Violinist Isaac Stern Dies

Music lovers worldwide are mourning the passing of violinist Isaac Stern, who died of heart failure in a New York hospital Saturday, September 22. Stern was 81.

Stern had suffered from heart disease in recent years, even as he kept to a busy schedule of performing, teaching, and working as president of Carnegie Hall, the 110-year-old venue he helped save from the wrecker's ball more than 40 years ago. He performed at Carnegie more than 200 times, beginning with his first performance there on January 8, 1943. During his peak, Stern often gave as many as 200 concerts worldwide in a single year.

The violinist was born in Ukraine in 1920, and came to the United States with his parents, Solomon and Clara Stern, when he was a baby. The Sterns settled in San Francisco, where at age six, young Isaac began studying piano. When he was eight, he became enamored of the violin after hearing a friend play it. His talent was nourished under the guidance of violinist Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, who encouraged Stern's inventiveness and intuition rather than emphasizing technical mastery. "He taught me to teach myself, which is the greatest thing a teacher can do," Stern later said of Blinder, and he applied the principle to his own teaching later in life.

Unlike his contemporary Yehudi Menuhin, Stern was no child prodigy, but worked diligently at his craft as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He made his concert debut in 1936 at the age of 16 with the San Francisco Symphony. A year later, he gave his first New York recital at Town Hall. Reviewers who attended the concert described the young performer as "promising."

Isaac Stern would go on to become one of the world's most renowned and most recorded violinists, known for coaxing warm, round, passionate tones from his Guarneri instrument. He consistently performed the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Vivaldi, and Mendelssohn, but was also fond of more modern composers, including Berg, Barber, Bernstein, Copland, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. Like Menuhin, he performed tirelessly for American troops during World War II, and later lent his talents to political causes he supported, or withheld them from those he opposed.

In 1951, he was the first American violinist to tour the Soviet Union, and he debated Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the issue of free artistic exchanges between Communist countries and the West. Stern was instrumental in the revival of chamber music in the 1960s, a period in which he also became a prominent advocate for governmental support of the arts. His advocacy helped create the National Endowment for the Arts. He appeared before Congress in 1970, to protest impending budget cuts for the arts, warning that the US could become "an industrial complex without a soul."

In addition to his musicianship and mentoring, Stern is perhaps best known for leading the effort to save Carnegie Hall from destruction by developers in 1960. Built by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, and inaugurated with a concert conducted by Tchaikovsky, the hall is noted for having such perfect acoustics that everything that happens on stage is perfectly audible throughout the auditorium, including the last row of the uppermost seats. "Carnegie was, is, and will be not only a building. It's an idea. It's a mythology, a necessary mythology about music," Stern said of the hall. "It would be wanton to destroy it."

He assembled a team of high-profile supporters—the Citizens' Committee to Save Carnegie Hall—a group that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Dame Myra Hess, Van Cliburn, Leopold Stokowski, Marian Anderson, and Fritz Reiner. Together they succeeded in pushing through legislation that enabled the City of New York to buy the hall for $5 million, and to establish the Carnegie Hall Corporation to administer it. Stern was elected president of the corporation, and personally oversaw the renovation of the hall in 1986. He was honored for his efforts by the naming of the main performing space as the "Isaac Stern Auditorium," permanently linking his name with a venue he called "one of the world's great music rooms."

Throughout his performing career, Stern collaborated with many superb musicians, including his longtime accompanist, pianist Alexander Zakin; pianist Daniel Barenboim; violist Michael Tree; violinists David Oistrakh, Midori, and Peter Serkin; cellists Pablo Casals, Sharon Robinson, Matt Haimovitz, and Peter Wiley; and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman and his sextet. He nurtured the careers of other great musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zukerman.

Stern signed with the Columbia label in 1945, a relationship he sustained throughout a career that included hundreds of recordings. In 1984, CBS Masterworks named him its first artist laureate. In 1995, Sony Classical celebrated his 50th anniversary with the label by releasing Isaac Stern: A Life in Music, a 44-CD collection of his recordings. His life is chronicled in My First 79 Years, a memoir published two years ago. Murray Lerner's 1980 film From Mozart to Mao, which depicts Stern tutoring and performing in China in 1979, won the 1981 Academy Award for best documentary. Stern is survived by his third wife, Linda Reynolds Stern, three children from a previous marriage (sons Michael and David are both conductors), and five grandchildren.