"When you're dealing with music," says violinist Itzhak Perlman, "you're dealing with the soul of a society. And if there's anything that can be identified as the soul of Jewish society, it's klezmer music."
Perlman joyously confirms that belief Sunday night in PBS' "Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler's House," with a celebratory investigation of the vigorous sounds that emerged from the 19th-Century shtetls and Jewish communities of Romania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
In the course of his exploration, Perlman visits the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, trades reminiscences in Sammy's Romanian Restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side with comedian Red Buttons and Jewish vaudeville artist Fyvush Finkel, and listens to re-creations of music of the '30s.
But it is the performance segments that bring the program to life as Perlman, tentatively at first, later with growing enthusiasm, plays with a far-ranging variety of klezmer artists. (The name traces to the Hebrew words kley and zemer , or "instrument of song," and refers to both the players--"klezmorim"--and the music.)
Perlman's recent recorded excursion into jazz garnered most of its authenticity from the accompaniment of the veteran jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. But with klezmer, which shares similar improvisational qualities with jazz, Perlman appears to be perfectly at home.
He renders the poignant "Hebrew Melody" in a Krakow synagogue, jams with the contemporary-sounding Klezmatics and performs at Lincoln Center's Yiddish Cultural Festival. The look of sheer delight that continually illuminates his face underscores the sense of discovery that touches almost every note he plays.
That Perlman's violin tone is ravishing, that his technique is masterful are predictable. More unexpected, and more fascinating, is the opportunity to see and hear a gifted musician experiencing the pleasure of getting in contact with his roots.