Arnold Polinger Keeps the Music Alive

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It was no coincidence that Arnold Polinger’s mother became friends with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Polinger’s parents, Geraldine and Howard Polinger, invited the musician to perform decades ago as part of the Bender JCC of Greater Washington’s Polinger Artists of Excellence concert series, before Ma became internationally famous. Ma and the Polinger family, particularly Geraldine, hit it off.

For 50 years, the Artists of Excellence series, first organized by the Polingers, has hosted chamber musicians, famed and little-known, at the Bender JCC. To celebrate half a century of music, on May 7 the Rockville community center will host the Claremont Trio, the “only piano trio ever to win the Young Concert Artists International Auditions,” according to the event description.

Polinger, 77 and living in the District, continues to steward his parents’ legacy, making sure the Artists of Excellence program lives on, he hopes, for another 50 years.

Why did your parents start the Artists of Excellence series 50 years ago?

They were always very interested in charity, especially in the Washington area, because it’s where they grew up and where they lived and made their living. So they felt that it was important to give back, and they were particularly involved with the Jewish community. My father was mainly interested in the Jewish community, and my mom was very much interested in the arts and music.

The idea of a concert series at the JCC, together with everything — on one hand, it was helping the Jewish community, and it was also helping the arts at the same time. So it was really an idea that all came together and accomplished all their goals at once.

What was the role of music in your own upbringing?

We always had music in the house. When I was very young, at the age of 5, I started taking piano lessons that I’ve taken most of my life. When I was young, my mom was in the choir at several different temples. When I was little, they used to come to our house and rehearse.

That’s aside from many concerts that my mom and dad took me to at the Kennedy Center and, before there was the Kennedy Center, at Constitution Hall. So music was always a very important part of our lives.

How has Artists of Excellence impacted the community over the past 50 years? It’s had a very strong impact, much more so in the earlier years because there were not a lot of programs like this. Today, there are a lot of venues where they’re trying to do the same kind of thing. So it probably doesn’t have so much impact today. It does for the JCC and the people who are long-term members, but in the early years it had a tremendous impact on the community and on the artists.

Do you remember seeing a particularly impactful artist through the program?

The one that impacted me the most of all, stands out in my mind of many, many, is Itzhak Perlman.

I had seen Itzhak Perlman play in college, way before anybody knew who he was. I was really impressed by him and found that he was doing a concert. That must have been in the early ‘70s when he was really not known. I think he actually came to the JCC more than once.

I remember one time he came to the JCC, and I made sure to be there because I’d seen him once and wanted to see him again. And we heard him play, and in those days, they had receptions afterwards. There was a reception where he was around and we talked, and it was just a big thrill to get to talk to him and meet him. That’s one that stood out in my mind for a long time.

What did this program mean to you and your family’s legacy?

It made me very proud. For me, it was always something to go to and see the artists. I feel proud that my family put that together.

What is the role of the arts in building Jewish community more broadly?

It’s very important because they showcase the culture. The arts are a place where ideas can be expressed, and the culture can thrive. It’s just a major part of the community.

A lot of the religious parts of the community are weakening, but the cultural part, hopefully, is still strong. This is just a big opportunity for the community to come together and grow and show our Jewishness.

Who would be your dream performer for an upcoming Artists of Excellence program?

I’d like to see Itzhak Perlman again. ■

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