Legendary violinist Isaac Stern’s legacy continues after 100 years

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The gravestone on Isaac Stern’s grave simply reads “Isaac Stern, Fiddler”, but the violinist was much more than that: he was an educator who guided generations of musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, and it was an activist who helped save Carnegie Hall from the Wrecking Ball.

Isaac Stern was born on the shifting border between Poland and Ukraine 100 years ago on July 21, 1920. As a child, his parents took him to the United States, where they settled in San Francisco.

“He had no aspiration to play music until, as he puts it, a kid across the street was playing and he wanted to play,” says his son, Michael Stern. His father was then 8 years old.

Recognizing his talent, Stern’s mother pulled him out of school. He made his public debut with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of 15 and two years later was performing in New York City.

“I went out early the next morning. I bought the papers and read the reviews with my mom,” Stern wrote in his autobiography,
My first 79 years. “We were bitterly disappointed. Some of New York’s top critics were hitting me on the head. My game was erratic. I should go back to San Francisco and practice some more.”

“And that’s what he did,” says Gino Francesconi, Carnegie Hall archivist.

Stern returned to fame a few years later and launched a remarkable career in recitals and chamber music, performing with large symphony orchestras. He played the classics, but also worked with contemporary composers including Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein.

“Isaac, my Isaac, whatever happens tonight, right or wrong or flop, I want you to know how much I will always cherish your work on our Serenade,” reads a note Bernstein wrote to Stern. on a piece of hotel stationery before the premiere. of his room,
Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium).“No one can play like you and no one can play the song like you can.”

Throughout his career, Stern trained tirelessly, even while watching football games on television. But his musicality was not just a question of technique. In the process of learning to become a great musician, he says, the real question to be answered is not how to play well, but why one chooses to play at all.

“Why are you playing? Why do you want to be a musician? What do you mean?” he said in a conversation with Diane Rehm of NPR in 1999. “Only a human can speak with a certain individual voice. And that’s what every musician has to learn.”

Stern wanted to pass on what he had learned to the next generation.

“He wasn’t someone who just played the violin, he was interested in the world,” says violinist Midori, who was mentored by Stern. “He took an interest in his community. He took an interest in people like us, the younger generation. And he was so determined to give in and get involved, to act where he felt it was needed.

When he couldn’t join the army due to flat feet during World War II, Stern joined the United Service Organizations and played for the troops. And when Carnegie Hall was due to be demolished in 1960, it was instrumental in saving it, says his son, Michael.

“I think it gave him a huge sense of pride that he could give back to both the city and the country, something he considered so important and was so important to him,” said Michael Stern. .

Isaac Stern then served as president of Carnegie Hall for 40 years, and he was truly an American musician, says his other son, David – who, like his brother, became a conductor.

“Americans who managed to get out of this and get started on their own – in their own way, like my father – could make it up,” says David Stern. “They didn’t have that burden of having to carry on a tradition. And it was really a chance to say, I’m an American artist. And that freedom you hear in his playing.”

As someone who started with nothing and dedicated his life to giving back to the country he called home, Isaac Stern said he never stopped learning.

“In eight decades, I feel like I’m still a student. And that’s what is wonderful. The wonderful thing is to seek and sometimes to find.”

Isaac Stern died of heart failure in 2001 at the age of 81.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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