Itzhak Perlman downplays his image as some kind of classical music god, sounding affable and agreeable over the phone from Stowe, Vermont, but it's indicative of the esteem his students hold for him that they don't call him by his first name.
"You try to be light, I try to be light," said Perlman in a phone interview last month. "It's not like I'm the teacher, you're the student blah blah blah."
Perlman will be sharing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall stage with six alumni of the Perlman Music Program Wednesday night for a program of chamber music by Mozart, Brahms and Piazzolla.
Among the PMP alums onstage with Perlman are Arnaud Sussmann, Leah Ferguson and Michael Katz.
Ferguson, a violist who is now a junior at the Cleveland Institute of Music, first came into the Perlman program when she was 12. She played with "Mr. Perlman" at a chamber music workshop last year, but this week's concert is the first in which the musicians are performing longer works and "rehearsing with him on a more intense level," she said.
"It's such a friendly, family kind of environment that playing with Mr. P, even though he's such an amazing icon of classic music, it feels pretty natural, it's not intimidating," she said.
Sussmann, who grew up in France, came to the United State in the summer of 2001 to study at the Shelter Island music camp.
"It went very well; we had a great connection. I was lucky that he invited me to stay in the U.S. after that summer to work with him at Juilliard," said Sussmann.
That marked a change of plans for Sussmann, who was 16 years old, enrolled at the Paris Conservatory and playing in a quartet.
"I had many things happening for me in France as a student, so I had not planned on this at all. Everything happened very fast," said Sussmann, who earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Juilliard and was part of the Young Artists Program at the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center.
Sussmann admits to being starstruck in his early encounters with Perlman and his wife Toby, who is the educational driver behind PMP.
"He was a hero of mine when I was a kid. It's still mind-boggling; just being able to play for such a figure is an amazing thing."
"What I remember from his teaching is that he always asks for people to give 200 percent, whether on the stage or in the classroom, it doesn't matter," said Sussmann.
Michael Katz, a cellist from Israel, first encountered the Perlmans in 1999 or 2000 for a joint program between the Perlman Music Program and the Tel Aviv Music Conservatory.
"Getting to meet Mr. Perlman as a young kid was really incredible; I'm going to play with Mr. P, talk to him? One of the first true celebrities I met."
Perlman's connection to Juilliard, where he is on the faculty, led Katz to that school as well. He now is working on his doctorate at Stony Brook University in New York and plays in a piano trio.
He contrasted the Perlmans' teaching style with others where "people might be coming from an environment where it's practice practice practice and it's all about you. A place like Perlman will shatter that. Mrs. P will say it's all about being a family. There's no competition, there's no favoritism. You're just taught to enjopyu playing together."
Perlman himself came from the old school of teaching, "which is, you better do that, you getter pracie or else." When he first began studing with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and she would ask him, "Oh, sugarplum, what do you think of that," he said, "I didn't like that. I really didn't like it at all for a while."
But his own approach is teaching is to tell students, "do the best that you can. You have to do the best you can and if one thing doesn't work, you do the best you can."
Wednesday's program includes Mozart's Viola Quintet No. 3 in C Major, K. 515; "Cuatro estaciones portenas " by Astor Piazzolla, and Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25. Perlman is playing the Mozart and Brahms pieces.
"They're like jewels, musical jewels," he said. "I play these pieces for fun, and then I'm actually performing them. It's like I never lose the excitement of playing these pieces. They're pieces that are very, very difficult to make sound really, really, shall we say inspired, but the thing is, the music itself is an inspiring experience."
ITZHAK PERLMAN AND THE PERLMAN MUSIC PROGRAM ALUMNI. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $50-$125; $50 for a “meet the artists” reception after the concert. 953-3368; www.vanwezel.org.