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Grace notes sound a summer to celebrate for Perlman Program
August, the Sunday of summer, as the saying goes, is bittersweet.
Reminders are everywhere that the season is drawing to an end. And for the 19th year, the Perlman Music Program has bid farewell to another group of talented young musicians.
On a rainy August afternoon, toward the end of the summer session, the PMP’s campus was calm and quiet — but not for long. After lunch, students rushed to get moving, taking advantage of free time or heading to rehearsals. A short walk through campus found Toby and Itzhak Perlman in their camp cabin and studio, relaxing with Motek (Hebrew for “Sweetie”), their Portuguese Water Dog, before it was time for them to teach various classes for the rest of the day.
Reflecting on the past seven weeks, the founders of the Island institution said they were content. “The weather and kids were both good, which is always a gamble,” Mrs. Perlman said with a smile. After 19 years, she admitted they’ve got it down to a science. “We’ve learned from past years, so by now, things run smoothly.”
The program has come a long way since its inception in 1993 when it was a two-week summer camp in East Hampton.
The Island almost missed out on hosting the program when there was talk of building the camp on a plot in Sagaponack, but Mrs. Perlman recalls neighbors being concerned about noise.
“From trumpets and drums,” she said, laughing, “even though we’re a string program.”
The Perlmans’ dreams for the program were put on hold until a friend of a friend suggested they look at the property above Crescent Beach. Like so many other Shelter Island stories of putting down roots, “it all happened by accident,” Mrs. Perlman said.
For Mr. Perlman, “It just felt right. It was exactly what we were looking for.”
Dreams have come true for the couple, settling down in a place where each summer, music and memories are made.
This summer was typical for participants in the Perlman Music Program. The seven weeks of camp were a heady mix of business and pleasure. There was intense study, practice sessions, rehearsals, performances and classes. And it was also an easy summer of fun, going into town, swimming and sunbathing, sailing and plenty of hanging out time.
“The music is merely an excuse,” Mrs. Perlman said of the relationships and lifelong connections that grow from the program.
At the forefront of her goals is ensuring the students are in a positive environment where they can grow, not only as musicians, but as free-thinking individuals. “If we’ve expanded their thought process or opened their eyes to something, that’s enough,” she said.
Proof of this is that some of the couple’s most cherished camp moments aren’t directly related to music making at all.
“Seeing campers who are quiet and reserved come out of their shell over the course of the summer and becoming more comfortable here is the best moment,” Mrs. Perlman said.
Mr. Perlman, known among PMP students for his famous (or infamous) jokes, recounted a lesson he was giving one day with a quiet, reserved camper. “[She was] a great musician who had been to camp before, but didn’t talk much. Then one day during a lesson she started joking around with me — I was so surprised. It was one of those moments you just don’t forget.”
MAKING THE CUT
The 40 students, who come from all over the world, must make it through the highly selective audition process before stepping foot on campus. Aside from a formal application and recommendations from music teachers, applicants send in videos of themselves playing various pieces. Of the 150 applications they received last year, there was only room for 11 new students.
“That’s the hardest part,” Mrs. Perlman said, “When you hear an applicant who should be here, who is more than qualified, but for one reason or another — not enough openings, for example — can’t be here.”
As for the reviewing process, “I don’t play the most important role in that,” Mrs. Perlman said, pointing to her husband,
“Ask him. I’ll be doing the dishes or something while he watches submissions and ask, ‘Who’s that?’ It’s so tough. Sometimes we watch them a handful of times, to the point where I feel like I get to know them already without ever meeting them, which makes rejecting applicants the hardest part.”
How do they determine who is selected? “They have to have something interesting, almost magical about them,” Mr. Perlman said. “It’s more than just playing the written music. I like being able to tell that they are feeling what they’re playing, that they’re bringing something to the piece.”
Competition between students is not encouraged by the faculty and staff. The competitive urge comes to light mostly during orchestra rehearsals and so, unlike most youth orchestras, the staff ensures that the students are seated non-competitively, rotating seats frequently. This eliminates the notion of “ranking” students based on their talent, and benefits them as musicians, giving them the opportunity to hear the orchestra from different vantage points.
“In any form of art, who’s to say what is better than something else, anyway?” Mrs. Perlman said.
Although it’s farewell to Shelter Island this month, the camp hits the road in mid-September when PMP plays a weekend gig in California. They will open the concert series “Stanford LIVE” to a sold-out house at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall.
Kristy and James H. Clark, who were leadership donors in building of the new Clark Arts Center on the Island campus, are sponsoring the trip.
“It’s like a fantasy weekend,” Mrs. Perlman said of the road trip. “And more good things to come, I hope.”