2020-06-21 12:38:38 UTC
From The Wall Street Journal:
Isaac Stern: A Virtuoso in Perpetual Motion
Cultural diplomacy, kindness toward young talent, a vast celebrity acquaintance, the rescue of Carnegie Hall—and music.
By Norman Lebrecht
June 19, 2020
The jury’s still out on Isaac Stern. America’s highest paid violinist and politically the most powerful during his lifetime, Stern (who died in 2001, at age 81) is credited with saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball and being the first American musician to tour in China. As reward for his efforts, he got his name up in perpetuity on Carnegie’s main auditorium and an international violin competition in Shanghai.
The memory of a great violinist tends to fade in a generation. Yet Stern’s footprint in history just seems to grow and grow, without anyone being prepared to swear that he belongs among the greats. The competition in his time was, let me remind you, tough. Jascha Heifetz, Stern once said, played 10% better than anyone else; Nathan Milstein was twice as elegant, Yehudi Menuhin a pained wearer of the world’s woes, David Oistrakh impeccable, Ida Haendel irresistible, Ivry Gitlis more Jewish—and violinists in those days were all Jewish. Yet Stern, alone among them, has his name on the hall of eternal fame, his plaque almost as big as Andrew Carnegie’s.
A Stern biography is more than timely ahead of his centenary next year, if only to set his musical life in the context of his extraneous activities, which included ceaseless advocacy for the state of Israel, cultural diplomacy with Russia, an ice-breaking China tour and vast generosity toward talents of many sorts, among them Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman and Midori. A 1999 memoir, “My First 79 Years,” amounted to no more than an unprobing conversation with his friend, the novelist Chaim Potok.
The new work is “The Lives of Isaac Stern,” by David Schoenbaum, a retired University of Iowa history professor and an amateur violinist with an intimate knowledge of the politics of stringed instruments, the dodgy pedigrees and backroom deals that fuel a nebulous market. The rear cover shows Stern in earnest conversation at the White House, a full head shorter than President Kennedy but holding the first lady in rapt attention. Isaac Stern could really mesmerize.
He grew up in an immigrant family in San Francisco, four years behind Menuhin, who studied there with Louis Persinger and made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony at age 7. Isaac distanced himself in identity terms from Yehudi, who used every circumlocution to avoid saying the word “Jew.” Stern was out and proud all his life. “The whole Jewish thing was part of a breakout from the ghetto,” he told Potok. Russian was the language at home, not Yiddish; an ambitious mother sent him out to learn French.
He hit the U.S. circuit in his late teens, and good wartime notices got him 90 concerts a year by 1947, worth around $100,000—roughly $1.1 million in today’s money. Mr. Schoenbaum reckons that he earned $60,000 for playing four Beethoven concertos with the Chicago Symphony in the 1990s, another top amount; I clearly remember him getting $40,000 around that time for just one Beethoven performance, which worked out to around two grand a minute. No player on earth could command such fees, but Stern by then was a major player in the music business, represented by the ICM showbiz agency, whose classical division existed chiefly to serve himself and his protégés. His circle became known as the Stern Gang, after a Zionist terror group; no less fearsomely, they were called the Kosher Nostra.
Stern flew to Israel so often that he featured in El Al airline ads. In 1951 he was the first American violinist to tour the Soviet Union, coining a cute aphorism when David Oistrakh came to America: “They send us their Jews from Odessa, we send them ours.” His post-Nixon trip to China, in 1979, drew post-Mao kids to Western classics and yielded an Oscar-winning documentary. France gave him the Légion d’honneur, Sweden the Polar Music Prize. The only country he shunned was Germany, unable to forgive the Holocaust, though he embraced German musicians of a younger generation.
Capable of great charm when he cared to turn it on, Stern was friendly with just about every celebrated figure of his time, from Charlie Chaplin and Marc Chagall to Ronald Reagan and Leonard Bernstein. Musicians who irked him, like the violinist Aaron Rosand, claimed that Stern used music-biz muscle to blight their careers. A journalist who spent many weeks interviewing Stern and others for a 60th-birthday magazine feature in the New York Times found that, after initial editorial enthusiasm, the piece was shredded sentence by sentence on orders from above, possibly from executive editor Abe Rosenthal, a pal of Isaac’s. One of the few sharp phrases in the piece that made it into print was: “Isaac Stern, in proposing things, tries his usually infallible charm first and, if it doesn’t succeed, tries to ram them through.”
Sadly, Mr. Schoenbaum ignores Stern’s abundant love of power and gleeful use of it. There is also scant mention of his three wives and one horrendous divorce, or of a passion for trading that would find him on the phone to his broker in the interval of a major recital. Much in the biography feels sanitized.
Which is a real loss, since a full portrait that showed Stern in full cry would show how a soloist enslaved to hours of daily practice could rise above his scales to leave a lasting mark on the landscape. His moment came in 1957 when, hearing that a developer planned to replace Carnegie Hall with an office block, Stern galvanized his celebrity contacts and wealthy admirers into a Citizens‘ Committee to save the hall, resulting in its purchase by the City of New York and its 1960 leaseback to an independent body. At a Carnegie concert, amid ovations, Bernstein whispered to him: “Isn’t it wonderful to be young and famous?”
How good a violinist was he? It’s hard to judge definitively, since Columbia’s 30th Street Studio sound was harsh and Stern doesn’t gleam on record as Milstein and Oistrakh did. When I heard him, at 70, a lifelong toll of 150 concerts a year had left the mind weary and the hands weak, resulting in the feeblest Beethoven I ever encountered. But the concertos he premiered by Bernstein, Penderecki, Henri Dutilleux and Peter Maxwell Davies testify both to brilliant technique and restless aspiration, challenging composers to give him tough passages and appeasing the public ear with a silken interpretation. He was the paramount performer of Bernstein’s “Serenade.” More than any hall, he wanted to be remembered for the music he brought into being. He was immersed, first and foremost, in violin craft.
To glimpse the full force of Isaac Stern you’ll need to read deep into “The Nightingale’s Sonata,” a chronicle of author Thomas Wolf’s effort to pursue the traces of his grandmother Lea Luboshutz, an Odessa-born violinist who became a mainstay of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Lea was unusual in many ways, not least her feminist independence. In her teens, Mr. Wolf tells us, she took up with a married lawyer in Moscow and got to know the musical elite. With her brother and sister, she played trios at Leo Tolstoy’s funeral. After the Russian Revolution she toured Europe and America with the likes of Josef Hofmann and Sergei Prokofiev, giving the New York premiere of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto. Mr. Wolf touches upon lovers taken and, with scant regret, discarded. I was gripped by her single-mother resourcefulness and eye for the main chance. Born out of wedlock, her son Boris Goldovsky became a prolific American opera producer. Two grandsons were raised as musicians while Lea taught half the front desk of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The story suddenly leaps off the page when the author’s brother, Andrew Wolf, who was Isaac Stern’s piano accompanist, is diagnosed with a brain tumor on the eve of an important tour and a recording of the César Franck sonata. Most violinists would have hired another pianist. Not Stern: “Amazingly, he took it as a challenge,” Mr. Wolf writes. “Andy was going to get treatment and he was going to get better, he insisted. He just needed motivation. . . . Stern had a piano moved into Andy’s room at a residence hotel in Bethesda. Andy was in treatment during certain hours. During the rest of the day, he should practice. Stern visited during the summer, and they rehearsed. With this generous act, one of the greatest living violinists had given Andy and all of us a great gift—the gift of confidence and hope.” That was Isaac Stern: The personal always transcended the political.
—Mr. Lebrecht’s recent book, “Genius and Anxiety,” will appear in paperback in December. >>