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Obituaries

Isaac Stern, Violinist and Musical Envoy, Dies

September 23, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stern remembered that he was worried about playing the 40-minute Tchaikovsky concerto with only 18 minutes of rehearsal. But despite the lack of an adequate run-through, he performed well enough to be invited back "another couple hundred times," he told the New York Times in 1998.

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." He hoped only to make $100 for 30 or so concerts a year.

He would surpass those modest ambitions many times over. At his peak he gave more than 100 performances annually.

By his late 20s he was an international soloist, collaborating with many of the great conductors of the mid-20th century, including Eugene Ormandy, George Szell and Bruno Walter.

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.

Hurok, the legendary impresario, made the deal for Stern: The violinist would play there in exchange for tours of America by Russian violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels. Stern recalled in his memoir that the Soviet audience embraced his playing with such enthusiasm that it was "almost as though a physical force had assaulted us."

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. He worked with individuals and ensembles in what he called encounter sessions, which ran up to two weeks and covered such basics as how to shape a musical idea and then communicate it effectively. He said the purpose was to go more deeply into music. He felt that many conservatories neglected this block-building and left it underdeveloped in too many musicians.

"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 last year. "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 farther 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?"

Although Ma never participated in one of Stern's encounters, he said the violinist could be very intimidating to young musicians. "It took years for the terror to wear off," he said, only half joking.

Another student was pianist Emanuel Ax, who played with Stern on numerous occasions in recent years, the last time at Carnegie Hall in 2000 with Ma.

"He's been kind of a father figure to a lot of musicians, myself included," Ax said. "I guess now we're kind of orphans."

When Stern turned 80 last year, he was feted in a full weekend of birthday events at Carnegie Hall. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a tribute concert.

In 1999 he had successful 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 last September, this time to receive an artificial heart valve and defibrillator. Five days after his release from the hospital, he was telling jokes.

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. He is also survived by grandchildren.

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Staff writer Anna Gorman contributed to this report.

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