Isaac Stern Concertmaster of the world
Washington — There was a lion in Isaac Stern's violin that night. He denies it, of course. If the Brahms double concerto sounded ferocious as a lion's roar and poignant as a cub's cry, he credits Slava. Slava is Mstislav Rostropovich, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, which had invited Stern to help celebrate its 50th birthday in a gala concert.
The concert ended with the Brahms Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello (Rostropovich), and Orchestra, the first movement only; if they'd played more, the orchestra would have had to send in Clyde Beatty with a whip.
As Stern explains the beautiful ferocity of their playing: "Well, when you have Slava sitting right next to you going 'AARRRGHHHHH!' [he roars, shakes his mane, and pounces on an imaginary cello in imitation of Slava], then you either have to respond or you get swallowed up. And with all the things he had to do and his excitement about the evening, he let it all out in the Brahms. He finally got to where he was reasonably comfortable and he went 'ARGGGGHHHH' [ Stern does his lion number again] and bang! you know, and the music is such that the violin leads in certain of the [passages]. . . . Because there are certain stentorian, declamatory parts of the cello, the violin has to take a slightly sweeter line at times. If I'd taken too sweet a line I would have been playing at the State Department [six blocks away], as far as the performance is concerned."
Stern perches on a green couch that looks like a giant stuffed velvet olive. His violin, a priceless 1740 Guarneri of maple and spruce, lies mutely in its case on a matching olive velvet chair. Stern, who has been friends with Slava for 25 years, explains how one of those memorable mements in music comes about. When two musicians like Rostropovich and Stern strike fire from each other in a concert, sometimes it is because "when we play we're really playing to each other. And one has an idea suddenly that comes to light and the other one responds and it's kind of . . . it is very much a conversation. And the best idea when you're playing is that the conversation should be friendly." He smiles. No growls.
The music is spontaneous, then?
"Of course," he says. "That's the whole point. People very rarely realize the real happening in the arts comes out of the most enormous discipline, because when you've disciplined yourself thoroughly, you know what is possible. that's when you let your imagination move, because you know that by discipline and study and thought you've created the limits. . . .
"When you're really disciplined, and you know what the possibilities are beyond which you don't dare go because of taste and knowledge, that's when something really begins to happen, when you throw all the rigidities away and simply make music. You let go. And that's what really happens.
"In a real performance, it's a re-creation in that moment, that must sound as if it's the first time you were discovering the most wonderful thing in the world. How can you plannedly and boringly say, 'I love you'? But when you really mean it, it just comes out of the inside, because you've learned how to speak the words and then you suddenly have a real reason for saying it. And then you give it all the texture and meaning and weight and intensity it deserves."
Isaac Stern and his two Guarneris (the other dates from 1737) are romancing audiences around the world this year as Stern celebrates his 60th birthday, his 45th year on the concert stage. He began the celebration this summer in Paris, where he gave 18 concerts involving 25 works in seven weeks. Formidable, as the French say.
But that was just the start: In Washington this Oct. 6-17, Kennedy Center honors him with an unprecedented series of five birthday concerts in which Stern will play concertos by Barber, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Sibelius, Bartok, and Beethoven with the National Symphony under the batons of four famous conductors: Eugene Ormandy, Rostropovich, Julius Rudel, and Zubin Mehta. Stern also appeared with Mehta's New York Philharmonic in a "Live From Lincoln Center" telecast in honor of his birthday. The benefit concert was the orchestra's season premiere on Sept 24, also featuring Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman.
Late in October Stern will appear in another series of concerts in his beloved Carnegie Hall, which he successfully fought to save from demolition in 1960; he is president of the nonprofit corporation that saved it.
Stern gave another series of birthday concerts earlier this summer in Israel (where he met his wife Vera more than a quarter of a century ago) and will wind up in his hometown, San Francisco, for a final series with the San Francisco Symphony.
At this moment Mr. Stern is between concerts, discussing his life and career in a suite at the Watergate Hotel the day after the National Symphony gala. He jokes about himself: "Sixty, I say it's a nice round figure, and I've gotm a nice round figure. . . ."
He is a comfortable, fatherly-looking man with gray hair shading to white, and wide, hazel eyes that can flicker suddenly from soulful to bold. His features are strong, sharply etched, his hands dimpled but powerful, like Segovia's. He is wearing a roomy gray denim jacket, one of several made for him in various colors by a Tokyo tailor expressly for the frazzling business of traveling and rehearsing. With it, dark gray pants, belted high, a blue and white striped shirt, green and dark orange patterned tie, and silent black loafers with ground-gripper soles of rippled rubber.
Slightly to the right of the grapefruit on his breakfast tray a red light begins to blink on his telephone. He takes the call, and what follows is a revealing earful on the behind-the- scenes logistics of an ambitious concert series:
"Yes, I want to do a little pre-rehearsing with both the Barber and the Bartok because Zubin's going to be here for only one rehearsal and then Ormandy will come down for two. . . . And there are a few problems now.Slava suggested and offered that the young man from last night [red-haired conductor Hugh Wolff, the Nations Symphony's Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor] would go through the motions of the concerti while we went through them. Would that be possible? . . .
"The rehearsal Slava had is on the morning of the 3rd? I'm playing in Boston all the way through until the 1st, and I don't know if I can get down here the night before. . . . What he can do is listen to the recordings of them [the concertos] which are available, for general tempi. And the thing that would be most salutary for the Barber, what I would do is read slowly through the Barber, which is probably a thing they've never played. The first two movements are fairly simple. The last movement has one bad spot. . . . The Tchaikovsky won't be a problem. The Bartok, because we're going to do it in the one [rehearsal] with Zubin, is also something they should read through.
"Zubin is on Sunday, Oct. 12. What is scheduled on the 11th for them [the orchestra], what rehearsal hours? Um, that's a day off? And the 10th, also a day off? And the 9th? You mean the 9th, 10th, and 11th are all days off?" Stern shoves his sunglasses up on his head, his eyes wide with surprise that the Columbus Day weekend means a holiday from Bartok & Co. for the orchestra.
"Eeee!" he groans, "Eeeek!" He pauses for a beat. "Well, it'll be very fresh Bartok, won't it?" He laughs. "And an even fresher Mozart. How come you have three days off in a row?" says the tireless violinist who would miss three cities if he skipped three days.
Interviewing Isaac Stern is a little like interviewing a helicopter. He hovers there for a few minutes, but there is always the moving shadow, ready to whirl away: The phone calls keep coming in from Paris and London and backstage at Kennedy Center, and then he must pack his bags, and check out, clutching his Guarneri against his chest to prevent the hotel manager from carrying it ("When I give you my violin, that will be the day you give me your hotel!" he laughs).
Then he vaults into a waiting black limo and settles down among the black plush and leather seats to continue the interview, reminiscing as the Potomac rushes by, on the way to the airport. There, he stops to scoop up his Guarneri, his newspapers, his luggage, and the little gold box of goodies from the White House ("We baked them just for you," says a note from Gretchen Posten).
He leaps out to catch the plane back to New York. But not before finishing the interview: We round the corner for the boarding line, and he answers the final question behind the velvet rope, ticket in hand.
In the last answer he describes himself: "Robust, enthusiastic, friendly." Accurate, but he's left out a lot.
From his own description you'd never know that Isaac Stern's shining talent makes him one of the world's great violinists. "Robust, enthusiastic, friendly, " could just as well describe a Redskins halfback as the man who is known as the first American violin virtuoso.
Before Stern, they had all been European. Stern himself was born in Kremenets, Russia. But he came to the United States before he could hold a bow -- at the age of 10 months, when his parents fled the Russians Revolution to settle in San Francisco. They were both musical; his mother, who had studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory began to teach Isaac the piano at 6. At 8, he heard a friend play the violin, and that converted him. At 10 he began studying violin at the San Francisco Conservatory with the backing of a wealthy patron who believed in his talent.
He remembers growing up in San Francisco as "love-ly, love-ly. . . . I bathed in music." When he speaks of his childhood he doesn't talk about baseball games and trolley cars and Fisherman's Pier, but about the music he heard: The first time he heard Rachmaninoff playing Beethoven piano sonatas, heard Schnabel , Kreisler, his first Wagner "Ring Cycle," with Flagstad and Melchior and Lotte Lehmann.
"I used to haunt the opera house, the symphony rehearsal." At 15 he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, playing the Bach double violin concerto with Naoum Blinder, his major teacher and concertmaster of the orchestra. He became friends with members of the Budapest String Quartet, the Pro Arte Quartet , and with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra musicians.
"We used to play chamber music twice a week . . . that's what the whole basis of music was. . . ."
The focus for his strong feelings about chamber music is the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, which he helped found.
At 17, in 1937, he made his New York debut at Town Hall, launching a career that has soared steadily since then. Under impresario Sol Hurok's guidance, Stern's drive and talent had already established him as a star of the concert stage when a New York Post critic wrote of him in 1944:
"Isaac Stern is no exhibitionist; in fact, he seems unconscious of his own remarkable virtuosity. He takes his place among the great violinists because he is overwhelmingly concerned with one hting: the music he performs. His individuality is that of the composer's music he plays."
A New York Times critic five years later hit the same note: "It was not the violinist one seemed to be hearing; it was, in turn, Haydn, Bach, Bartok, Mozart , and Szymanowski. For such was Mr. Stern's immersion in the music that his own spirit and his immense technical skill were but the mediums that made the music audible."
Stern, hearing the Times review read, leans back and smiles. "That's the nicest compliment. I don't remember that review. That essentially is what I'm trying to do. It's limiting when one saysm 'Oh, yes, he can play "x" very well but he's not very good in the "y" period of musical creativity and he's better at this than at that.' That means that there are limitations to the artist's musical affinity for an artistic impulse. . . ."
Is there one musical period in which he feels most comfortable?
"No. No. No. No. Because my repertoire is very eclectic, from the Baroque to the contemporary. And I've played the world premieres of several works." He mentions another one coming up next year, a violin concerto being written for him by the leading French composer, Henri Dutilleux.
Perhaps because Stern just lets the music shine through him, there is little of the star bravura or mystique about his appearances on stage. He walks briskly, matter-of-factly, on and off stage, his violin held out slightly in front of him like a staff in his left hand, his right hand grasping the bow. When he performs, he plants his feet wide apart, stands sturdy as an oak tree, and goes about the business of making sublime music without any theatrics.
In a televised performance on Public Broadcasting Service's "Gala of Stars" last spring, he wowed the audience with a performance of Mendelssohn's violin concerto. But he cut short the clapping and bravos with a wave of his hand, then joked that normally he would milk the audience for more applause, but the program was tight and they'd have to move on to the next act.
In Washington, Stern strolled on stage after intermission at the Kennedy Center gala and cracked, "They have such a high regard for me as a great musician that they've asked me to speak, instead. . . ." He then went on to give a gracious, unrehearsed tribute to the National Symphony and its backstage workers, who were too shy to take a bow.
After the formal concert ended, Slava invited the audience to stay for some antics, and Stern joined in: a madcap version of Haydn's Toy Symphony conducted by Slava himself dressed as Haydn, in fleecy white wig, plum frock coat, snuff velvet pantaloon tights, and buckled shoes. A small section of the orchestra in ruffled costumes and wigs played the symphony, with outrageous solos by a peculiarly Washington blend of musical stars and administration biggies.
Isaac Stern, Haydn's tricorn hat clamped on his head, merrily tootled away on a whistle while national-security chief Zbigniew Brzezinski blew a kazoo. Fellow soloists Leonard Bernstein and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal played a red toy drum and a ratchet, respectively; Livingston Biddle, director of the National Endowment for the Arts, played a cuckoo whistle; Smithsonian Institution chief S. Dillon Ripley and National Gallery director Carter Brown shared the triangle part; Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois clanged the cymbals and Kenneth Curtis, US ambassador to Canada, debuted on the bird whistle.
The National Symphony was playing musical politics at its own anniversary party: It desperately needs to be bailed out of a big deficit this year, and has asked the Senate to approve a $1 million grant from the Smithsonian to help it out.
Stern didn't mind tootling away to help a musical cause: "It was all fun, and then Slava is a marvelous clown, he's a natural-born one; the stage is his home and he does it with such elan."
One of the things that Stern does with such elan, apart from playing the violin, is his handkerchief trick. A second before he's cued to solo, the huge white handkerchief that droops from his right hand is quickly, deftly whisked both over and under his violin as he settles it under his chin. He does it with such dexterity and swiftness that if you blinked you've missed it.
What is the significance of the handkerchief? Is it just a snowy chin rest? No.
"I do it to protect the violin from my perspiration. Perspiration has acid in it, a lot. So I try to protect both the underside and the top of the violin from as much perspiration as I can. . . . [Also,] in holding the violin with perspiration the chin rest becomes very slippery. . . . It's protective, but also to hold the violin firmly so that it doesn't slip."
The violin he guards jealously in its tan, linen-covered case once belonged to the famous violinist Eugene Ysaye, one of his heroes.
He takes a minor precaution, too, with his own priceless hands, which are insured for "multi bucks." He wears a tennis glove when he plays that favorite sport of his so he won't get blisters on his fingers. "But I also know how to play and follow through and I don't get a tennis elbow." (Very important for his bow arm.) "And I don't play that much that any trouble develops."
While other performers kvetch about the terrible toll that being on the road exacts from a performer, Stern jokes about it.
"It's terribly hard. You have to live in hotels like this" -- he gestures around his posh Watergate suite -- "and people invite you to have a little dried zwieback and water from time to time," he says of the gala party after the gala concert last night. Frankly, he says, he sometimes gets a marvelous rest on the road. "There are very few places where you can be as comfortably alone and untouched as a big hotel. . . . You get taken care of well, you get catered to, and so it isn't all that bad. And then you enjoy going home."
Home is either the Manhattan duplex on New York's Central Park West, which contains a studio on one floor and an apartment on the other or the 40-acre family place in Connecticut.
"It's treesy and its hilly and it's quiet and it's off the cocktail circuit and nobody comes calling by chance. . . ." He shares his life with his second wife, Vera, and their three children: Shira, 24, Michael, 20, and David, 17. His first marriage, to ballerina Nora Kaye, ended in divorce.
It is characteristic of Stern that he pursued his romance at the same breakneck pace that he pursues his career: about the tempo of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumble Bee."
His wife, French-born Vera, had come to the US after World War II on a "Nansen" passport for stateless people. Her father had been deported and killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz, her mother hidden in a French hospital during the war. Vera herself had been smuggled out of Paris to Sweden during the last two years of the war, had worked in Paris in the Swedish Consulate, then emigrated to the US, where she was a UN interpreter. She later emigrated to Israel, where Stern was giving a concert one day in Jerusalem.
Vera's boyfriend at the time was an Israeli soldier who had been injured and sent back to Jerusalem; in trying to get an extra ticket to the concert for him she met a friend of a friend, Stern's accompanist Alexander Zakin. The concert was sold out, said Zakin, but if Vera stood at the side entrance, Stern would see her when he got there. "She had lived just a few blocks from me [in New York] but I had never met her," Stern reminisces. "And I took one look at her and invited her to the party after the concert. This was on the 1st of August, 1951. We were married on the 17th of August. I wooed her up and down Israel. . . ."
"No," he says firmly, "she does not play an instrument. She's a wife."
Stern's attachment to Israel goes deep. "He serves as a sort of patriarch of Israeli life," said Christopher Porterfield in a Time magazine birthday profile this year. In addition to playing there frequently and being president of the American-Israel Cultural Arts Foundation, he founded the Jerusalem Music Center in 1973.
There's no telling where he'll turn up musically -- he was ghost violinist for John Garfield in the film "Humoresque," and the house fiddler for the movie "Fiddler on the Roof." He was a founder-member of the National Council on the Arts, which later became the National Endowment for the Arts; has encouraged countless young musicians; and wants to use Carnegie Hall as a center for developing a graduate institute that would be the musical equivalent of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies.
Speaking of what music means to him, Stern says: "You can describe music but you can't explain it. There is a wondrous mystery about just what makes the logic of music so simple and so inevitalbe when it comes together in the right way. And you listen for it and you try to find it in yourself. The only way that music can really be made is when you yourself go into an ecstatic trance about it, you know.It is not something that can be a form of self-flagellation from the outside; it has to come from within. And when it does, the audience is privy to what at worst can be a pleasant communion of ideas and at best a revelation."