Isaac Stern (1920-2001) was without doubt one of the major figures and household names among the concert violinists of his generation. Major musician, philanthropist, saver of Carnegie Hall, helper to budding young talents, particularly from Israel and Asia – this was the official face of Isaac Stern.
Stern, however, was also the subject of controversy during his lifetime, and the controversy actually increased after his death. He was a musician first and a fiddler second. He liked to say “use the violin to make music; don’t use music as an excuse to play the violin”. This was a noble sentiment. But many professionals felt that it tried to mask some flaws in his technique and that his disinclination to practice in his middle years only worsened any inherent weaknesses. He was never quite known in the business as a ‘violinist’s violinist’ in the mold of say a Heifetz, Ricci, Nadien, Rosand, Rabin or his own semi-protégé, Perlman. He performed little of the works of Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Ysaye or Sarasate – the idiomatic, core virtuoso repertoire, akin to Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninov in the piano literature. But in his youth, Stern was actually a virtuoso of searing intensity. He supplied the brilliant soundtrack for the 1940’s movie “Humoresque” and his puissant performance of the finale of the Wieniawski D minor concerto has very few peers.
As he ripened into middle age his tempos slowed and his vibrato lost much of its early zing. But his musicianship deepened and his tone developed a richness and solidity nicely enhanced by his two Guarneri del Gesu violins. His magisterial style seemed to particularly suit much of the music of Beethoven and Brahms, but he carefully weighed every phrase of all the repertoire he played. “Isaac leaves no tone un-Sterned” was a popular quip. Elegance and finesse were not his forte and though he liked to play some Kreisler, that particular sort of grace and style eluded him and came out heavy-handed. As he got increasingly involved with extra-musical activities and particularly after successfully spearheading the movement to save Carnegie Hall from plans for its demolition, he practiced less consistently and many chinks in his violinistic armor began to emerge. Oddly enough, some of the performances late in his life, while lacking the propulsive energy and tonal solidity of earlier years, were much more consistent. Perhaps he really did care enough about his playing and legacy to try to go out with some performances he could be proud of.
But there was more. Highly adept at networking, fund-raising, promotion and politicking, Stern developed an enormous degree of power and influence in the American classical music scene. In the professional musical grapevine there were persistent rumors for years that he actively blocked the careers of those rival violin soloists, of his own generation in particular, whose virtuosity threatened his own pre-eminent position. Whispers while he was alive grew emboldened after his death to shouts in some circles. Henryk Szeryng, David Nadien, Erick Friedman and others alluded to this. More recently, Aaron Rosand came out with elaborate and explicit details of his troubles with Stern that for many years he had only shared with close associates. (See SlipedDisc.com)
That Stern had a very good sense of public relations - and a nice side, too - was something I was to find out for myself one evening while still a student at the Mannes College of Music. In the process I ended up coming to his aid – or certainly trying.
The year was 1975 when I attended a recital that Stern gave at Brooklyn College which was close to where I lived at the time. Though his playing was often spotty by that period, he was truly in form that evening and played excellently. I can only remember two of the works on the program. One was the Bach Sonata no.1 in G minor for unaccompanied violin. I can still recall the depth and definition with which he imbued every phrase. Some musicians paint with their playing; Stern seemed to sculpt.
The second half began with the Bartok “Rumanian Dances”, and in the middle of one dance his E string snapped. (The E string is the highest string on the violin. Basically a thin wire, it is under a great deal of tension and is the string most likely to break in the heat of battle. Stern, who had a rather heavy bow arm, tended to snap E strings more often than many other violinists.) He quickly walked off the stage without much evident concern. He returned almost as quickly as he exited. "How could he have changed his string so fast?" I thought. He didn't! He announced to the audience that he had extras of all the other strings but no extra E string and that unless there were any violinists in the audience, he could tell jokes or answer questions but he really couldn't continue playing.
That was my fateful cue! I immediately jumped up, ran to the nearest usher and told him that I was a violin student and didn't live far. The usher agreed to drive me home. Back stage on the way out, I ran into the E-less Maestro and said “Mr. Stern, I’m going to get my violin.” He patted me on the shoulder and said “Good boy!” I had no extra E strings either, and so, brought back my whole - and at the time, only - violin. Backstage at the hall I had some trouble getting the string off. I asked the lady sitting next to me if she had a hairpin. She obliged. She turned out to be Mrs. Stern! Actually, by the time I got back, they had found him an E string from the music department, and he was already continuing with the 2nd half. But Mrs. Stern asked me to keep working on getting my E string off my violin in case he preferred mine when he came off stage. He decided to keep going with what he had. It looked by that time like someone else had also found a string to offer him. But they asked me to stay and give them my name and address. He even offered to privately play the excerpt we missed. But I felt funny to take him up on it and respectfully left after giving my name and address.
Shortly after that incident I received a package from Isaac Stern in the mail. It included an autographed record and a letter thanking me for my willingness to help. "I immediately put a supply of E strings in my violin case when I returned home", continued the letter, "and am sending you one enclosed. [It was in an envelope, stapled to the letter.] You never know, it may come in handy at someone else's concert!" Needless to say, I framed the letter along with the stapled E string. In the years to come I would use countless E strings on many fiddles – but never that one!
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