When Itzhak Perlman puts bow to Stradivarius in a sold-out Marin Symphony concert Monday, Jan. 22, it will mark the second time he's played for conductor Gary Sheldon, the symphony's music director.
The first was 17 years ago, when Sheldon, then a 25-year-old assistant conductor with the New Orleans Symphony, was asked to conduct the Israeli violinist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, a piece they will perform again in Marin.
"I was a bit nervous," Greenbrae resident Sheldon recalled over the phone, regarding his first encounter with Perlman. Sensing the young conductor's apprehension, the virtuoso violinist came up with a joke to break the ice.
"Perlman put his arm around my shoulder and said, `You know, young man, the Sibelius concerto is very difficult to conduct,' — as if to say I'd been rehearsing the wrong piece all along," Sheldon chuckled.
Monday's concert, sponsored by the Jewish Bulletin and classical radio station KKHI, will feature, along with the Tchaikovsky concerto, Perlman performing the "Leonore" Overture by Beethoven and "Three Israeli Sketches" by Perlman's teacher and mentor Joseph Kaminski, who is concert master of the Israeli Philharmonic.
Sheldon said the Kaminski sketches weave various Jewish and Israeli folk melodies, motifs and modes together in a classical idiom. "It's not a pop work," he said, "but the music will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen `Fiddler on the Roof.' It's a splashy, dramatic composition."
Three years after first working with Perlman, Sheldon had a brush with another legendary Jewish musician. Sheldon was selected to be the American conducting fellow at Tanglewood, where he got the opportunity to conduct Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" under the tutelage of Leonard Bernstein.
"Bernstein watched me conduct the first rehearsal," Sheldon recounted. "Afterward he pulled me aside and said, `You're smart and sensitive. Now let me show you the right way to do it.' He could illuminate the score like no one else. Forty years after Copland had written the piece, he and Bernstein revised it together."
Bernstein loaned Sheldon his own copy of the score, with the new tempos and interpretations he and Copland had added. To keep the prize out of the hands of the other conducting students who wanted to borrow — or, Sheldon maintained, even steal it — Sheldon took the score to bed with him, where it got rather crumpled.
"Bernstein looked at the score the next morning and said, `You really went through that intensively,'" Sheldon recalled. "I said, `To tell you the truth, Maestro, I had to sleep with it to protect it.' Without missing a beat, Bernstein said, `Oh, I do the same thing.'"
Sheldon grew up on Long Island, in a Conservative Jewish family he admitted was not very musical. "When I was 6, my grandfather saw me tapping my foot to music one day, so he bought me a used upright piano," he said. "I wish I had been waving my hand to the music — maybe he would have bought me an orchestra."
Sheldon's parents ran Klein's, a department store on Fire Island, and it was on the island that he met his longtime friend Gary William Friedman. A prolific composer of Jewish liturgical music, but probably best known for the musical "The Me Nobody Knows," Friedman asked Sheldon to coach classical singer Jan Peerce in Friedman's musical "Laugh a Little, Cry a Little" in 1970.
"That was a thrill," Sheldon remembered. "Here I was, 17, studying at Juilliard and playing piano for off-Broadway musicals, and he asked me to coach Jan Peerce. At that point Peerce was ailing and walked with a cane. But he was very friendly and his voice was still miraculous."
Another thrill came for Sheldon three years ago, when he conducted at the annual American Conference of Cantors in Chicago. Along with many organists and synagogue musicians, approximately 200 cantors came to sing.
"Cantors are among the most versatile of any singers or performers I've worked with," Sheldon said.
"In their increased work with choruses, and their integration of popular musical idioms, they've greatly added to the traditional cantorial styles of singing. The night I got to conduct them," he added, "I thought I had the most talented chorus in the firmament."