Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Announces Isaac Stern Violin Competition

By Stephanie Powell

“It has taken a little bit of time,” David Stern, son of violinist Isaac Stern, modestly says of launching the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (SISIVC) that he will be co-chairing. In September, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra announced the launch of the large-scale competition, which will offer $100,000 to the first-prize winner, making it the single largest monetary award for a violin competition. “I have to say that my father, in his lifetime, was not a great proponent of competitions,” Stern says over the phone from Paris. “He didn’t believe in competitions very much and he didn’t believe in the concept of competing in music.”

This was a belief that, when Long Yu (artistic director and chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra) approached David and his brother Michael with the idea of developing a competition to honor their father’s legacy and commemorate his relationship with China, left the pair of brothers in a quandary. “There’s the whole feeling that we are responsible for his legacy,” David says, “and we want to do it as carefully as possible.”

The brothers knew that China was a significant part of their father’s life. From Mao to Mozart, the Oscar-winning documentary highlighting Stern’s 1979 travels to China shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution marked the beginning of a long love affair with the country and its musical community. In many ways, the trip served as the initial bridge between Western and Eastern music.


With their father’s ethos in mind—”thinking ahead, being on top of things, and not just doing what everyone else does”—the brothers decided to move forward with the competition. They were helped by an all-star cast, including advisor to the festival Yo-Yo Ma, whom David mentions during our call, “It’s his birthday today! I have to call him.”

“We thought about today’s society and how difficult it is for young musicians to get themselves heard,” David says, “and we thought if we could infuse this competition with aspects that reflected my father’s legacy and his principals, then it would not just be another competition.


“There will be a round where [finalists] will have to perform with a pianist and cellist and perform in a trio. That just tells you so much about the musician that a concerto doesn’t necessarily. Chamber music was so important to my father’s being.” The competition will also include a Mozart round, where finalists will have to improvise their own cadenzas.

“As long as we maintain as much as possible that it’s not your ordinary competition,” David says, “then we will be doing service to him. I feel like I’ve been connecting to him on a daily basis. Yu Long and the Chinese musical community have shown such understanding and respect for what my father stood for, and they speak about him in such a wonderful way,” David adds, “I feel like we’re doing the right thing.”

The application period is open now, for international violinists ranging in ages from 18 to 32, through January 31, 2016, and the competition is scheduled to run from August 14 through September 2, 2016, in Shanghai. A prize of $50,000 will be awarded for second place, and $25,000 for third with two additional awards available for the best performance of a Chinese work and the Isaac Stern Humanitarian Award.

For more information on the competition, visit