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Isaac Stern Biography: The Legacy of a Master

Isaac Stern Biography: The Legacy of a Master

Who is Isaac Stern?

Isaac Stern, was born into a musical family on July 21, 1920, in Poland, which is presently Ukraine. When he was 14 months old, his family moved to the United States. His mother studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and began teaching young Isaac the piano when he was six years old. Two years later, at eight, he began his journey with the violin that would last him a lifetime. It was soon after this, Stern started his studies at the San Francisco Conservatory. On February 18, 1935, Isaac Stern made his debut playing Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor with the San Francisco Symphony. In addition to his esteemed career as a performer, Stern is known for being the savior of Carnegie Hall. In 1960, the hall would have been demolished. However, Isaac Stern saw the importance and beauty of this legendary hall. Through much effort, Isaac Stern organized for the City of New York to purchase the hall for 5 million dollars. His legacy lives on after him, not only as a virtuoso, but a man who believed in preserving beauty and art for the next generation.

Isaac Stern Musical Career

Isaac Stern couldn’t be classified as a child prodigy, after all, he didn’t begin violin until he was eight years old. He became interested after becoming inspired by his friend who was learning to play. He quickly progressed and began his studies at conservatory. He was 20 years old when World War II broke out. Although Stern was rejected by the Military due to his flat feet, he still found ways to dedicate himself to the war effort. He would perform for US troops regularly, as his duty as a part of the United Service Organizations. One time, a Japanese soldier snuck into a performance of Isaac Stern’s to listen to his music, and snuck out before he was discovered by the full audience of US personnel.

Stern is often regarded as the first American virtuoso. Over his career, he would earn six Grammy awards and the Kennedy Center Honors awards. He would regularly tour internationally, and perform with the best orchestras across the world, frequently collaborating with world famous conductors, especially Leonard Bernstein. He was one of the most recorded artists of the 1900s, releasing not only solo albums, but also performing on soundtracks to acclaimed movies, such as Fiddler on the Roof. His rich career carried not only a variety of music but also a variety of passion.

Stern and Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall opened May 5th, 1891, with none other than Tchaikovsky to lead the inaugural concert. It wouldn’t be until 1943 for Stern to make his debut in this famed hall. While Carnegie opened with flair and success, it faced many issues. From 1920-1940, the hall was regularly operating at a financial deficit. In the 1950s, plans for a new performing venue, Lincoln Center, were being set in motion. Carnegie’s biggest client, the New York Philharmonic, had made their intentions clear to move into this new hall once it had opened. Throughout the 1950’s, more and more artists moved out of Carnegie, causing the hall to fall in disarray. It appeared the end was near. In the late 1950s, Isaac Stern, as one of Carnegie’s artists-in-residence, began reaching out to his friends to see who could help save the hall. With assistance of Jacob and Alic Kaplan, Stern made a proposition for Carnegie to be purchased by the 200 regular tenants. When this plan was not proving fruitful, Stern and the Kaplans reached out to the mayor of New York, Robert F. Wagner Jr,. for help. Wagner led a taskforce for the preservation of the hall. In 1960, the City of New York purchased the hall for $5 million. In 1962, Carnegie Hall was designated as a National Historical Landmark, protecting it for the future. Today, the Hall is owned by the City of New York, and stands tall as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Historic Landmark.

Through his preservation efforts, Isaac Stern became the President of Carnegie Hall, where he led the hall into a fruitful era. In the study of his house, he had a direct phone line from Carnegie, just in case of an emergency. Isaac Stern saw preserving Carnegie as a way to give back to the culture of New York and the musical community which had offered him so much.

Eye For Talent

As if his contributions for preserving halls weren’t enough, Stern worked hard to preserve the musicians. Throughout his career, he spotted many young talents and played a role in mentoring them. In terms of Itzhak Pearlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Midori, Sarah Chang, and Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern played an instrumental role in introducing them to esteemed professionals, and relocating them so they could all become the legends they are today.

Those close to Stern say that this was always done from a place of kindness. Stern wanted to give back and share what he knew. Isaac Stern had a great joy for life, music, and art and he was always looking to share these passions with those around him.

Isaac Stern

Isaac Stern’s Legacy

In 1992, Stern was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush. Isaac Stern was also awarded many other international honors, including, the Order of the Rising Sun, the Commander’s Cross of the Danish government’s order of Dannebrog, and the Commandeur de la legion d’honneur by order of the President of the French Republic. These prestigious honors were awarded for Isaac Stern’s magnificent work as a cultural ambassador. In 1997, the main concert hall at Carnegie Hall was named Stern Auditorium after Isaac Stern, to recognize how he saved the great institution from ruin.

Isaac Stern passed away September 22nd, 2001 in Manhattan, New York, due to heart failure. The legendary musician will always be remembered for all of the remarkable work he accomplished during his lifetime. Stern’s Legacy is one of him taking action, recognizing those in need and providing aid to uplift those who are worthy, in order to create a better future for all.

Listen to an outstanding performance of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, performed by Isaac Stern in 1972 with the Amsterdam Concert Orchestra.

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