Isaac Stern ranks as an art treasure, and one great guy

Violinist : At 79, the wondrous fiddler still possesses a distinct baritone and no reluctance to discuss his opinions, his music and his rich life.

January 09, 2000|By Hans Knight

NOT TOO long ago, I watched Isaac Stern being interviewed by Charlie Rose, and I noted with pleasure that time had been kind to the wondrous fiddler. The hair was all silver now, for sure, and the face seemed a bit more jowly than I remembered it, but the eyes still had their sparkle, and the resonant baritone held its own against the voice of Rose, which is not always easy to do.

The news was that Isaac Stern had just written a book about himself called "My First 79 Years." And this is music to my ears. If this sounds like shilling for an author who shouldn't need it, mea culpa.

In my prejudiced view, Isaac Stern, who will be 80 in July, is not only one of our art treasures, but also a great guy with whom to shoot the breeze over coffee and cookies in the gray morning hours.

It has been quite some time since I had that treat. It happened in Wilmington, Del., where he was to play that night. There he sat in his hotel room, a veritable violin king, wiggling his priceless fingers to keep them supple, flexing and unflexing his massive shoulders, and facing a reporter whose ignorance of the technical mysteries of music was encyclopedic.

"I'd like to ask you some mundane questions," I started out.

He stared at me. Then he rumbled, "This is Thursday."

"Beg pardon?" I said.

"Oh, come on. Mundane, Tuesdane, Wednesdane, Thursdane --"

Clearly, he found it hard to resist a pun. We went on to talk of many things. There was no "typical" day in his life, he told me.

"If I'm home, there is practicing, and there are people and interviews, and plans to be made, and children to be talked to. If I am on the road, it's packing and unpacking, packing and unpacking. Interviews, rehearsals, packing and unpacking. There's a lot of telephoning because I keep in touch with everything."

As if on cue, the phone rang in the other room. CBS wanted a comment on the latest rounds of Middle East peace talks. "The treaty is a good step," Stern told the network. "But treaties don't make peace. People make peace." It's hard for a non-Jew to understand the intensity of Israel's search for security, he said.

He has performed in scores of countries the world over, including Russia, where he was born. He came to America when he was 10 months old after his parents fled the Russian Revolution in 1921. He stared fiddling at age 8, played his first recital at 13 and made his orchestra debut in 1936 with a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. The rest, as the clich goes, is history.

His wounds from the Holocaust went deep. His wife was born in Berlin, and she lost her father in Auschwitz.

His eyes misted.

"I don't play in Germany," he said. "I don't stand on a street corner and make speeches about it. I don't flaunt those feelings. It's just difficult for me. It cuts me off from possibly one of the most important areas in which my music would be accepted and acceptable. So I'm the one who loses, not they. It does have certain problems, mainly vis-a-vis the young Germans. One does not want to foist a sense of nonparticipating guilt on them. At the same time, I can't have the arrogance to assume unto myself a personal de-Nazification program. I have no intent of doing anything like that. So, I hope my children will have German friends. For me, this may not come for the rest of my life."

(Since then, Stern has relented to some degree. He is understood to be planning a German trip, to teach and listen, but not play in public.)

He brightened as I mentioned his movie career.

In "Fiddler On The Roof," he supplied the violin soundtrack. In "Tonight We Sing," the dramatized biography of impresario Sol Hurok, Stern portrayed the legendary Eugene Ysaye.

In the golden oldie "Humoresque," Stern "ghosted" the violin playing of actor John Garfield. "I had to teach John how to hold the fiddle," he said. "It was a little hard. He held the fiddle as if it were a baseball bat. I didn't know if he was trying to play it or swing it."

What about the ear pollution to which we're often exposed?

He laughed. "Well," he said, "we are trained snobs, you and I. That's one thing. But there is something that appalls me. The mindless, electronically amplified bleeping sounds. I think they should all be denied the use of electrical devices, except maybe haircutting shears. By the way, it's affected the hearing of a lot of kids. And there is mindlessness, too, about the words, the tempo, the intent. This psychic self-flagellation that they go through is a terrifying thing. It's a kind of relapse, the instant satisfaction of the animal instinct. The whole process of civilization, not in a stultifying sense, has been to exercise the possibilities of the human mind for control, for taste and for tempering the animal instinct. To do everything to release that, and not have any tempering of it by the civilization of man, is, I think, frightening and dangerous."

Stern lamented the lack of general music education in our schools. He called it a cultural crime of omission.

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