Born July 21, 1920, in Kremenets, Ukraine, USSR; emigrated to the United States, 1921; raised in San Francisco, CA; son of Solomon (a contractor) and Clara Stern; married Nora Kaye (a ballerina), November 10, 1948 (divorced); married Vera Lindenblit, August 17, 1951; children: Shira, Michael, David. Education: Attended San Francisco Conservatory, 1930-37. Addresses: Home-- New York, NY. Agent-- c/o ICM Artists Ltd., 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

Isaac Stern has triumphed not only as one of the premiere violin virtuosos of the twentieth century, but also as a leading political force in the world of music. Stern's trademarks as a violinist, according to The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, are "a beautiful, incandescent tone" and a playing style that "is notable for its intensity and power." An active concert and recording artist throughout his career, Stern has received numerous Grammy Awards and was designated by CBS Masterworks Records in 1984 as its first "artist laureate." But Stern is equally well known for his tireless efforts on behalf of musical causes. He has been a leading recruiter of new musical talent, an ambassador bringing his artistry to countries around the world, and the driving force behind saving New York City's venerable Carnegie Hall from the wrecker's ball in the early 1960s. In 1975 Stern received the first-ever Albert Schweitzer Award, bestowed for "a life's work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity."

Born in the Soviet Ukraine in 1920, the son of music-loving parents, Stern was brought to the United States as an infant and was raised in San Francisco. He began playing the piano when he was six years old and took up the violin two years later. As a teenager he studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and became a student of violinist Naoum Blinder. Stern also studied chamber music with musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and, at the age of 15, made his concert debut with the orchestra, performing the Bach Double Concerto with Blinder. Stern's early music teachers provided guidance, yet allowed him to develop largely on his own--a crucial ingredient to his becoming a musician among musicians. "I studied with Blinder until I was seventeen, and after that I never studied with anyone--I was responsible for my own mistakes," Stern told Simon Collins in Strad. "It is a process of intellectual and personal involvement with music as an idea and a way of life, not as a profession or career, but a rapport with people who think and feel and care about something--you have to find your own way of thinking, feeling and caring."

Stern made his New York City debut in 1937 at the age of 17, by which time he was heralded as a musician of great promise. He then returned to California and undertook an arduous apprenticeship, studying fervently and performing concerts whenever possible. His debut at Carnegie Hall five years later demonstrated the development of his talents. Hailed as "one of the world's master fiddle players," by one New York critic, Stern's Carnegie Hall success launched a career over the course of which he would become one of the violin's foremost maestros.

With his accompanist, Alexander Zakin, Stern was a frequent concert performer during the 1940s and in 1945 began what would become a prolific recording tenure with CBS Records. By the 1950s he was widely held as one of the great violinists of his time and began performing extensively overseas, including a 1956 tour of the Soviet Union--the first American musician allowed to do so. In addition to his solo pursuits, Stern was a member of the highly regarded Istomin-Rose-Stern Trio from 1962 to 1983. The violinist's career, which has spanned seven decades, has been marked by remarkable breadth; he has performed nearly every major work for the violin--both classical and contemporary--and has played with practically every major orchestra in the world, under most of the leading conductors.

Many critics feel that Stern's foremost quality as a violinist is his musicianship--the way in which his understanding of composition results in a particularly masterful and balanced interpretation. Wrote Margaret Campbell in The Great Violinists, "Stern can relate his own phrasing and style to the orchestral requirements, and ... is aware of the structure of the music and instinctively feels the harmonies underlying every phrase." Similarly, critic Peter G. Davis praised Stern's "stylistic flexibility" in the New York Times Magazine. According to Davis, he "invariably seems to perceive all music from the inside with an instinctual sense of what is right in terms of tone, gesture and expression--a treasurable gift." And of Stern's colleagues, violinist Itzhak Perlman told Annalyn Swan in Newsweek that Stern, "unlike many violinists, ... never gets lost in mannerisms. He plays like a musician instead of like a virtuoso." Stern confirmed these testimonials when he commented to Swan on his feelings about the continuity of performer and composition: "No line, no phrase ... lives alone. Everything is coming from somewhere and going somewhere else. There is a natural rise and fall, like with the human voice. You must never lose the direction of the music."

Stern's role as musical activist came to the fore in 1960 when he successfully led a drive to preserve Carnegie Hall, the historic New York City performance venue. The landmark threatened with demolition, Stern formed and led the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall, which, through fundraisers, awareness campaigns, and meetings with government officials, was able to amass the financial and public support necessary to save the hall. Stern went on to serve for over two decades as president of Carnegie Hall, an advantageous position from which to conduct another sideline: developing new musical talent. Among Stern's protegees have been violinists Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Miriam Fried, Shlomo Mintz, Gergiu Luca, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Stern remarked to New York Times Magazine contributor Stephen E. Rubin of his role as a powerbroker in the music world: "I didn't make power; I was granted power, as any person who is successful in public life is granted it. What do you do? Just sit back and say, 'Look at me now?' You have to give some of it back. You can't just take all the time; it's simply not right."

Throughout his career Stern has also been active as a musical ambassador. In addition to his groundbreaking Soviet Union trip, he visited mainland China in 1979 by invitation from the Communist government. Stern toured the musically isolated country giving lectures, conducting master classes, and searching for new talent. His trip became the basis for the 1980 documentary film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, which won an Academy Award for best short subject. Stern's greatest foreign ties, however, are with Israel. Christopher Porterfield wrote in Time that Stern "serves as a sort of patriarch of Israeli musical life." In 1964 Stern became chairman of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, which subsidizes Israeli musicians, and in 1973 he founded the Jerusalem Music Academy, where Israeli musicians play and study with some of the world's leading performers. Not surprisingly, Stern has been a frequent performer in Israel throughout his career.

During a February, 1991, concert in Jerusalem, while the Persian Gulf War ravaged the Middle East, Stern's performance was interrupted by air-raid sirens warning of an Iraqi Scud-missile attack. The 800-member audience put on gas masks and the orchestra left the stage; Stern, however, returned moments later without his mask and played a Bach piece to settle the crowd. "I was so moved, looking out over that sea of masks. It was surreal," Stern told People. "The gas mask is temporary, but the music I was playing will go on. That's the only reason one does this." Echoing this response, Boris Schwarz wrote in Great Masters of the Violin: "Stern's distinctive playing style reflects his vibrant personality--a total involvement in music and intense communication with his audience. He uses his virtuoso command of the instrument only in the service of music, never for technical display." Schwarz went on to report that Stern lives by the motto "To use the violin to make music, never to use music just to play the violin," and concluded that "he never plays 'down' to his audience, nor does he have to: those who come to listen to Stern expect the best music interpreted in the best style."

Stern died on September 22, 2001, in Manhattan.

by Michael E. Mueller

Isaac Stern's Career

Orchestral debut, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, c. 1936; Carnegie Hall debut, New York City, 1942; member of Istomin-Rose-Stern Trio, 1962-83; has performed around the world at numerous recitals, music festivals, and with symphony orchestras. Chairman of the board of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation; founding chairman of the Jerusalem Music Center; former president of Carnegie Hall. Appeared in films Humoresque, 1946, and Tonight We Sing, 1953.

Isaac Stern's Awards

First Albert Schweitzer Award, 1975; Kennedy Center Honors Award, 1984; recipient of numerous Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987; Emmy Award, 1987, for Carnegie Hall: The Grand Reopening; Gold Baton Award, American Symphony Orchestra League. Numerous honorary degrees, including those from Yale University, 1975, Columbia University, 1977, Johns Hopkins University, 1979, and New York University, 1989.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

May 6, 2005: William Moorehead III, the former executor of Stern's estate, was court-ordered to pay Stern's children hundreds of thousands of dollars after they sued him for $2 million for mismanagement of the Stern estate. Source: New York Times,, May 6, 2005.

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