Isaac Stern was a Russian Jewish immigrant who rose to become one of the most influential American violinists of his generation.
Stern's elegant, unfaltering musicality was matched by his generosity as a teacher and an activist. He worked to save Carnegie Hall from the wreckers' ball and became music's spokesman around the world — making groundbreaking trips to China after the Cultural Revolution and to the Soviet Union.
One of the last of the great violinists of the last century, Stern was paterfamilias to several generations of musicians. He had enormous range as a masterful interpreter of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as well as 20th century composers.
Stern was beloved not only for his prodigious talent — he had a natural poise, an intense musicality and a singing quality in his playing — but also for his idealism and chutzpah. "I am a musician. Without music, I don't exist. It's the center of my life, and yet it is also the center of a civilized life," he said in a recent interview, explaining his devotion to the violin as an instrument of diplomacy as well as music.
He singlehandedly saved Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball in 1960, when plans were announced to destroy it to make way for an office building. Stern lobbied the New York Legislature to pass two bills allowing New York City to buy the hall for $5 million and lease it to the Carnegie Hall Corp. The corporation voted him president, a position he held until his death. The main hall was named for him in 1997. He played more than 150 concerts there. Saving Carnegie was a "a watershed event in my life," he said in his 1999 memoir, "My First 79 Years."
Stern was born in 1920 in Kreminiecz, in what is now Ukraine, and arrived in the U.S. as an infant, settling with his family in San Francisco. He took up the violin at age 8. His affinity was immediate and profound; by the end of that year he had quit school, never to return, his hours from then on consumed by practice.
The milestones came quickly. At 10, he was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory. At 12, he began to study with Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. At 17, he made his debut recital at New York's Town Hall. And at 23, he performed his debut recital at Carnegie Hall. The next year, 1944, Stern played with the New York Philharmonic, led by Artur Rodzinski.
The immensity of his talent helped him to achieve his parents' dream — "to be an American as soon as possible." He did this by "being able to make music and be part of that whole world outside," which he called "a very big thing."
By his late 20s, he was an international soloist, collaborating with many of the great conductors of the mid-20th century. During World War II, Stern proposed to the U.S. Army that it assemble a special unit for classical musicians. He, of course, became a member, playing for GIs in Hawaii and the South Pacific. After the war he vowed never to play in Germany. But he finally set foot in that country in 1999, although to teach, not to perform.
In a groundbreaking move, he had toured the Soviet Union in 1956, accompanied by his pianist and longtime collaborator, Alexander Zakin. His musical diplomacy took another brave step in 1979 when, not long after China's Cultural Revolution had made it dangerous to listen to Western classical musical there, he traveled the country to perform and teach. His trip became the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary, "From Mao to Mozart."
Stern also played for wounded Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Almost two decades later, in 1991, he performed in the Jerusalem Theater during a Scud missile attack in the midst of the Gulf War. An air raid siren sounded, sending panic through the audience. But Stern stepped onto the stage and began to play a movement of Bach. The audience, transfixed by the violinist's playing and courage, donned gas masks and sat in rapt silence for the rest of the performance.
It was classic Stern. "Artistic life can never be divorced from political life," he later said.
Stern unstintingly gave of his time and experience to students. "What I can do best and what I think is most worthwhile is teaching the players how to think," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I teach them how to listen to themselves and be honest, so they can become independent and go as far as their talent can take them, which is usually further than they've gone at the time they come to me. The main direction is teaching them not how you play, but why. Why do you want to be a musician?"
In 1999, he had surgery to repair damage to his right hand caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, which had weakened his grip on the bow of his violin. He had surgery again in September 2000, this time to receive an artificial heart valve and defibrillator.
Stern was married three times. The first marriage was to ballerina Nora Kaye. He later wed Vera Lindenblit and Linda Reynolds. He had three children from his second marriage: Shira, Michael and David. Stern, 81, died of heart failure at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center on Sept. 22, 2001.