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 Isaac."

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.