish-Russian tradition.'' But he dislikes labels.
''Putting people in categories doesn't always work. The way I play is what I like to listen to. Sometimes they call it schmaltzy, which is rich and beautiful from a wide vibrato (oscillation of finger on string), but you don't aim to play after a particular school - you play what you like.''
Critics of live performances as well as recordings say they can identify Perlman in an instant: the luscious tones radiating color like a great singer, an unruffled purity and prodigious agility even in the most intricate pieces. Still, he says he makes no conscious attempt to put personal interpretations into every piece he plays.
''I can't start analyzing what makes me different. You don't say, 'Aha, I'm going to put a little flourish here, a big bang there.' A concerto shouldn't be seen as an opportunity to show the audience how well Itzhak Perlman plays the violin, but rather how well that player brings you the essence of the composer. Your individuality is going to sneak in on you, of course. Heifetz was the perfect example of someone whose sense of individuality was so domineering that everything came out Heifetz. But it didn't matter, because he was so great.''
When the architects leave, Perlman tells his interviewer that violin playing is going forward faster now than at any time in this century. ''Many, many more people from countries that did not used to produce violin - specifically Japan, Korea, China - are coming up with some wonderful talent. The next decade will see an incredible boom.''
Are Perlman's recordings of jazz and country music a sort of Pied Piper technique to lead listeners to the concert hall?
''Naw,'' he says. ''That's for fun. If people are not interested in classical violin, the only way to get them interested is to get them to listen to classical violins. But you know, the more they listen, the more you make converts out of them. If you have a lot of nonconcert exposure like (TV sitcom) 'Love Sydney,' '' - Perlman appeared in an early episode - ''then all of a sudden they're not so fearful of listening to you play a concerto. Then they say , 'Hey, that's pretty good!' ''
One thing the violinist will not do, however, is compromise or lower the program standards of a classical recital to suit ''less sophisticated'' audiences. ''I always play a solid program that I feel would fly in Carnegie hall or Raleigh or Kalamazoo or Chicago. I just played a difficult program in a gymnasium in Raleigh with 12,000 people. It was a premiere of a work written for me by (composer) Earl Kim. I played unaccompanied and it was not the easiest thing to listen to, but I did not feel that just because you have a huge audience and it's not the most conducive place to play that I should change the program.''
Perlman has used his drawing power to champion the cause of new compositions. He's been a pioneer in the playing of new works, some of which were commissioned or written specifically for him. Since orchestra managements can be wary of new repertoire's ability to fill their halls, the charisma of a Perlman can be crucial to its reception.
''I'm in a position to do it because the management's not worried they won't sell out the house if I play a piece that's unknown. They feel people will come listen despite that. Also, once you've played with an orchestra many, many times , the management doesn't feel that since you only come there once or twice in 10 years, that they have to use you for one particular repertoire.''
Even though Perlman says there is a general renaissance in ballet, opera, and classical music, he feels strongly about the lack of arts education, specifically music, in the public schools.
''It's a question of how inspired teachers are. Since popularm music is what is popular, and classical is not, you need a teacher with real vision. And teachers with real vision are specialists in music schools and music departments. You need some of these to go into the public schools and specialize as generalists - that is, be willing to teach more than how the bassoon is different from the flute and the violin and the drum. They must know about history and composers and ideas, and be able to translate their enthusiasm.''
Perlman says his oldest son is not interested in pursuing classical music as a career. ''But at least he has it all around him. He knowsm. And he has fantastic music appreciation. Most kids don't even know what they're missing.''
Parents can help, too, he says. ''The earlier they start a talented youngster on lessons, the better. The mind of a child is like a sponge and can soak up everything and anything. That also means you have to be careful, since youngsters will soak up bad teaching as well as good.''
He says there is a fine line as to how much children can be pushed into music lessons. ''Nobody really adores practicing - particularly children. I didn't like to practice when I was a kid. I had to be reminded and forced.
''The important thing for parents to look for before pushing youngsters is some indication that the child has a love and a passion for music. There also should be some talent. It doesn't make sense to pressure somebody who is totally untalented and uninterested.''
The only son of Polish emigres to Palestine, he gave his first public performance when he was nine. In 1958, Ed Sullivan brought an all-star assemblage of young Israelis to perform on his show, and sent them on a cross-country tour. Perlman was among them and played Rimsky-Korsakov's intricate work, ''The Flight of the Bumblebee,'' in his American debut on CBS.
He played in Carnegie Hall at 18, and won the prestigious Leventritt competition a year later, in 1964. The story made headlines when his 200 -year-old Guarneri violin was stolen while he received his award. It turned up the next day in a pawnshop, where it had been pawned for $15. Since then, his career has been one of steady growth and increasing acclaim. Now, with more and more impressive young violinists making debuts all over the world each season, he is still considered second to none.
''The violin is a klutz instrument,'' Perlman says. ''You clutch it with your chin and shoulder and as soon as you begin to do that, your back starts to hurt. . . . So you try to make yourself as comfortable as possible and get to work on the instrument. But first you have to learn how to control your hands, your arms , your fingers, how to stand, what to do with your elbows.
''Then you start in on tone, vibrato, which way the bow is going. Fiddle players have a tough time and longer time before they get results. It may be 10 or 15 years before a violinist can get all these things under control and learn how to get what he wants out of the instrument. Then he can start thinking about the music.
''It's been said that a pianist can play a different piece every day of the year, but that violinists can easily become bored performing just a handful. Does Perlman ever get bored?
''That can happen,'' he says. ''It's part of my job to see that it doesn't. I've been lucky in that I'm not so associated with one particular composer that the people constantly ask me to do the same thing. So what happens is that I have a nice kind of variety and rest from a piece and when I come back to it I enjoy it more.''
One also senses a more elaborately developed joie de vivrem in the presence of Perlman that keeps him sanguine amid the constant onslaught of airports, hotels, taxis, and backstage dressing rooms. What does music mean to Itzhak Perlman? he is asked during a reflective pause. The puckish grin returns, the head flies back, the accent is tuned to the proper pomp:
''Moosic izza mah life.''