Isaac Stern 1920 - 2001
The great violinist and humanitarian, remembered by an orchestra manager who knew him for more than four decades
by Peter Pastreich
Some artists seem such down-to-earth people that you can hardly imagine them
making music onstage; others are such imposing personalities that you wonder
whether they can also play. Isaac Stern was a giant among musicians and among
men, one of the most incredibly complex, passionate, and accomplished people of
our time. I do not expect to know such a man again in my lifetime.
In 1963, when I was general manager of The Nashville Symphony, there was only
one great and famous guest artist we could get to appear with our orchestra, and
whose fee we could afford to pay: Isaac Stern. The other great and famous
artists' fees were too high and they didn't play "minor" cities. Twenty years
later, when I was at the San Francisco Symphony, there was only one great and
famous guest artist still playing subscription concerts with orchestras--not
just one-shot deals at enormous fees, but the same program played two, three, or
four times in a week-- again, Isaac Stern. Among the giants of my early years as
an orchestra manager--Horowitz, Rubinstein, Serkin, Heifetz, Menuhin, Milstein,
Oistrakh, Rostropovich--only Isaac Stern involved himself in the musical life of
America outside of its largest cities.
For the orchestra, the flood was a stunning misfortune,
destroying its administrative offices and seriously threatening its primary
performance space, Jones Hall. Executive Director Ann Kennedy had been in place
for just over three months when the flood hit. Still on a learning curve after
making her switch from commercial management to orchestra leadership, she had a
new, crystal-clear emergency job description: Get the orchestra performing as
soon as possible, get its administration back in operation, and make it to
opening night intact.
And he involved himself as well in the development of the next generation of
musicians. Everyone knows he helped Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo
Mintz, bringing Pinky and Shlomo to the United States, arranging for
scholarships for them to study with Dorothy DeLay, finding them management and
helping their careers. But there were many other young music students who
arrived in New York without friends or money who came to study with DeLay. Isaac
found friends of his they could live with, sent them to his dentist at his
expense, got them instruments and bows, and most important, listened to them
play. Dorothy once said to me, "People know that when there's any really
talented kid, Isaac will want to know. He'll always find time to listen. I love
Of course, Isaac could be difficult too, for his opinions were strong and he
wasn't bashful about stating them. He thought managers should be present at
every concert, and if I missed one of his four performances in a week, he'd ask
archly how come I couldn't get there, if he could? He was endlessly patient and
warm with the hundreds who came backstage after concerts to thank him and
request his autograph. But when a visitor said to him, "Your Guarnerius has such
a beautiful sound," Isaac picked up the instrument, held it out to the man, and
said, "It does? Let's hear it."
What energy Isaac had! He was, after all, a little round guy, not
particularly athletic-looking and usually overweight. But he played tennis most
of his life, and scheduled days and nights that were exhausting just to think
about. Fourteen years ago, I asked Sasha Schneider, "Who is the best of the
young violinists?" Sasha replied, "Isaac Stern."
Isaac and I once arrived in Jerusalem after a long day of travel--he from New
York and I from San Francisco--just in time for an endless ceremonial dinner. It
was my first time in Israel, and I asked Isaac what I should see the following
day, once I'd had a night's sleep. Night's sleep? As soon as dinner was
over--already close to midnight--we were off to the Wailing Wall, the Old City,
and whatever else we could visit so late at night and on foot.
He was able to play concerts and recitals, record and play chamber music,
plan and supervise projects in New York, Paris and Tel Aviv, stay in touch by
phone with musicians, managers, composers, instrument dealers, politicians and
heads of state--all simultaneously--and still have a warm family life, fully
involved in the lives of his three children. Fluent in five languages; an expert
on international relations, politics, and education; a connoisseur of string
instruments and bows, and of food, wine, and cigars -- Isaac's interests and
knowledge were truly astounding.
Isaac was as great a virtuoso on the telephone as on the violin, and it was
not unusual for him to be on the phone to the mayor of Jerusalem or U.S.
Secretary of State five minutes before a concert was to begin. Nor was there
ever a more articulate musician than Isaac Stern. Everyone knows about the two
people walking on 57th Street. One says to the other, "I heard Isaac Stern last
night," and the other replies, "Yeah? What did he say?" It wasn't just that
Isaac could talk on almost any subject, any time. He also had so much to say
that really meant something.
I believe that had Isaac Stern never learned to play the violin he still
would have been a great man who did great things. But however impressive his
accomplishments in other realms, it was music that was central to Isaac's being.
He would say to young musicians, "Every day, you should thank God that you are a
musician," and every day, I know, he gave those thanks himself.
If he was an inconsistent violinist, this was not only because he preferred
to save Carnegie Hall and help create the National Endowment for the Arts rather
than spend all of his time practicing to achieve technical perfection, but also
because of the breadth and depth of his musical interests. While many of the
virtuosi of our time were essentially specialists in a rather narrow repertoire,
Isaac recorded more than 200 works by 63 composers and played virtually every
important work written for the violin.
Isaac's playing was characterized by a depth of understanding of the composer
and by a unique ability to communicate the composer's innermost meaning to his
audience. In his playing we heard the spirit of his musical heroes: Kreisler,
Heifetz, Hubermann, Ysaye, OistrakhÉand Casals, who, like Isaac, knew just how
to caress every note. (The joke was that Isaac "left no tone unsterned.") When
Isaac played, he talked to us, he sang to us, he made love to us.
Every time I sit in a concert hall and hear the violin played in a way that
moves me, every time I eat well, with really good wine, every time I light a
fine cigar and enjoy the company of longtime friends--I know that Isaac will be
there, still a living force in my life. When Isaac wrote his autobiography, he
entitled it My First Seventy-nine Years. The implication seemed to be that he
expected to live a good bit longer, perhaps even to be expecting a second
seventy-nine years. Now that he is gone from this life, that title takes on new
meaning: We understand that Isaac Stern, as an artist, a man, a mensch, a
memory, a symbol, and a moral force, will not die, and that his influence and
his spirit will endure as long as memory itself.
Peter Pastreich has managed several American orchestras and currently
directs the Orchestra Leadership Academy's seminars in Essentials of Orchestra
Management and Strategic Leadership Skills.