Isaac Stern (born 1920) is one of the foremost violinists in the world. He is renowned for his great musical talent, for his great energy, and for his enormous heart.
Violinist Isaac Stern made his formal debut with the San Francisco Symphony as a teen-ager. Since that time he has played countless concerts around the globe. His world tours are an annual event. The crux of Stern's talent lies in his total mastery of each piece. Critics are amazed at his tone and his effortless style. Yet Stern is more than an accomplished musician, he is a great benefactor of the arts. He took it upon himself to spearhead the rescue of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1960 when the building was slated for demolition. As founder and chairman of the Jerusalem Music Center, he travels regularly to Israel to sponsor master classes and workshops. Stern is well known for his efforts in mentoring young people and in sponsoring programs to encourage music for youth. Some noteworthy Isaac Stern students include violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Pinchas Zukerman.
Isaac Stern was born on July 21, 1920 to Solomon and Clara Stern, in the town of Kremenets in the Russian Ukraine. Stern's father was a contractor; his mother, a musician, attended the Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg. Fleeing the political upheaval in their native land, Stern's parents immigrated with their young son to the United States in 1921. Stern was ten months old at the time. The family made their home in San Francisco. In time Clara Stern began to share her love for music with her young son. She taught the boy to play the piano when he was six, and he started playing the violin at the age of eight. Stern was never labeled a prodigy, but his parents enrolled him at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when he was ten years old. He studied there from 1930 until 1937 under Naoum Blinder, who was the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. Blinder was very liberal in his teaching style; he never burdened Stern with tiresome hours of practicing scales. Instead, Stern learned to play as he listened to others perform; he learned to imitate the quality of the sounds he heard.
Accounts vary as to the progression of Stern's career as a virtuoso. He played his first recital in 1934 at the age of 13, and most likely it was two years later when he debuted with the San Francisco Symphony under Conductor Pierre Monteux. On October 11, 1937 he debuted in New York at Town Hall. Critics praised his performance, and he acquired a manager, noted impresario Sol Hurok. Stern played seven concerts during his first year of tours; the following year that number doubled. On January 8, 1943 he debuted with a recital at Carnegie Hall. That concert earned critical acclaim and thereafter Stern was recognized worldwide as a master violinist. He was renowned for his style and flexibility, for his tone, and for the sure movement of his fingers and hands. So memorable was his first performance at Carnegie Hall, that 25 years later, in 1968, he performed a silver anniversary encore concert at Carnegie to mark the occasion.
Stern signed his first record contract in 1945 with a company that was then called CBS Masterworks, now Sony Classical Records. He remained with that record label throughout his career.
In the 1940s, during the Second World War, Stern played for the Allied Armies in Greenland, Iceland, and the South Pacific. In 1944, he debuted with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Arthur Rodzinski. Stern's film debut was in 1946, in Warner Brothers' Humoresque, with Joan Crawford. Stern recorded the soundtrack for the film. His hands were superimposed in the stead of co-star John Garfield's when the script called for Garfield to play the violin. In 1952, Stern appeared in a film biography about his own manager, Sol Hurok, called Tonight We Sing.
Stern, began touring the globe in the late 1940s. He debuted in 1948 at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland under Charles Munch. He performed 120 concerts in 1949 alone, including a tour in South America. That same year he made his first visit to Israel. Stern played the Prades Festival with premiere cellist Pablo Casals from 1950 through 1952. In 1956, he became the first American musician since World War II to perform in the Soviet Union. That occasion also marked Stern's first return to Russian soil since he left with his family for the United States. After that initial trip, Stern visited and performed in the Soviet Union on various occasions during the 1960s. Eventually, he boycotted the Soviet regime and was grateful to return in 1997, after the Communist government collapsed. Quoted by ITAR-TASS news agency, he said, "I am glad to meet the Muscovites again."
Throughout his career Stern was the guest soloist with every major orchestra in the world. He performed his famous chamber music concerts at virtually all of the major festivals. The Istomen-Stern-Rose (chamber) Trio, co-founded by Stern in 1961, played through the early 1980s. It featured Stern, Leonard Rose on cello, and Eugene Istomen on piano. The group embarked on a world tour from 1970 to 1971, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer, Ludwig Von Beethoven. Stern also collaborated with Emanuel Ax, Jaime Laredo, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Stern toured South America, Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and France with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra. He contributed to countless television specials during the 1970s and 1980s, including his work on the two series, Tonight at Carnegie Hall, and Live from Lincoln Center.
Stern celebrated his 60th birthday in 1980 by performing 60 concerts across four countries during the course of the year. Stern, who plays modern as well as classical music, was honored on multiple occasions to offer the premiere performances of compositions by William Schuman, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Hindemith, and other modern composers. Since his first visit to Israel, Stern maintained close ties with that nation. He returned frequently to perform, and to hold workshops and master classes.
In 1981, Stern filmed a documentary of his Chinese tour. The film, From Mao to Mozart-Isaac Stern in China won an Academy Award for best full-length documentary. The feature also received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1987, Stern filmed Carnegie Hall: The Grand Reopening, a film which earned him an Emmy Award.
Six Decades of Music
In 1993, the Arts & Entertainment Network (A&E) featured a biographical piece on Isaac Stern in a program called Isaac Stern—A Life. He made numerous television appearances, including 60 Minutes, Sesame Street, Live from Lincoln Center, Good Morning America, and Today. Stern, along with Yefim Bronfman, toured the United States and the Far East during 1993 and 1994. The pair undertook a collaborative project to record the complete Mozart violin sonatas. They toured Russia in 1991, where they recorded a live performance of the Brahms Violin Sonata, the same piece that Stern performed during his debut with the San Francisco Symphony in the early 1930s.
In May 1993, Stern hosted a two-day chamber music workshop at Carnegie Hall, and another in Israel that same year. The Israeli workshop, called the Jerusalem International Music Encounter, attracted students from around the world. Stern reprised the event in 1995.
Stern celebrated his 75th birthday in 1995, and Sony marked the occasion with a set of 44 compact disks, entitled Isaac Stern: A Life in Music (1946-82). After six decades of making music, Stern continues to perform in scores of concerts every year. His notable appearances in the 1990s included a performance with students at the San Francisco Conservatory and another at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. In 1994 and 1995 Stern toured with Yefim Bronfman and Robert McDonald.
Stern is devoted to humanity and finds that music is a natural form of expression for him. Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, he said, "We can sing, act, pray and do many things with music and all without one word. That is its real magic. Music can be violent because it grows in a violent world."
During the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Stern organized the National Council on the Arts, a program that evolved into the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) under President Lyndon Johnson. In 1973, Stern founded the Jerusalem Music Centre where he held many master classes taught by international musicians. He also served as chairman of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation.
Stern voiced his political opinions in support of a boycott against a Greek military junta in 1967. He celebrated the end of the Six-Day War in Israel by performing a concert on Mount Scopus with Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic. The concert was filmed as A Journey to Jerusalem.
Stern campaigned against Soviet opposition to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1974. He became a Commander of the French Ordre de la Couronne in 1974, and received the French Légion d'honneur in 1977 and Commander's Cross of the Danish Order of Dannebrog in 1985. Stern was named a fellow of Jerusalem in 1986. His biography, Isaac Stern: A Life, appeared in 1991. He was named the 1996 Honorary Fellow of the Diaspora Museum during a trip to Tel Aviv to perform for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Israel Philharmonic.
Three times married, Stern wed ballerina Nora Kaye on November 10, 1948 and divorced soon afterward. He then married Vera Lindenblit on August 17, 1951, following a truly whirlwind courtship-the couple met in Israel and married less than three weeks later. They divorced after 43 years, in 1994. They had three children: daughter Shira, and sons Michael and David; and three grandchildren. Stern married his third wife, Linda, shortly before the dedication of the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall on January 28, 1997.
Renowned for his tireless energy, Stern loves to play tennis-with gloves to minimize blisters to his violin-playing hands. By his own admission he is not a disciplined individual; he accepts his spontaneous spirit, and concedes that the secret to the sensual character of his violin playing lies in the inability to limit his desires and wants. Stern plays his instrument, an Alard Guarnerius "del Gesu" violin, for hours on end, especially into the night.
Further Reading on Isaac Stern
Facts on File Encyclopedia of the 20th Century, edited by John Drexel, Facts on File, 1991.
ITAR-TASS (news agency), September 15, 1997.
Jerusalem Post, December 25, 1996, p. 12; June 5, 1998, p. 10.
Newsday, August 16, 1994, p. A11; January 29, 1997, p. A13.
JMC Isaac Stern: Violinist, http://www.jmc.co.il/stern.html (March 12, 1999).