At his 80th birthday party last year, celebrated with dozens of friends in the garden of his home in northwestern Connecticut, Isaac Stern asked me to sit next to him at dinner. Rarely have I felt so honored. His luminous personality represented to me the perfect combination of a monumentally successful public figure and a warmly compassionate and charming private one. To my mind, he was one of the towering figures of the last centuryand I don’t qualify that by adding in the arts.
Born in Russia on July 21, 1920, Isaac Stern was brought to this country as a baby. He once told me to think of him as a fat little kid from San Francisco who loved Joe DiMaggio. His parents were not musicians, but he started learning to play the piano and at seven switched to the violin, because, as he told me, a kid across the street played the violin, and I wanted to be like him. His formal schooling ended very early, yet he spoke with the fluency and erudition of a professor. In music, he said he also stopped lessons very early on and taught himself. If you haven’t got the fingering down by age 12, he said, you cannot become a top-flight violinist. To talk to him of music was to open a volume of learning and experience that was unequaled.
Anyone can play the notes, he would tell students; music is what goes on in between the notes. At my request he visited several colleges with me to spend time talking with students and to teach what were optimistically called master classes. During those teaching sessions, in which the students were college kids with modest talents, Isaac would come alive. His glasses, perched on top of his forehead, were his trademark. He would listen to the kids play, fully aware of the terror and awe they were experiencing. But he gave these amateur performances the same attention he gave the best professionals. After a few minutes, he’d stop the music.
Tell me, he’d ask, in that last section you just played, what was the composer saying? What do you think he wanted to convey?
The kids would mumble some attempt at a response.
Look at the score. You must study the music very carefully. Pay attention. Think of yourself as singing through the instrument. The human voice is the perfect instrument. What is it you want to sing?
Firmly but gently, he taught the essential lessonsto know the music and then to convey what the composer wrote. After one such class at Williams College, a young woman cellist told me she’d had the experience of a lifetime. I never expect to have anything like this again, she said. He was marvelous.
At Carleton College in Minnesota, the students took to Isaac with such fervor that they invited him to come up to their dorm rooms to continue their talk. He went happily and told me later he had had a delightful time. He was generous of spirit in all ways. He loved children and teachingand he loved to talk. He chose his words carefully and yet often betrayed an impish humor. A student at Carleton asked what one adjective best described him. He leaned over to me and whispered, Fat, Fay?
The serious side we New Yorkers know best. Isaac Stern will be remembered as the savior of Carnegie Hall. But his achievements went well beyond those that were best known. He was always ready to appear in Washington or before local legislators to seek funding for arts education. He bemoaned the paucity of music programs in New York City’s public schools and worked on remedies. He constantly urged all of us to strive to promote city orchestras and left us a strong vibrant musical institution at his beloved Carnegie Hall.
I asked him once who was the most important figure in music during the 20th century. I imagined he might answer Gershwin or Stravinsky or Horowitz or any number of others. Leonard Bernstein, he said. He wasn’t at genius level in any of his many talents. But he could do so many things so well. And in all of them he was just a tiny bit below [the top]. He was exceptional.
I wonder about that answer now after his death on Sept. 22 at 81. In my view, Isaac Stern, violinist, champion of public music and master teacher ranked at the very top. For all his musical greatness, he was even better as a friend and companion. We who knew him were very blessed. The loss is sharp and hurts.