Power Player: Violinist Isaac Stern, Who Would Have Turned 100 This Year, Commanded the Stage (and Sometimes Saved It)

By Brian Wise | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine

“People say he played two instruments: the violin and the telephone,” says conductor David Stern, musing on his father, the late Isaac Stern. “They were constantly paired-off one with the other. When anyone tells old stories of my father, the telephone will eventually play into them.” 

Isaac Stern, who would have turned 100 on July 21, delighted in these stories, which reminded people of his gifts of persuasion as well as his celebrated violin playing. A 1978 New York Times profile described him as “an international cartel,” a power broker who served as president of Carnegie Hall; a founding father of the National Endowment for the Arts; and an influential adviser at ICM Artists, his management company. Stern’s music making was frequently tied to his offstage activism, whether leading cultural exchanges with China and Russia, performing at the White House (some 18 times), or promoting classical music in Israel, which he visited often.

Stern’s student-turned-collaborator Pinchas Zukerman recalls how he could mix with both ambassadors and the waiters at Carnegie Deli. “You’d walk in and they’d go, ‘Hey Isaac! How are you? I got a table for you,’” he says in a phone interview. “Then in the evening he’d play, and great dignitaries would come.”

In the 1970s, Zukerman became part of a mighty clan of Stern protégés and colleagues. Along with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Daniel Barenboim, they performed together, sometimes under the billing Isaac Stern and Friends. “As time went on, Isaac forced people to do things that he believed were right,” Zukerman observes. “He twisted their arms. You know how politicians say, ‘You owe me one’? That’s what he did.”

I think that Americanism gave him an energy and put him in a place that was unique.

—David Stern on his father, Isaac Stern

For all of his larger-than-life persona, Stern’s legacy has been overshadowed by world events. His death on September 22, 2001 came in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And now, his centenary arrives as the coronavirus pandemic has halted nearly all concert life. A weekend of tribute events, originally scheduled to take place at Tanglewood this July, has been canceled. The 2020 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, whose jury David Stern co-chairs, has been postponed to 2021.

Even so, the anniversary brings online tributes and The Lives of Isaac Stern, a new biography by historian and amateur violinist David Schoenbaum. In a taut 220 pages, Schoenbaum details how Stern’s rise from humble immigrant roots mirrored America’s post-war prosperity, with its growth in public arts funding, jet travel, and a TV and film industry that, for a time, promoted classical stars (Tonight We Sing and The Jack Benny Program were among Stern’s onscreen appearances in the 1950s). 

Born on July 21, 1920, in Kremenets, Ukraine, Stern moved with his family to San Francisco when he was ten months old. He took up the violin at age eight, and two years later began lessons with Naoum Blinder at the San Francisco Conservatory. Despite a relatively late start, progress was swift: He made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 1936, at age 16, followed by his New York recital debut at Town Hall the following year.  


New York critics found Stern merely “promising” at first, but by 1939 he was represented by the legendary impresario Sol Hurok. In 1945, he made his first recordings for Columbia Records, launching an affiliation that would span a half-century. And by 1949 Stern was one of the busiest classical musicians around, playing some 120 concerts in Europe, North America, and South America. Along with a recital partnership with pianist Alexander Zakin, he played with Pablo Casals and formed a celebrated piano trio with pianist Eugene Istomin and cellist Leonard Rose.

“The fact that my father wasn’t trained in Europe made such a difference,” says David Stern. “Yes, he learned so much from working with Casals in the early ’50s and that changed him as a musician fundamentally. But by then he was already a fully professional violinist. I think that Americanism gave him an energy and put him in a place that was unique.”

Isaac Stern on his way to a concert in Caesarea, Israel. Photo: Israeli GPO

Musical Citizen

The idea of public citizenship—of using music as a tool to advance larger ideals—spoke to Stern. His horizons grew through wartime performances for Allied troops in Iceland and the South Pacific. He later undertook four State Department tours of the Soviet Union and one to Iran. Even non-diplomatic trips, including a 1953 visit to Japan, had an aura of cultural exchange, as told in his memoir, My First 79 Years. “In certain ways, this could almost be called a diplomatic tour,” he noted, “as we were always regarded as semi-official ambassadors of American culture.”

Saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball was Stern’s other great cause of this era, and today it is a case study of historic preservation. In early 1960, after finishing a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Stern approached the philanthropist Jacob Kaplan at a reception. “I think I just played my last performances there,” he told him, noting that Carnegie Hall was slated for demolition to make way for a commercial skyscraper that he called “the red terror.”

“Stern got involved at the eleventh hour,” says Gino Francesconi, director of the Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum. “There were a couple of other committees to save Carnegie Hall. One was run by the employees.” But Stern had a singular gift for rallying the powerful and well-connected. He hastily organized the Citizens’ Committee to Save Carnegie Hall and enlisted support from Eleanor Roosevelt, Van Cliburn, and Marian Anderson, as well as top politicians.

“Isaac took off and had his concert schedule,” says Francesconi. “But [his second wife] Vera Stern and his core crew worked nonstop. Isaac was Isaac: a phone call here, a meeting there. They accomplished more in five months than the other committees did in five years.”

After the city of New York purchased the venue for $5 million and established the Carnegie Hall Corporation to administer it, Stern was named its president, a post he held until his death. As Schoenbaum writes, the hall went from presenting ten percent of its own programming in 1970 to over 27 percent in 1983. Inevitably, some musicians felt excluded from Stern’s circle. The late pianist Earl Wild, who claimed he was forced to rent the hall for recitals, devoted a chapter of his memoir to accusations that Stern misused his influence to keep certain musicians out. Both Stern and Carnegie Hall management denied that he exercised any veto over booking decisions, and there is no conclusive evidence to prove either side’s case.


Stern with Leonard Bernstein. Photo: Library of Congress

Freewheeling Rehearsals

Obituaries cast Stern as an unmannered performer—seldom flashy—alert to the nuances of Bach as well as the intricacies of new works, including Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade and William Schuman’s Violin Concerto, both of which he premiered. No less common are tales of freewheeling rehearsals, sometimes accompanied by a Yankees game on television (albeit muted) and a constantly intruding telephone. Zukerman says that while these stories are not untrue, their significance shouldn’t be overstated.

“Before he would play a recital at Carnegie Hall, he would have played a program a minimum of a half-dozen times, maybe more,” says Zukerman, who came to America from Israel in 1962 on a scholarship arranged by Stern. “We didn’t just get together, rehearse a couple of days, and then go and play. We needed to play it somewhere else, rehearse it again, and then we’d play it again.”

Violinist Cho-Liang Lin took his first lesson from Stern as a Juilliard School student in 1979 and was soon sharing the stage at Stern’s 60th birthday concert. “Of course, there’s always speculation,” says Lin. “Was he too busy running Carnegie Hall? Should he have practiced more? Mr. Stern always defended himself saying, ‘No, I was a happy man. I did what I wanted to do and I enjoyed it.’ In other words, ‘Leave me alone.’”

Lin remembers a recording session for the Brahms String Sextet No. 2 in G major, on a December night in 1989. “At midnight, Mr. Stern said, ‘If everybody is still good to keep going, I’m good,’” Lin recalls. The group—which also included Jaime Laredo, violist Michael Tree, and cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Sharon Robinson—had been recording for four days. “He must have been exhausted. But we all said, ‘Mr. Stern, if you’re good to go, let’s do it.’ So we began one take after another.”

The musicians continued past 2:30 am, exhausted but carried by adrenaline and sheer grit. “Somehow we all had this goal in mind: We not only had to get the recording done but we had to play it on a very high level. You just want to get into the zone. And we were all in the zone.” After the group returned to their hotel, some time after 3:00 am, Stern was ready to celebrate. “I just wanted to sleep but he wanted to pop open a bottle of champagne,” says Lin.


Stern Trio recording session, 1965. Photo: Hans Leonhard

A Recorded Legacy

Some of Stern’s most-played recordings on streaming services today are not of his concertos but of his chamber-music performances, including late-career versions of Beethoven’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 16, and Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, both with Laredo, Ma, and Emanuel Ax. But early solo outings, including an enthralling account of the Bach Chaconne in D minor, also command YouTube clicks. David Stern believes that if his father was a young violinist starting out today, he’d be a voracious user of social media, perhaps tweeting from backstage or posting videos of his work. 

Lin says that even as Stern’s technique declined in the 1980s, his musicianship and energy shined through. “If you only heard the last 15 or so years of Stern’s career you might not put him in the pantheon of great violinists because his chops started to deteriorate,” he says. “He had arthritis in his finger. You can hear the vulnerable bits.

“But what mattered to me was the music making. It’s a beautiful, spiritual quality that he brought to a phrase. When you hear a phrase in the Brahms Sextet, you tell yourself, ‘Only Stern can play like that.’”

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