Stern, unyielding advocate

Appreciation: Musician had contagious passion for the arts.

September 24, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

These days, New York's landmark buildings seem more valuable -- and vulnerable -- than ever. One of them, Carnegie Hall, nearly disappeared in 1960, to make way for a parking lot. What stopped the wrecking ball was a short, plump man best known for playing the violin very well. His name was Isaac Stern.

If Stern, who died Saturday of heart failure in New York at the age 81, had done nothing else in his life but save Carnegie Hall, he'd still be one of America's musical giants. But the violinist, being mourned worldwide, did a lot more than preserve a great edifice. He also fought hard to make sure that there would be a beneficial climate for music-making throughout the whole country; he was a major catalyst in establishing the National Endowment of the Arts in 1964.

Just as he stood up to thoughtless urban developers, Stern successfully stood up to myopic folks who couldn't understand why the government should have anything to do with culture, let alone put some money into it. Whenever the NEA was threatened, you could count on Stern to rise to its defense eloquently, as when he declared that the United States was in danger of becoming "an industrial complex without a soul."

His passion for the arts had a contagious power, turning him into a leader, a spokesman, a rallying point.

It's worth celebrating that crusading part of Stern's life, his persuasive case for the artist as activist. Throughout his career, he used music as a beneficial weapon for breaking down barriers, here and abroad (one of his most celebrated ventures was preserved in an Oscar-winning, 1979 documentary film, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China).

When Stern toured the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it wasn't just to make music, but to lobby for better artistic exchanges between the two countries.

"Isaac was always there, in good times and difficult times," says Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Yuri Temirkanov, who often collaborated with Stern in concerts in Russia. "He knew the difficulties we faced. He was always bringing strings and other things needed by the orchestra, but mostly he brought his friendship."

Stern invariably saw art and humanity as one and the same. That's why he could easily make political statements. Whether fighting the good fight at home, or lending solidarity to his beloved Israel (he concertized tirelessly even during wartime in that country, once playing Bach with a gas mask on), the violinist had a way of taking a stand that invariably earned respect.

It was the same way with music -- Stern took a firm stand on matters of interpretation, preferring to stay within certain borders, to keep his own personality from swallowing up a composer's. At his best, his violin-playing drew listeners into a deeply satisfying experience, with all the details of a score respected, the style appropriate to the material, the phrasing ever-meaningful.

There's no question that Stern's technical gifts declined over the years. Audiences who heard him play in last few decades could count on passages of frayed articulation, unsteady intonation. But the old clarity of thought, the old sense of how to communicate the feeling behind a note never really left him.

His legacy is contained on dozens of recordings; his collaborations with conductor Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s and '60s are especially vibrant.

One of the best demonstrations of Stern's artistry can be found on an old film, with only his hands visible. It's Humoresque, the 1946 drama starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield. While Garfield mimes the intensity of a musician's concentration, Stern does the actual playing, and it is brilliant, the pyrotechnic virtuosity and searing lyricism producing indelible reactions on Crawford's face.

In addition to carving out a distinguished career for himself, Stern helped launch many another career -- violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Yefim Bronfman, among others. (It has also been said that he thwarted careers of those he disliked, but he scoffed at that.)

In the end, Stern became a kind of father figure in the music world, sometimes, well, stern, but mostly loving and supportive. His was a rare and vigorous life. His will be a long and widespread legacy.

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