Isaac Stern, a Russian Jewish immigrant who rose to become one of the most influential American violinists of his generation, died Saturday in New York.
Stern’s elegant, unfaltering musicality was matched by his generosity as a teacher and an activist. He worked to save Carnegie Hall from the wreckers’ ball and became music’s spokesman around the world--making groundbreaking trips to China after the Cultural Revolution and to the Soviet Union.
Stern, 81, died of heart failure at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center.
One of the last of the great violinists of the past century, Stern was paterfamilias to several generations of musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Cho-Liang Lin.
He had enormous range as a masterful interpreter of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as well as 20th century composers such as Bela Bartok, Henryk Gorecki, Henri Dutilleux and Krzysztof Penderecki.
Stern was also called the musical Marco Polo, becoming--in 1979--the first Western musician to perform in China after the brutal Cultural Revolution.
“He really was a living legend,” Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said Saturday. “He enjoyed . . . being a living legend but without becoming pretentious or pompous.
“He had this very special way of communicating, not only in music but in words. He had considerable diplomatic and political talent, which he used very wisely and for the best causes.”
Said Ernest Fleischmann, former managing director of the Philharmonic: “Isaac was in many ways a fairly unique combination--a natural, instinctive musician, intellectual musician and absolute master of his instrument. You normally get great virtuosos or natural musicians, but not the intellectual capacity--you don’t get that combination. He was very rare.’
Stern was beloved not only for his prodigious talent--he had a natural poise, an intense musicality and a singing quality in his playing--but also for his idealism and chutzpah.
His circle included the great names of the classical world, including Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein and impresario Sol Hurok. He told of these relationships in his 1999 memoir, “My First 79 Years,” written by novelist Chaim Potok based on conversations with the violinist and on Stern’s notes.
“I am a musician. Without music, I don’t exist. It’s the center of my life, and yet it is also the center of a civilized life,” he said in a recent interview, explaining his devotion to the violin as an instrument of diplomacy as well as music.
He single-handedly saved Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball in 1960, when plans were announced to destroy it to make way for an office building.
“It was inconceivable to me that this building should not be there,” he told the New York Times in 1998. “There are other wonderful halls in the world, but Carnegie’s the only hall, if you think about it, where every single orchestra, every pianist, every cellist, every great singer has come. Many have been to many halls--but since 1891, if their careers didn’t include Carnegie, they didn’t have a full career.”
Stern lobbied the New York Legislature to pass two bills allowing New York City to buy the hall for $5 million and lease it to the Carnegie Hall Corp. The corporation voted him president, a position he held until his death. The main hall was named for him in 1997. He played more than 150 concerts there.
Saving Carnegie was a “a watershed event in my life,” he said in his memoir. The feat “taught me things about myself I hadn’t known before: I could sway influential people through speech; I had the ability to stir crowds not only with music but also with words; I possessed an instinctive ability to navigate with some skill the tricky waters of politics and power.”
For this and other reasons, Ma once called Stern a force of nature. “He’s the type of personality that is both highly intelligent but also never loses a sense of the primal forces,” Ma said.
Stern was born in 1920 in Kreminiecz, in what is now Ukraine, and came to the United States as an infant, settling with his family in San Francisco. He took up the violin at age 8. His affinity was immediate and profound; by the end of that year he had quit school, never to return, his hours from then on consumed by practice.
The milestones came quickly. At 10 he was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory. At 12 he began to study with Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. At 17 he made his debut recital at New York’s Town Hall.
And at 23, he performed his debut recital at Carnegie Hall.
New York Herald Tribune critic Virgil Thomson proclaimed after that concert that young Stern had proved himself “one of the world’s master fiddle players.”
The next year, 1944, Stern played with the New York Philharmonic, led by Artur Rodzinski.
Stern remembered that he was worried about playing the 40-minute Tchaikovsky concerto with only 18 minutes of rehearsal. But despite the lack of an adequate run-through, he performed well enough to be invited back “another couple hundred times,” he told the New York Times in 1998.
The immensity of his talent helped him to achieve his parents’ dream--"to be an American as soon as possible.” He did this by “being able to make music and be part of that whole world outside,” which he called “a very big thing.” He hoped only to make $100 for 30 or so concerts a year.
He would surpass those modest ambitions many times over. At his peak he gave more than 100 performances annually.
By his late 20s he was an international soloist, collaborating with many of the great conductors of the mid-20th century, including Eugene Ormandy, George Szell and Bruno Walter.
During World War II, Stern proposed to the U.S. Army that it assemble a special unit for classical musicians. He, of course, became a member, playing for GIs in Hawaii and the South Pacific.
After the war he vowed never to play in Germany. But he finally set foot in that country in 1999, although to teach, not to perform.
In a groundbreaking move, he had toured the Soviet Union in 1956, accompanied by his pianist and longtime collaborator, Alexander Zakin.
Hurok, the legendary impresario, made the deal for Stern: The violinist would play there in exchange for tours of America by Russian violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels. Stern recalled in his memoir that the Soviet audience embraced his playing with such enthusiasm that it was “almost as though a physical force had assaulted us.”
His musical diplomacy took another brave step in 1979 when, not long after China’s Cultural Revolution had made it dangerous to listen to Western classical musical there, he traveled the country to perform and teach. His trip became the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary, “From Mao to Mozart.”
Stern also played for wounded Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Almost two decades later, in 1991, he performed in the Jerusalem Theater during a Scud missile attack in the midst of the Gulf War. An air raid siren sounded, sending panic through the audience. But Stern stepped onto the stage and began to play a movement of Bach. The audience, transfixed by the violinist’s playing and courage, donned gas masks and sat in rapt silence for the rest of the performance.
It was classic Stern. “Artistic life can never be divorced from political life,” he later said.
Stern unstintingly gave of his time and experience to students. He worked with individuals and ensembles in what he called encounter sessions, which ran up to two weeks and covered such basics as how to shape a musical idea and then communicate it effectively. He said the purpose was to go more deeply into music. He felt that many conservatories neglected this block-building and left it underdeveloped in too many musicians.
“What I can do best and what I think is most worthwhile is teaching the players how to think,” he told the Los Angeles Times last year. “I teach them how to listen to themselves and be honest, so they can become independent and go as far as their talent can take them, which is usually farther than they’ve gone at the time they come to me. The main direction is teaching them not how you play but why. Why do you want to be a musician?”
Although Ma never participated in one of Stern’s encounters, he said the violinist could be very intimidating to young musicians. “It took years for the terror to wear off,” he said, only half joking.
Another student was pianist Emanuel Ax, who played with Stern on numerous occasions in recent years, the last time at Carnegie Hall in 2000 with Ma.
“He’s been kind of a father figure to a lot of musicians, myself included,” Ax said. “I guess now we’re kind of orphans.”
When Stern turned 80 last year, he was feted in a full weekend of birthday events at Carnegie Hall. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a tribute concert.
In 1999 he had successful surgery to repair damage to his right hand caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, which had weakened his grip on the bow of his violin.
He had surgery again last September, this time to receive an artificial heart valve and defibrillator. Five days after his release from the hospital, he was telling jokes.
Stern was married three times. The first marriage was to ballerina Nora Kaye. He later wed Vera Lindenblit and Linda Reynolds. He had three children from his second marriage: Shira, Michael and David. He is also survived by grandchildren.
Staff writer Anna Gorman contributed to this report.