When bombs fell on Pearl
Harbor, Isaac Stern was at home in San Francisco,
listening to the New York Philharmonic on the radio. Stern,
then 21, was already an accomplished professional violinist,
and a nascent musical emissary. He was keenly aware, as
he later wrote, that "music became a necessary island
of peace that, if only briefly, took people away from
the enormous strains that were part of everyones
wartime consciousness." That insight whetted his career,
and it makes his death, eleven days after the atrocity
often called the second Pearl Harbor, especially poignant.
Again the world comes apart at its seams, but for once
Isaac Stern is not available to perform. Losing him is
one of the less cited but more mournful ways in which,
last September, we ended an era.
Of course its unlikely
that had he stayed around, Stern would have stopped the
war. But certainly he would have defended that island
of peace, in a way that would inevitably seem more enduring
and articulate than any candle-lit pop-star TV benefit
or Madison Square Garden rock-a-thon. He would have done
what he always had: persuasively reiterated the value
of music, and by extension, the value of human civilization.
Thats a tall order,
but Stern took it personally. Even the current crop of
great instrumentalists, many of whom he taught and some
of whose technical abilities admittedly exceeded his own,
cant match his pervasive cultural influence. To
begin with, Stern performed, and recorded, all the major
works for violin, including some, like Leonard Bernsteins
Serenade, that were composed with him in mind.
He appeared on every major stage in the world (and, if
surreptitiously, in a few classic films, like Fiddler
on the Roof). Most importantly, he guarded musics
treasures, whether by nurturing young talent, preserving
property, or ensuring high visibility and financial support.
The Stern era was anything but idle, and his advocacy
was self-propagating: the fate of orchestral music in
the 21st century will owe much to its guidance from Isaac
Stern in the 20th.
His real memorial, and
the altar to his legacy, is Carnegie Hall, a place he
once described as "Americas promissory note for
the future of music." If you know anything about Carnegie
Hall, you know that the way to get there is by practicing,
that its the heart of New Yorksif not
the Western worldsmusical culture, and that
it would be long gone were it not for Isaac Stern. In
1960, Stern took stock of the halls past and took
action for its future, famously leading the campaign to
save it from demolition, and officially inaugurating himself
as a musical activist. He served as the halls president
from then until his death, helped restore it in 1986,
and of course performed there, hundreds of times. Stern
would probably agree that if one of them absolutely had
to go, better him than Carnegie Hall.
And so, perhaps it is ungracious
to have expected another encore, to keep applauding with
the hope that hes not really gone, that hell
return to offer some solace for these trying times with
one more show, one more chance to see him live under the
lightsthe spry bounce of his snow-white tufts; the
glint of thick horn-rims; the eyebrows arching, furrowing,
arching again; the jowly cheeks trembling, perspired;
the rapt, inward focus or the impish, dimpled grin. And
of course, the fiddle itself, the glorious music.
Stern hadnt been
a prodigy, nor a technical virtuoso. But hed developed
an honest and refreshingly organic approach to his instrument:
he could bring an enormous range of emotion to bear on
a piece without ever seeming to intrude. It was what in
jazz they call a great feel; when he played, he never
repeated himself. Stern once described the trait he most
admired in the late flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, another
high-profile soloist in classical AND jazz, as being "involved
with the meaning of every note." He told his students
not to try impressing listeners but instead to simply
share with them the beauty of the music.
His friend Nancy Bechtle,
the former president of the San Francisco Symphony, recalls:
I was going down to
Stanford one day, and listening to the Beethoven violin
concerto on the radio, and I stopped and sat in the
carI had to know who was playing. And you know
its fairly long; I had come in partway through
and I sat in the car and thought, this is so fabulous!
And I waited
and it was indeed Isaac. Maybe
its because the Beethoven concerto is so familiar
to everybody, that when you hear him play it
at least to me, its
maybe the best one
Ive ever heard. The sweet parts are sweeter,
the dramatic parts are more dramatic. I think with
certain peoples playing, its like their
character comes through. And I somehow could feel
that this was somebody very special. Not even knowing
that it was Isaac. Not even knowing that it was somebody
A few years ago, critics
began complaining that Stern had played past his prime.
True, his technique had abraded, but Sterns prime
would not be defined solely by dexterity with the violin.
His musicianship was also a matter of stage presencein
the sense of charisma and of simply being present, available,
alert. In both senses, he had become a superstar. Sterns
musical life began in San Francisco, and during his last
performance there, before hed even played a single
note, he received a prolonged, thunderous ovation from
the capacity crowd. The applause seemed unending, so Stern
turned to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and said, "Hey,
why dont we quit while were ahead?"
Hed never do it,
of course. Stern called performing his reason for being,
and he called the stage his home. It was a nice home to
visit; you always felt welcome there, assured of a good
party, a gracious host, and intimate introductions to
compelling and extraordinary people, like Johann Sebastian
Bach, or Wolfgang Mozart, or Béla Bartók,
or Leonard Bernstein, for starters. When crediting his
best performances to ingenious composers and receptive
listeners, Stern was serious, even if he seemed a little
coy. For a world-class instrumentalist, he was uniquely
extroverted, lucid, and self-awareaccustomed, and
committed, to being the center of attention. He was, in
other words, a professional enchanter, who loved the music
of his own voice.
No doubt this had helped
him develop the theory that sometimes artists have more
leeway than ambassadors. Aside from being the first American
violinist with so broad a populist appeal, Stern was the
first to gain real international esteem, and he used it.
As he recalled in My First 79 Years, an autobiography
written with the novelist Chaim Potok, Stern felt duty-bound
to "emphasize that Americans, too, possess dignity and
cultural maturitysomething that others were not
always willing to grant us." To Isaac Stern, music was
a precious cultural resource, to be bestowed, traded,
or, in some cases, withheld. He imposed sanctions throughout
his career, even in what had been the first fertile gardens
of Western music, Austria and Germany, whose behavior
during World War II had deeply disturbed and conflicted
him. He eventually relented, most notably by making sure
his children and proteges did not inherit his paralyzing
Stern had also discovered
a deep affinity for what he considered the underdog nation
of Israel. In 1964 he became the chairman of the America-Israel
Cultural Foundation, and he played through some of Israels
darkest hours, including the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur
War, and most famously, the Gulf War in 1991, when an
impending missile attack scattered the orchestra, but
not the soloist. Nor his guests; they remained, listening
through their gas masks, to the Sarabande from Bachs
D Minor Partita for Solo Violin.
"A great act of courage?
Nonsense!" Stern later wrote. "I was there to do something
very specific: bring comfort through music. It was really
a blessing for me under such circumstances to feel useful.
Wed all had enough of destruction. I wanted to balance
itto defy itwith music." And, as always, the
audience wanted to let him.
His mother, Sterns
colleagues will tell you, had once been asked what it
was like to have a musical legend for a son. She replied
that if Isaac had been a shoemaker, hed have been
the worlds best. Mothers have obligations to say
such things, of course, but Mrs. Stern might have taken
it further. For instance, one might presume that had Isaac
Stern been a shoemaker, his product would have found the
feet of sentimental favorite Olympian athletes and civil
rights marchers and United Nations dignitaries and Nobel-winning
doctors andwhy not?maybe even Neil Armstrong.
One might also presume that Stern shoes would be stylish,
but never gaudy, and very comfortable.
Obviously it wasnt
so. Like Mozart, with whom he shared the ability to make
music seem inevitable, Isaac Stern clearly made the right
career choice. In the best possible way, his career was
his life, and his life was ours.
Stern liked to quote an
adage coined by George Bernard Shaw: "The best thing in
life is to die youngbut delay it as long as possible."
So he did. The requiem he deserves is a hopeful, energetic
one, complex and lyrical, loyal to history but forever
forward-looking. It will contain many diverse movements
and a rich orchestration, suited to only the most passionate
players. It will be emotive but subtle, and full of harmonic
possibilities unimagined until now, but perfectly plausible.
It will somehow explain what it means to be human and
civilized, and wont need any translation. It will
resonate most in Carnegie Hall, but sound just as good
in the car. It will bring some consolation, just when
we need it, and its melodies will stay in our minds for
a long time.