Isaac Stern

1920 2001

Isaac Stern

Instrumentalist

Biography

With the help of the impresario Sol Hurok, who began representing Stern in 1939, Stern became one of the most in-demand violinists of the time. In just seven months in 1949, Stern played 120 concerts during a tour of the United States, Europe and South America. Interestingly, Hurok would have preferred it if Stern had performed less frequently, telling the New York Times in 1959, “Stern is a man who cannot rest…I have begged him not to play so much. I tell him, ‘the less you play, the longer you will play’. It does no good”. Hurok and Stern worked together until Hurok’s death in 1974.

Throughout his career, Stern played with all of the major American Orchestras and established a great international reputation, the first American-trained violinist to do so. Notably, he performed on more than 100 occasions with the New York Philharmonic. One concert in particular stands out—the 1980 concert celebrating Stern’s 60th birthday. This televised concert was conducted by Zubin Mehta, including performances with violinistsPerlman and Zukerman in the double and triple concertos byBach, Vivaldi and Mozart. In addition, he performed theBrahms Violin Concerto.

As a chamber musician, Stern was a member of the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, which made its debut in 1961 in Israel. The group mastered the trio repertoire, including the works of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. In 1984, after the death of Rose, Stern founded a new trio with the pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. They were sometimes accompanied by violinistJaime Laredo. Other collaborations throughout his career were withBenny Goodman and his sextet, Daniel Barenboim, Peter Serkin, Joseph Kalichstein and violinists David Oistrakh, Midori, Zukerman and Perlman. He also worked with violist Michael Tree and cellistsPablo Casals, Sharon Robinson, Matt Haimovitz and Peter Wiley.

During the 1940s, Stern began giving recitals with pianist Alexander Zakin, who accompanied him regularly on recordings until 1973. His earliest recording was in 1945 for Columbia of the Wieniawski Concerto no. 2 with theNew York Philharmonic and Efrem Kurtz. He remained an exclusive recording artist for Columbia and its later variations (CBS Masterworks and Sony Classical) for his entire career. The success of this partnership led CBS Masterworks to name Stern as its first artist laureate in 1984. They kept the majority of his recordings in print. In 1995, Sony Classical celebrated Stern’s 50-year anniversary with the label, releasing a collection of 44 discs of Stern’s recordings entitled,Isaac Stern: A Life in Music.

The Ukrainian-born American violinist Isaac Stern was a prominent figure in classical music throughout the 20th century. Not only was he celebrated for his abilities as a violinist, but he was also a valuable asset to the political side of music. It is as a result of Stern’s leadership and determination, that Carnegie Hall still remains today. Stern was also prominent in the field of chamber music during a time when most musicians neglected the genre. His partnerships included collaborations with flautistJean-Pierre Rampal, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax.

Isaac Stern was born in Kremenets, Ukraine but grew up in San Francisco, where his family had settled by 1921. His mother, Clara Stern had studied voice at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and began teaching her son when he was 6 years old. Isaac was captivated by the sounds of the violin, which he heard when a neighbour was practicing. From that moment on, he would focus on the violin. Stern had a natural ability on the instrument, and after just two years of lessons, he had attracted the support of a wealthy patroness, allowing him to study at the San Francisco Conservatory with Naoum Blinder, the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. He considers Blinder to have been his principal influence, despite having studied for a brief time in New York with Louis Persinger, the teacher of Yehudi Menuhin. He appreciated Blinder’s focus on musicianship instead of scales and technical exercises. At the age of 16, Stern made his debut with theSan Francisco Symphony, performing the Bach Double Concerto with Blinder, under the direction of the legendaryPierre Monteux. He followed this performance with a performance along with theLos Angeles Philharmonic under Otto Klemperer, performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

The next year, Stern made his New York debut, giving a recital at Town Hall. While the critics were respectful of his performance, the reviews were not as positive as Stern had hoped. They praised the ‘extent of his technique and his spirited straightforward playing’ but criticized his bow technique, claiming that ‘his bow pressed too hard and vibrates the string too little’.

Following these reviews, Stern recalled, “I remember getting on one of those New York double-decker buses and riding around for five hours, thinking of my future. Should I take a safe job as a concertmaster of an orchestra? I had an offer. I didn’t know what to do. Finally I said to myself, ‘Damnit, I want to play!’ So I came back to New York the next year and got rave reviews”.

Stern’s long association with Carnegie Hall began in 1943, when he gave his first performance there. His international fame also allotted him quite a lot of power. He was later instrumental in using his power to save Carnegie Hall. He also made political statements during World War II by refusing to perform in Germany. Instead he performed for the Allied troops in Greenland, Iceland and the South Pacific. He didn’t make his European debut until 1948. He was very outspoken in other areas as well. He was insistent that the government have a department to support the arts, and during the 1960s he helped in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. With the threat of cuts to the arts in 1970, Stern stood before Congress and explained that without the arts, the country would become ‘an industrial complex without a soul’.

In 1951, he became the first American violinist to tour the Soviet Union. He then decided that he would not return for another tour until Soviet artists were allowed the freedom to come and go as they pleased. He also protested the Greek military junta in 1967 by boycotting a music festival in Athens in 1967. He organized a boycott of UNESCO events in 1974 when the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organizations stopped their programme in Israel. Further involvement with Israel included becoming the chairman of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation and founding the Jerusalem Music Center. He performed in Israel shortly after the conclusion of the Six Day War, becoming the subject of the filmJourney to Jerusalem. He also cancelled his concerts in 1973 to offer support to the patients and people in Israel, performing at their bedsides and for the troops.

One of Stern’s performances in 1951, during the Gulf War, was interrupted by a missile attack. Instead of stopping the performance, he put on a gas mask and played Bach’sSarabande.

Stern’s awards include the first Albert Schweitzer Award (1974), the Kennedy Center Honors Award (1984), a Lifetime Achievement Grammy (1987), an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Classical Music Performance (1987) and the Wolf Prize from Israel (1987). He also received the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog from Denmark (1985) and was made a Commandeur of the French Legion d’Honneur (1990).

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