A Little Night Music


Everyone remembers those formative summer camp experiences. Getting up at dawn to the sound of a bugle call, weaving lanyard after lanyard, slinging water balloons at your friends before jumping into the lake for a swim, telling ghost stories around the campfire, all until the sound of Taps wafts over the bunks for lights out.

But if you’re one of the 37 students at the Perlman Music Program’s summer campus on Shelter Island, your camp experience might be a little different. A day begins at 8:30, when students are required to practice for four hours on their instrument, either a violin, viola, cello, or bass. From there the musicians might have a private lesson with a member of the illustrious faculty, or rehearse with their chamber music group. Lessons are also given in contemporary music, and at five o’clock every day all members of the program, including the faculty, come together to sing in a chorus. They might even rehearse in an orchestra conducted by world famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. The “exceptionally gifted” young musicians range from 12 to 18 years old in age, and hail from 11 different countries.

Because students come back year after year once being accepted, typically only a few spots open up each session when an older member has graduated. Many hopeful prodigies send in their applications for review. “And we tear our hair out because they’re all so good,” said the program’s founder and director Toby Perlman, wife of Itzhak Perlman. Toby, a classically trained violinist herself, says she has spent her entire life in music. Having once been a happy camper at a summer music program, for years she had the dream of starting her own program.

“I had a preconceived notion of the way I wanted it to go,” Perlman explained. “It didn’t start out exactly as it is, but the dream of today was at the inception.” She added, “And the dream of tomorrow.”

While the Perlman Music Program is expanding rapidly, growing “tentacles” as Perlman put it, with year-round concerts in New York City, Chicago, and Palm Beach, the original summer residency is still at its core. Perlman directs this, which she refers to endearingly as the “littles program,” along with cellist Merry Peckham.

The “littles” give “Works in Progress” concerts every weekend at the Shelter Island campus during their stay. These are a series of presentations where the students are able to perform a piece on which they are still working in front of an audience. “They are like nothing you’ve every seen,” said PMP Director of Development Maureen Nash. “I had goosebumps,” she said, when describing her experience at the last “Works in Progress” concert she attended. “Some of these kids are 12 to 13 years old, and they’re giving concerts that are better than members of the New York Philharmonic.”

“They’re fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” said Perlman of the concerts. “Our applicants are the cream of the cream of the world. These are fantastic young people playing at a really high level.” She added, “And it’s free.” Parents are encouraged to bring their children to the series, provided they respect the occasion. A benefit dinner and concert will be given on Shelter Island on July 25, and a final concert will be held at the Southold high school on July 29.

Perlman, a mother of five and grandmother of eight, sees the summer program not only as a chance to teach the young musicians, but also an opportunity to lend them support and help them through whatever may trouble them. “I’m counseling, writing recommendations, talking to them, working with them…I’m not a parent, and I’m not a therapist, but I’m a supportive role for many of them. We work out the issues together.” She explained that the music program is the main focus of her life. “I feel it’s kind of a privilege, it’s a present I got,” she said. “I could fill my life with pedicures and trips to the beauty salon, but it’s not my style.”

When the “littles” leave at the beginning of August, they are replaced by a group of college students and professionals ages 18 to 30 who learn and work intensively on chamber music. This group also gives concerts at the campus, with a final concert along with the faculty at the Whalers Church in Sag Harbor on August 16 at 7 p.m. They continue a residency program in Sarasota, Florida during the winter months, sort of a combination of the two summer programs. Students there range in age from 12 to late 20s. “It sounds like a crazy thing to do,” said Perlman. “I don’t know why, but it works.”

And she has no intent of slowing down. “I’m still dreaming, I’m not done,” she said. “We’re building something slowly that will last forever.” Perlman is a true and absolute believer in music and in the music her campers are creating. “It nourishes your soul, and that’s the purpose of art,” she explained. “When you look at a Matisse, you don’t need to be an expert to be moved by it. So, come to us for the Mozart.”

The Perlman Music Program’s Shelter Island campus is located at 73 Shore Road, Shelter Island. For more information go to perlmanmusicprogram.org, or call 749-0740.