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Navigating the Stage With a Disability

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Jan

Navigating the Stage With a Disability

New York Festival of Song co-founders Michael Barrett, left, and Steven Blier. Mr. Blier counts his muscular dystrophy as partially responsible for focusing his career toward the festival, which presents thematic recitals such as ‘Art Song on the Couch.’

New York Festival of Song co-founders Michael Barrett, left, and Steven Blier. Mr. Blier counts his muscular dystrophy as partially responsible for focusing his career toward the festival, which presents thematic recitals such as ‘Art Song on the Couch.’

 

Itzhak Perlman and Other Musicians With Health Issues Make Their Voices Heard

At a New York Festival of Song concert in November, the organization’s artistic director and co-founder, pianist Steven Blier, zoomed onto the stage in his battery-operated wheelchair.

“This takes a minute, so study your program notes,” Mr. Blier said to the audience as co-founder Michael Barrett held a piano chair for him to slide into, and then tucked the wheelchair away.

Mr. Blier launched into a program he dubbed “Art Song on the Couch,” connecting late 19th- and early 20th-century German songs with the ideas of Sigmund Freud.

Mr. Blier, who has a degenerative muscular disease called facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, is one of three New York-based classical musicians with coming concerts who have navigated substantial careers despite significant health challenges. The careers of these musicians illustrate the difficulties, decisions, discrimination and even advantages that occur when health intersects with the physical demands of being on stage.

“A performing musician has to deal with these issues in a public forum, in a way the average person doesn’t,” said Joseph Straus, a music-theory professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of the book “Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music.”

“It’s a distillation and heightening of what any person with a visible disability does every time they step out their front door,” he said.

Renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman , who on Wednesday will give his first solo recital in New York in seven years, has dealt with these issues for most of his life. He contracted polio at age 4, and at least early in his career people focused more on what they saw—a child with crutches—than heard, he said.

“I had to actually prove more, with greater intensity, that I was a genuine article as far as my music was concerned,” said Mr. Perlman, 69 years old.

As the violinist’s career skyrocketed, his perspective on disability changed. Mr. Perlman shifted from despising what he refers to as the “Crippled Violinist Plays Concerto” headlines to advocating for people with disabilities of all kinds, especially with regard to accessibility.

Date: December 1, 2014