Isaac Stern, the master violinist who saved Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball, died Saturday. He was 81. Stern was one of the last great violinists of his generation and helped advance the careers of generations of musicians who followed, including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Yo-Yo Ma.
Stern died of heart failure at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, according to a spokesperson for Carnegie Hall. He had suffered from heart disease for several years and had been in and out of the hospital for the past six weeks, said Carnegie Hall Chairman Sandy Weill.
“Isaac was far more than a musician. He was a person who was outstanding in everything, whether thinking about politics, or business, or as a humanitarian,” Weill said.
Five-foot-6, rotund and with pudgy, dimpled hands, Stern commanded a rich tone and steady rhythm from his 18th century Guarneri violin. With his dynamo energy and fluid bow strokes, he was equally at home with the mathematical complexities of Bach, the fury of Beethoven, the passions of Brahms, and the convulsions of 20th century composers.
Stern was one of the most recorded classical musicians in history, making well over 100 recordings.
A supporter of Israel, tireless concertizer, teacher, and raconteur, Stern played well over 175 performances by the late 1990s at Carnegie Hall, America’s musical temple renowned for its acoustics. The hall was built by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and opened in 1891 with a concert conducted in part by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.
“Carnegie was, is and will not be only a building. It’s an idea. It’s a mythology, a necessary mythology about music,” Stern said in a 1997 interview with CNN’s Larry King.
In the late 1950s, as the city was planning Lincoln Center, a developer proposed razing Carnegie Hall and building a 44-story office tower with panels of bright red porcelain and diagonally placed windows. Life magazine in 1957 described the architect’s plan as “a strange-looking checkerboard.”
Using his prestige and his contacts among fellow artists and benefactors, Stern rallied the opposition, eventually securing legislation that enabled the city to acquire the building in 1960 for $5 million. “I talked a lot,” Stern told King. “It’s something I do very well. When you believe in something, you can move mountains. I knew that this could not disappear from the face of the Earth.”
Stern was born in 1920 in Ukraine in the fledgling Soviet Union. His parents brought him to America when he was 10 months old, settling in San Francisco. Believing that music was an essential ingredient to education, they started him on the piano at age 6. Two years later, after hearing a friend’s violin playing, he picked up the fiddle and wound up playing it for the rest of his life.
He studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and with Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony and a violinist of the Russian school of playing. At 16, Stern attracted his first national attention, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a concert broadcast on national radio.
Seven years later, on Jan. 8, 1943, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in a recital produced by the impresario Sol Hurok. Performing with pianist Alexander Zakin, who became his longtime accompanist, Stern played Mozart, Bach, Szymanowski, Brahms, and Wieniawski.
He later played in countless places around the world: Iceland, Greenland, and the South Pacific for Allied troops during World War II; Moscow after Stalin’s death; Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus immediately after Israeli soldiers recaptured it in 1967; China after Washington restored full diplomatic relations in 1979. One country he refused to perform in was Germany, which he boycotted for years because of the Holocaust.
Through the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, Stern helped finance the studies of many Israeli performers, including Perlman and Zukerman. He also helped arrange for Ma to study with the great cellist Leonard Rose — Stern’s partner in the much recorded Istomin-Stern-Rose trio, along with the pianist Eugene Istomin.
At his peak, Stern would perform more than 200 concerts a year. He also played in the movies “Humoresque,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and on TV’s “Sesame Street.” The Academy Award-winning documentary “From Mozart to Mao” chronicled Stern’s performance and tutoring in China in 1979 after the Cultural Revolution.
Stern ended his boycott of Germany in 1999 for a nine-day teaching seminar, saying it was time to see how young German musicians were absorbing their musical heritage of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.
Survivors include his wife, Linda Reynolds Stern, whom he married in 1996; three children from a previous marriage, daughter Shira, a rabbi, and sons Michael and David, both conductors; and five grandchildren.
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