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Sharing the Wisdom of a Lifetime

At 80, violinist Isaac Stern is focused on the challenge of imparting his vast musical knowledge to younger players.

September 17, 2000|JEREMY EICHLER | Jeremy Eichler is a New York-based arts and culture writer

On a rainy summer afternoon, with a cool mist hovering above the gardens that surround his rural Connecticut home, Isaac Stern ascended a short flight of stairs and entered the practice room in his studio at the edge of his property.

The walls of dark-stained wood are lined with photographs of the musicians whose friendship has sustained him for over six decades on the concert stage: Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein and many, many more. The room seems less a studio than a reliquary for the tokens of a staggeringly successful life in music, from an immigrant childhood in San Francisco, to countless triumphs on the world's great concert stages as perhaps the most influential American violinist of his generation.

Guiding a visitor through the room, Stern paused before a gift from an old friend who recently passed away. He sighed deeply after telling the story of their friendship.

"In your life," he concluded, "you learn what is treasurable in memories."

Stern should know. This is his 80th year, and the violinist was in a reflective mood. There had been no shortage of celebrations and more were planned: the private dinner for 110 beneath a tent in his backyard, for example, or the full weekend of birthday events in Carnegie Hall at the end of this month, or the tribute concert that will kick off the Los Angeles Philharmonic season in early October. But along with all the champagne and merriment had naturally come an impulse to take stock.

Not that Stern lingered on the past. For him, taking stock was mostly a matter of looking at the here and now, at the singular role he has carved out for himself in contemporary American musical life. As the elder statesman of his instrument, he is among the last of the mid-20th century giants. He has welcomed his position as an eminence grise of the classical music world, having fostered the careers of many of the country's leading string players. If all that sounds like a satisfying retirement, well, Stern had to agree.

"I've never been happier," he said, looking grandfatherly as he tucked his glasses neatly into a breast pocket and sipped a frothy cappuccino. "I'm 80, but I don't feel 80. I don't even know if I feel 60 because I can't remember it." He offered a proud smile.

That was before late August, when Stern's doctor told him he could wait no longer to have a heart valve replaced. Stern had the surgery immediately, canceled a scheduled appearance at the Lucerne Festival and called off his plans to perform at the Philharmonic event Oct. 5. The surgery went well, and beyond a slow-down for a period of recovery, Stern insists that he'll be back at his elder statesman role shortly.

"I'm feeling wonderful, although I'm still weak as a kitten," he said last week from his recovery bed in his New York apartment. "This gives me a physical base on which to extend all my interests. I look forward to no lessening of my commitment to the things with which I'm deeply involved."

Those things have included Carnegie Hall, where Stern is president, having almost single-handedly saved it from the wrecker's ball in the late 1950s. They have also included occasional solo performances, and more frequent chamber-music appearances with younger protegees and established colleagues such as Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Jaime Laredo. But most of all, Stern has focused on teaching. He has worked with as many as 70 students or young professionals in a year, traveling from New York to Jerusalem to Tokyo.

"He's a force of nature," says Ma, who first played for Stern when he was about 6 years old. "He's the type of personality that is both highly intelligent but also never loses a sense of the primal forces."

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Primal forces have always been present in Stern's career. In the violinist's heyday, he was lauded for his natural poise, his exciting interpretations and his unfaltering sense of the musical line. Today though, Stern will readily admit that his playing is a shadow of what it once was. And yet, what he may have lost in technical perfection over the years, the violinist has gained in wisdom about music.

"There are feats of derring-do, the flying-trapeze playing that I of course would not try to emulate," he conceded last summer. "There are young people who can do it far better than I can now. But those same young people come and play for me, to learn how to play one note leading to another, which is the stuff I love."

To help pass on the stuff he loves, Stern has developed what he calls an "encounter," in which individual students and ensembles work closely with him over the course of about two weeks, often returning to the basics of how to shape a musical idea and communicate it effectively. The encounters are different from master classes, he said, because the point is not to break down old habits or teach new techniques, but rather to go more deeply into the music.

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