Master violinist Issac Stern, performer, teacher and president of Carnegie Hall, dead at 81

Sunday, September 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Issac Stern was one of the last great string players of his generation, a savior of Carnegie Hall and a mentor to generations of classical musicians who followed him _ Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Yo-Yo Ma among them.

He oversaw the resurgence of Carnegie Hall for more than four decades as its president, working to improve its productions and programs even as his heart disease worsened this year.

Stern died Saturday of heart failure at a New York hospital, Carnegie Hall spokeswoman Ann Diebold said. He was 81.

``Isaac was far more than a musician. He was a person who was outstanding in everything, whether thinking about politics, or business, or as a humanitarian,'' said Sandy Weill, chairman of Carnegie Hall.

Five-foot-6, rotund and with pudgy, dimpled hands, Stern commanded a rich tone and steady rhythm from his 18th century Guarneri. With his dynamo energy and fluid bow strokes, he was equally at home with the mathematical contortions of Bach, the fury of Beethoven, the syncopations of Brahms and the convulsions of 20th century composers.

Stern was one of the most recorded classical musicians in history, making well over 100 recordings.

A supporter of Israel, tireless concertizer, teacher and raconteur, Stern played well over 175 performances by the late 1990s at Carnegie Hall, America's musical temple renowned for its acoustics.

The hall was built by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and opened in 1891 with a concert conducted in part by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.

``Carnegie was, is and will not be only a building. It's an idea. It's a mythology, a necessary mythology about music,'' Stern said in a 1997 interview with CNN's Larry King.

In the late 1950s, as the city was planning Lincoln Center, a developer proposed razing Carnegie Hall and building a 44-story office tower with panels of bright red porcelain and diagonally placed windows. Life magazine in 1957 described the architect's plan as ``a strange-looking checkerboard.''

Using his prestige and his contacts among fellow artists and benefactors, Stern rallied the opposition, eventually securing legislation that enabled the city to acquire the building in 1960 for $5 million.

``I talked a lot,'' Stern told King. ``It's something I do very well. When you believe in something, you can move mountains. I knew that this could not disappear from the face of the Earth.''

Weill described Stern as ``the inspiration for all of us to scale higher heights to create an institution that would really make the world feel better.''

Stern was born in 1920 in Ukraine in the fledgling Soviet Union. His parents brought him to America when he was 10 months old, settling in San Francisco.

Believing that music was an essential ingredient to education, they started him on the piano at age 6. Two years later, after hearing a friend's violin playing, he picked up the fiddle and wound up playing it for the rest of his life. Ironically, he never went to college.

He studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and with Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony and a violinist of the Russian school of playing.

``He taught me to teach myself, which is the greatest thing a teacher can do,'' Stern recalled in a 1987 interview with the Guardian.

At 16, Stern attracted his first national attention, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a concert broadcast on national radio.

Seven years later, on Jan. 8, 1943, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in a recital produced by the impresario Sol Hurok. Performing with pianist Alexander Zakin, who became his longtime accompanist, Stern played Mozart, Bach, Szymanowski, Brahms and Wieniawski.

``I played almost defiantly, to demonstrate my skills, to show them all what I was capable of doing with the fiddle,'' Stern recalled in his 1999 memoir, ``My First 79 Years.''

The performance attracted the attention of composer-critic Virgil Thomson. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Thomson proclaimed him ``one of the world's master fiddle players.''

He later played in countless places around the world: Iceland, Greenland and the South Pacific for Allied troops during World War II; Moscow after Stalin's death; Jerusalem's Mount Scopus immediately after Israeli soldiers recaptured it in 1967; China after Washington restored full diplomatic relations in 1979. One country he refused to perform in was Germany, which he boycotted for years because of the Holocaust.

During the 1991 Gulf War, a concert in Jerusalem was interrupted by a siren warning of an Iraqi Scud missile attack. After the audience put on gas masks, Stern returned to the stage and played the Sarabande from Bach's D minor Partita for solo violin.

``It's a great loss to the musical world,'' Yaacov Mishori, leading violinist of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, said after learning of Stern's death. ``He encouraged all the violinists and the players of the orchestra in general. Every concert with him was a celebration.''

Through the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, Stern helped finance the studies of many Israeli performers, including Perlman and Zukerman. He also helped arrange for Ma to study with the great cellist Leonard Rose _ Stern's partner in the much recorded Istomin-Stern-Rose trio, along with the pianist Eugene Istomin.

At his peak, Stern would perform more than 200 concerts a year.

He also played in the movies ``Humoresque,'' ``Fiddler on the Roof'' and on TV's ``Sesame Street.'' The Academy Award winning documentary ``From Mozart to Mao'' chronicled Stern's performance and tutoring in China in 1979 after the Cultural Revolution.

Stern ended his boycott of Germany in 1999 for a nine-day teaching seminar, saying it was time to see how young German musicians were absorbing their musical heritage of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn.

``It isn't very human not to give people a chance to change. The time came when I wanted to hear, search and think. With my visit, I forgive nothing,'' he said at the time.

``I have a responsibility to pass on to the next generation what I learned from my teachers,'' Stern said. ``It keeps me young and reminds me where I came from. Teaching young artists is like giving water to a flower.''

Survivors include his wife, Linda Reynolds Stern, whom he married in 1996; three children from a previous marriage, daughter Shira, a rabbi, and sons Michael and David, both conductors; and five grandchildren.