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Itzhak Perlman On Canceling In North Carolina: 'I Had To'

Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman playing in New York in 2009.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman playing in New York in 2009.

One of the world's best-known and best-loved classical musicians has joined the ranks of artists refusing to perform in North Carolina. Violinist Itzhak Perlman canceled an appearance scheduled for Wednesday with the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh to protest HB2, the controversial North Carolina law limiting civil rights protections for LGBT people.

HB2 excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from the state's non-discrimination laws and prevents local governments from offering discrimination protections that go beyond the state's. It also requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.

Speaking by phone Wednesday, Perlman said he had been contemplating a cancellation and its repercussions for weeks. "The first thought was to cancel," he said. "And then I thought, 'Well, what's going to happen to the orchestra musicians? They're going to suffer. It's not their fault.' So I thought that I was going to go, and that I would donate my fee to Equality North Carolina. And I wanted to put fliers into the program explaining my position. So I thought that was all set."

"And then yesterday morning at 9:30 AM," Perlman continued, "I get a phone call — and the symphony said, no, the state would not allow that statement. After that exchange, I thought, 'I am going into a hostile situation.' And that's when I said, 'As much as I hate to cause problems and stress, I have to have a stand. I'm canceling.'"

"The law is ugly and hostile, as far as I'm concerned," said the violinist, who was born in Israel in 1945 and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015. "I feel that it is discriminatory — and it's not just about bathrooms. It's about dignity, like [U.S. Attorney General] Loretta Lynch said. I've been an advocate of equality for the disabled, and this is just another situation in which this is the subject. We are dealing with the equality and dignity of citizens."

Perlman has also published a statement on his Facebook page, in which he links his opposition to the North Carolina bill with his own work and experiences as a person with and activist for those with physical disabilities. (Perlman contracted polio as a young child, and uses crutches and a motorized scooter.)

Linda Charlton, the orchestra's vice president for marketing and audience development, sent NPR an emailed statement that reads in full: "The North Carolina Symphony welcomes all people with our hearts and minds open, and we are honored to share our music-making with everyone. However, as a non-partisan organization our performances are not an appropriate forum for political commentary."

Charlton did not respond to NPR's questions about links between Perlman's proposed statement and the state funding that the orchestra receives, or about discussions with Perlman about putting a flier with his statement in the concert program. According to the symphony's published materials, they received 26 percent of their funding in 2015 from the state of North Carolina, which is split between recurring and non-recurring monies. (The state has provided funding to the orchestra since 1943.)

In response to the orchestra's written statement, Perlman replies: "The orchestra cannot say that they are non-partisan. How can they say that? They're getting help from the state. And the state is very partisan. That's a little bit inaccurate. They're caught in the middle here, but they are very concerned about their support from the state. I don't blame them, and the orchestra is not at fault, but that is the fact."

The 70-year-old violinist says that at other points in his career, he has refused other engagements on ethical and political grounds, pointing to two specific examples: He says he declined to play in South Africa due to the apartheid regime, and turned down opportunities to play and record with the renowned Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, who had been a member of the Nazi Party. "It's about a willingness to live with a decision — how are you going to feel about it in 10 years?" Perlman said. "I just couldn't do it."

Perlman says he wrestled with what his cancellation would mean for the North Carolina Symphony musicians with whom he would have been performing. It is a different and more locally collaborative process than that of a musician such as Bruce Springsteen, who canceled a North Carolina concert in April, and who tours with his own band.

Perlman directed a message to the members of the orchestra. "I'm sorry," he said. "I really think they are caught in the middle of this ugly period. All I can say is that my thoughts were very pure on this matter. I was going to come and play, even though it was a bittersweet decision. But once I was being told by the state that I cannot really express my opinion — which I'm sure some of you share — I unfortunately had to cancel.

"I'm hoping that if the law is repealed, and of course if you still want me, if I'm invited again, we'll be able to play together in the future. But under these circumstances, I just cannot do that. I'd like to tell them that I'm really sorry for any pain that I've caused, but that I felt that I simply have to take a stand, and this is the only way I could do it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.