MORIOKA, Japan -- Isaac Stern is talking to his violin.
"C'mon baby, back to sleep," the violinist says tenderly, tucking the priceless Guarnerius del Gesu once owned by the legendary Eugene Ysaye back into its case.
When the great violinist will get the rest he bestows upon his beloved instrument is less certain.
Stern, the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman had just delivered a passionate performance of Bruch's G Minor Concerto to a wildly appreciative audience here last night, just as they had the night before in Tokyo's Suntory Hall. Before that, they had spent the day traveling to this city nestled in the mountains 300 miles to the north of Tokyo.
But while Zinman and the orchestra were going to spend the night in Morioka, Stern was about to hurry off to catch the last train back to Tokyo. He would not be in bed until long after midnight, and he would be up early the next morning to visit music schools, to hear young musicians, to dispense sage advice and to do the other good works that long ago gave Isaac Stern a reputation as much more than just a great musician.
That Stern loves more than merely playing his violin is obvious. How he finds the energy to express that love, at age 77, is not.
"George Bernard Shaw once said that the greatest thing in the world is to die young -- but to put it off as long as possible," says Stern, by way of explaining his youthful energy.
"Being around Isaac is like being in a whirlwind," Zinman says. "The man is peripatetic. I remember going to his hotel room once to talk over a concert. I walk in and he's talking on the telephone, practicing his violin and watching a ballgame on television."
Stern is touring with the orchestra at a fee said to be considerably less than his usual price of more than $50,000 per concert. That's because Stern and Zinman go way back. Stern discovered Zinman when the 21-year-old conductor took over a London rehearsal for his ailing mentor, Pierre Monteux. "I was frightened that Stern, who was the soloist, would say, 'Who is this kid?' and walk out," says Zinman. "Instead he asked about me and helped me."
Zinman matured into one of Stern's favorite collaborators. "Playing with him is as natural as breathing," Stern says. "Musically speaking, I could stand on my head and he'd be right with me."
According to Zinman, he and the Baltimore Symphony probably would not be on this two-week tour of Japan were it not for Isaac Stern.
No orchestra below the level of a Vienna Philharmonic or a Chicago Symphony dares to perform here without a world-renowned soloist to attract an audience -- and no musician is more renowned in this country than Isaac Stern.
Masa Kajimoto, Japan's premier concert manager who is promoting the BSO's tour, says Thursday's concert at Suntory Hall drew one of the largest audiences of the current concert season.
"Japan is a golf-crazy society, and Isaac drew almost as many people as Tiger Woods did last week for an exhibition match," Kajimoto says. "If Isaac were Japanese and if, instead of playing the violin, he practiced one of Japan's traditional arts, he would -- long ago have been declared a 'Living National Treasure.' "
Living National Treasure is a title bestowed upon elderly masters of difficult arts. And while Stern has worked tirelessly to help promote young Japanese musicians, his age has more than a little to do with the rapturous reception he received the last two nights.
Stern may have the energy of a much younger man, but he no longer plays like one. Throughboth performances, the violinist's intonation was far from certain. There were occasions when one was left guessing what would emerge from Stern's del Gesu, others in which the violinist's famously burnished tone lacked its familiar luster and still others when his once-powerful fingers were not able to dispatch the Bruch concerto's double stops.
To the Suntory audience --among the world's most knowledgeable and sophisticated -- those failings mattered not a jot.
"Age means a lot in Japan," said Hiro Tojo, one of its most respected music critics, after Stern's Suntory performance. "Japanese audiences always show great respect for elderly performers. People here were aware of the performance's technical shortcomings, but they know how to listen beyond failings of technique, and the applause signified much, much more than respect."
On both nights, there was, indeed, more at work than Stern's vast experience and the undiminished force of his imperial personality. The dramatic tension in the first movement never lagged; the slow movement was richly expressive; and the final one was wonderfully vigorous, possessing a majesty and a mature masculinity that will disappear forever when Stern stops playing the violin.
That, fortunately, is not likely to happen anytime soon, says Stern, who is as realistic as his severest critics about the shortcomings that inevitably come with age.