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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Auer to Heifetz to ...

At age 89, master violinist Abram Shtern keeps his impressive musical lineage going through a host of adoring students.

November 02, 2008|Constance Meyer | Meyer is a freelance writer.

MONTECITO, CALIF. — Apart from a select group of musicians, few people have heard of the violinist Abram Shtern. Unlike the late Jascha Heifetz, say, he has never felt obliged to travel incognito to avoid being recognized. Yet in July, "Abram Shtern Day" was declared during the first Montecito Summer Music Festival, and 112 students from 11 countries, along with an impressive faculty lineup, were on hand to help celebrate it. The reason is that Shtern, who will turn 90 in March, is not simply a musician. He is a revered teacher, a direct pedagogical descendant of Leopold Auer, the same man who taught Heifetz.

The world is jampacked with violin teachers. But there was only one Auer, a Hungarian who in 1868 signed a three-year contract at Russia's St. Petersburg Conservatory and then went on to exceed that contract by 46 years before coming to the U.S. in 1917. Besides Heifetz, a partial list of the astonishing roster of his proteges, sometimes known as the "Auer Gang," includes Mischa Elman, Tosha Seidel, Efrem Zimbalist and Nathan Milstein. So influential was Auer that in the 1920s, George and Ira Gershwin wrote a song, "Mischa, Yascha, Toscha, Sascha," that contains the lines

When we began our notes were very sour --

Until a man, Professor Auer,

Set out to show us, one and all,

How we could pack them in, in Carnegie Hall.

Great violin teachers, like great racehorses, frequently boast a distinguished lineage, and Auer was no exception. He had been a student of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, a mentor and muse of Brahms, Dvorak, Bruch and Schumann.

Which brings us back to Shtern: Born in 1918 in Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, and an L.A. resident since 1990, he studied with David Berthier, who in turn had studied with Auer. Shtern is a frail man today. He speaks little English. But the portrait of him that emerges from conversations with violinists he has coached is of the ideal teacher: not only a professional instructor but a life inspiration.

'Last of Mohicans'

Reminiscing via his daughter, Ludmila Shtern, Shtern said recently that his inauspicious violin roots began with his pummeling a klezmer player, a Jewish folk violinist who had come to the Shtern household to instruct little Abram. Shtern, it was observed, had a very fine ear and a sensibility to match. Luckily, the klezmer player took a hint. But on his way out, he noted that Shtern had talent and recommended violin lessons.

Eventually, Shtern became assistant to Berthier at the Kiev Conservatory. As concertmaster of the Shevchenko Opera and Ballet Orchestra from 1947 to 1989, he was also a frequent soloist and chamber musician. According to his former student Alexander Kirillov, a New York violinist, Shtern was "the best musician and violinist, not just in our area. He was kind of the last of the Mohicans."

Kirillov, 52, knew about Shtern long before he had the courage to play for him at age 19. Until then, he recalls, "I played guitar in a band, football, pretty much everything except practicing. He didn't push me. He just told me how it might be and showed me some different way in this life. So when I left his house that day, after three hours, I was a completely different person."

Another former Shtern student, Igor Polesitsky, 50, principal violist of the Maggio Musicale Orchestra in Florence, Italy, describes his mentor as "kind of a natural genius of the violin, who could play violin lying down on the floor or sitting in an armchair."

Kiev is 68 miles south of Chernobyl, the site in 1986 of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, whose fallout was far greater than that released in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Afterward, according to Kirillov, "it was an absolutely forbidden subject. Everything was hidden from people. Even now, nobody knows the whole truth. All I can say is it was extremely bad, especially for children." The Shtern family, his daughter said, decided to immigrate to the United States and was finally able to do so in 1989.

Elizabeth Wilson, 48, a freelance violinist and violist who frequently subs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, explains that at the time, "Russian Jews leaving Russia, depending on whether they were going to Israel or the States, had to stay in some kind of holding station. The ones going to the States stayed just outside Rome for about three months, until their visas were in order, and that's when I was living in Italy." Wilson was staying in a Russian household, and "we had a lot of Russian guests coming through. Abram was one of them." He even taught some master classes, "and so I played for him. It was life-changing."

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