Isaac Stern: a vital violinist
Plucky violinist defied scud missiles and would-be developers
Isaac Stern was more than just a violinist.
A glib speaker of uncommon personal force, he organized a group to save Carnegie Hall from demolition in 1961, later serving as president of the Carnegie Hall corporation and chairman of the board of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, as well as helping to establish the National Endowment for the Arts. He died Sept. 22.
In his earlier years, Stern's natural bravado conquered his inveterate reluctance to practice the violin and his self-avowed appetites for making merry.
Some informed listeners consider his 1952 recording of the Schubert Quintet in C (Sony Classics 58992 ), in the company of cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, to be one of the supreme chamber-music recordings.
Other early concerto recordings (reissued on Sony SM3K 45952 and Sony SM3K 45956) also contain forceful playing with lots of personality and verve. In the past 20 years or so, with a decayed technique, Stern could sometimes seem assertive and strident-sounding. As one punning critic expressed it: "He left no tone un-Sterned."
His staunch support of some younger string players, from fiddlers Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, inevitably caused grumbling among musicians he did not wish to play with.
He boosted the refined violinist Cho-Liang Lin, whose supreme technique is in the tradition of players like Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, who Stern freely admitted were above his class technically.
A moved Lin told the Monitor about his mentor: "He had his own ways of playing, no doubt. But he welcomed ideas from others as well, just that they'd better be pretty good ideas. He went for broke at every performance. There was no playing it safe.
"Of course, some concerts went better than others, but every one had a special vitality and energy."
Last May, Lin spent time in Japan with Stern coaching chamber music workshops, and Lin recalls that the older man "... was lamenting how little young players know about musicmaking. I reminded him that he was young once, too. He than said, 'Yes. That's right. I had no idea what I was doing, but I sure had great chops in those days!'
"We shared a good laugh."
Stern's vivid teaching style and devotion to education is best preserved on film, from the Oscar-winning 1981 documentary "From Mao to Mozart," an account of a trip to China, to the recent feature film and documentary "Music of the Heart," rather than in his disappointingly stiff, ghost-written memoirs, "My First 79 Years" (Knopf).
Stern drew brickbats from some observers for his ceaseless support of Israel. Perhaps most memorably, he peformed in Jerusalem during the Gulf War in 1991. During a concert, scud missiles attacked the city, and the audience donned gas masks. Stern continued playing Bach, although not - despite erroneous claims in New York Times and Washington Post obituaries - wearing a gas mask himself.
Said the Post article: "... a photograph of Stern in a gas mask with a violin ... was a brilliant bit of political rhetoric.... It endeared him to listeners who particularly prized his political associations."
But no such propagandistic event took place. As Stern himself told a C-SPAN interviewer: "I didn't wear the mask. I had it right offstage.
"But the audience ... [was] all sitting with masks on."
Also drawing criticism was his personal refusal as a Jew to play concerts in Germany or Austria after World War II, although he encouraged Israeli students and his sons, David and Michael, both conductors, to develop careers in these countries.
Stern did develop close ties to a talented musical administrator from Cologne, Germany, Franz-Xaver Ohnesorg, and was decisive in having him named head of New York City's Carnegie Hall, a short-lived appointment that proved disastrous as MR. Ohnesorg - called a "tough-nut administrator" by critics - lacked Stern's gifts of persuasive personal charm.
Violinist Lin recalls Stern as a friend who was "caring, passionate, committed, loyal, wise, and above all, a man of integrity."
The public at large gratefully remembers him as the "chipmunky" Don Quixote who took on New York developers in order to save Carnegie Hall for today's music lovers.