Itzhak Perlman says he knew as early as age 3 that he wanted to be a violinist.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman recalled during his show at the Granada Theatre on Jan. 21 that after hearing Jascha Heifetz on the radio, he announced at age 3 that he wanted ‘to play like that.’ (Lisa Marie Mazzucco photo)

A sold-out Granada Theatre welcomed “the world’s greatest living violinist” Itzhak Perlman, sharing “Stories of His Life and Career,” on Jan. 21 courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures to celebrate his 75th birthday.

Perlman cruised onto the stage with his longtime piano accompanist, Rohan De Silva, and launched into Fritz Kreisler’s melodic and dancey “Tempo de Minuetto.”

The evening featured spirited anecdotes, illustrated with images and video, from his parents opening a barbershop in Tel Aviv to his legendary appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” at age 13.

After hearing Jascha Heifetz on the radio, Perlman announced at age 3 that he wanted “to play like that.”

Not much later, he contracted polio and permanently lost the use of his legs. He spoke candidly about the resultant challenges extending far beyond walking. He was turned away from auditions because he performed “sitting,” and his disability was pointed out in every review.

Alongside his musical career, Perlman has tirelessly advocated for inclusion for those with disabilities.

Stories of his early musical life spanned from the clever ways he avoided practicing as a child and the Sullivan show to his entre to the United States, where he studied with Dorothy DeLay and entered the Juilliard School.

Throughout the evening, Perlman offered sparkling selections from Franz Schubert’s wistful “Serenade” and Henryk Wieniawski’s “Concerto in F Sharp Minor,” which he played for his Carnegie Hall debut, and more.

When recounting the moment he met his wife, Toby, her voice from off-stage corrected him on the year. She then walked on stage, sat in a chair and talked about asking him to marry her after the first time she heard him play.

The audience enjoyed video reminiscence of Perlman’s crossover work, including playing bluegrass with John Denver, appearing in TV commercials with Ray Charles, advertising Sara Lee products and singing baritone behind Luciano Pavarotti.

Despite what Perlman described as an underlying current of doubt that has accompanied his entire career, the couple marveled at the amazing, and unlikely, life they have lived.

Highlights included dining early on in Los Angeles with Danny Kaye, George Burns and Jack Benny, and standing outside a theater in London when a black SUV drove up and Nelson Mandela stepped out to shake his hand.

On a more personal note, they celebrated the fact that their five children, who toured with them from infancy, all get along and still share Shabbat dinner.

Toby asked for the top two or three peak experiences in Perlman’s career, “times when you knew you’d gone from star to superstar.” Perlman’s list:

» 1) Recording Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” in 1969 with the dream team of Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré and Zubin Mehta, and the accompanying documentary film.

» 2) The Perlman Music Program that he and Toby founded and have run for 26 years.

» 3) His performance on John Williams’ soundtrack to the film “Schindler’s List.”

After sharing a deadpan Williams impression, congratulating himself on how good it was, and recounting being dumbstruck at seeing the black-and-white scene with a girl in a red dress while he was recording the music, Perlman closed the event with the heart-rending theme from the iconic Holocaust film.

He volunteered an encore and played Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance,” making sweet jokes about it only being a singular “Brahm” since he was performing it solo.

Perlman has been honored with 16 Grammy Awards, four Emmy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Genesis Prize, a National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, a Medal of Liberty by President Reagan and a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, which is the nation’s highest civlian honor.

If you missed Arts & Lectures’ free screening of the 2018 documentary “Itzhak,” it is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu and elsewhere, and captures the warm, intelligent and brilliantly gifted person the audience enjoyed so profoundly at the Granada.

— Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act.