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Isaac Stern, Violinist and Musical Envoy, Dies

September 23, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Isaac Stern, a Russian Jewish immigrant who rose to become one of the most influential American violinists of his generation, died Saturday in New York.

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.

Stern, 81, died of heart failure at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center.

One of the last of the great violinists of the past century, Stern was paterfamilias to several generations of musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Cho-Liang Lin.

He had enormous range as a masterful interpreter of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as well as 20th century composers such as Bela Bartok, Henryk Gorecki, Henri Dutilleux and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Stern was also called the musical Marco Polo, becoming--in 1979--the first Western musician to perform in China after the brutal Cultural Revolution.

"He really was a living legend," Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said Saturday. "He enjoyed . . . being a living legend but without becoming pretentious or pompous.

"He had this very special way of communicating, not only in music but in words. He had considerable diplomatic and political talent, which he used very wisely and for the best causes."

Said Ernest Fleischmann, former managing director of the Philharmonic: "Isaac was in many ways a fairly unique combination--a natural, instinctive musician, intellectual musician and absolute master of his instrument. You normally get great virtuosos or natural musicians, but not the intellectual capacity--you don't get that combination. He was very rare.'

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.

His circle included the great names of the classical world, including Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein and impresario Sol Hurok. He told of these relationships in his 1999 memoir, "My First 79 Years," written by novelist Chaim Potok based on conversations with the violinist and on Stern's notes.

"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 single-handedly saved Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball in 1960, when plans were announced to destroy it to make way for an office building.

"It was inconceivable to me that this building should not be there," he told the New York Times in 1998. "There are other wonderful halls in the world, but Carnegie's the only hall, if you think about it, where every single orchestra, every pianist, every cellist, every great singer has come. Many have been to many halls--but since 1891, if their careers didn't include Carnegie, they didn't have a full career."

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 memoir. The feat "taught me things about myself I hadn't known before: I could sway influential people through speech; I had the ability to stir crowds not only with music but also with words; I possessed an instinctive ability to navigate with some skill the tricky waters of politics and power."

For this and other reasons, Ma once called Stern a force of nature. "He's the type of personality that is both highly intelligent but also never loses a sense of the primal forces," Ma said.

Stern was born in 1920 in Kreminiecz, in what is now Ukraine, and came to the United States 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.

New York Herald Tribune critic Virgil Thomson proclaimed after that concert that young Stern had proved himself "one of the world's master fiddle players."

The next year, 1944, Stern played with the New York Philharmonic, led by Artur Rodzinski.

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