New memoir: ‘Isaac Stern tried to expel me from the US’
July 11, 2014 by norman lebrecht
The memoir by Aaron Rosand, which we published earlier this week, has opened the floodgates to reminiscences by musicians who claim to have suffered at the hands of the superpower violinist Isaac Stern. Most were fellow violinists, but other artists did not escape his attention.
The ensuing discussion on www.slippedisc.com has prompted the Israeli-born pianist Mordecai Shehori to raid his own painful memories.
Mordecai, from 1971 to 1982, was the piano teacher of Isaac’s children. Vera Stern called him ‘almost nightly’ to discuss the events of the day. Why did Isaac turn against him? we asked. ‘Maybe Stern wanted to sever my good relationship with his children? Maybe I upset him because I had a more intellectual and artistic approach to music? Stern’s taste in music was very narrow. In any case I was dropped and erased. Then Vera was assigned to intimidate my mother and try to deport me back to Israel.’
Read his account below. You may find it disturbing.
My life with Isaac Stern
by Mordecai Shehori
After Stern “saved” Carnegie Hall he did not go home and practice the violin. Instead he appointed himself as the President of Carnegie. It was meant to be an honorary position but it was not. Stern brought to the board of Carnegie Hall many of his wealthy friends who were loyal to him. … Stern, along with his 2nd wife Vera, also maintained complete control over the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Many of the large donors to this organization also gave money to Carnegie….
In 1982, I gave a successful piano recital at the 92nd Street Y to a full house, played four encores and received a very good New York Times review. I could hear during the second half of the program Stern’s unique voice “clearing his throat” repeatedly. But I thought that he had just caught a cold.
Two weeks later, I received a call from him: “Mordecai I need to speak to you”. I was happy. It was 10:00 PM and ran right away over to 81st Street.
Stern told his wife: “Please no phone calls”. He looked at me with an ice cold stare and started repeating the most devastating phrases that no one should ever have to listen to.
He said: “Mordecai look, some people have it and some do not and YOU just don’t have it.” He continued: “You do not have the looks and personality to be a musician.” This wasfollowed by: “No one EVER will be interested to listen to your piano playing.” And then: “NO conductor or orchestra will EVER be interested to work with you.”
At one point, Stern scolded me for not playing the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition like a military March. I explained to him that the focus is on Mussorgsky’s feelings when strolling at an exhibition of drawings by his dead friend, artist and architect Victor Hartmann. And that is why there are bars containing meter of 6/4 and 5/4 alternately, whichcancels the possibility of a march. When Stern heard this, his face became red and he screamed: “If you speak like this you DO NOT have a right to call yourself a musician.”
After more than an hour and many more insults, I stood up and thanked him for his time and said: “Mr. Stern just to let you know and in spite of everything you have said, you must understand that I love music, I have a talent for it and I will always play piano.”
Few months later, in Tel Aviv, there was a knock on my mother’s door. There stood Vera Stern and her Israeli side kick Meira Ghera. My mother thought that I haddied but this was not the case. Vera refused to sit down and shouted: “Mr. Stern demands that you will exercise your influence over your son and force him to go back to Israel and teach in a Kibbutz. He has NO BUSINESS being in the USA”.
(So now Stern was in the deportation business…by the way he successfully deported others who were not as stubborn as me.)
Shortly afterwards, and I know this for a fact, Omus Hirshbein, then the director of the 92nd Y who was my friend, received a donation check (tax deductable-like all other incidents of Stern “giving money”) for $1,500 with the understanding that Mordecai will never perform again at the 92nd Y. I could neverreach Hirshbein again and the 92nd Y was closed to me forever.
Eight years later, (1990), I rented Weill Recital Hall where Iplayed a recital for which I received a rave New York Times review. As a result I received two engagements: one at the Lotus Club in New York and the other in Unity Concerts in New Jersey. I was told by the directors of both venues that they then received calls from Stern “demanding” (his favorite expression) to cancel my signed contracts.
Until today I can not understand why Isaac Stern spent so much time and effort in order to destroy me…I really can not understand it at all…after all I was not even a violinist.
And I was a dedicated piano teacher to his children for eleven years.
The only possible explanation that he had a powerful need to control other people’s lives. Same as Caesar with thumb up but mostly down. Instead of practicing his great violins in his gorgeous Studio on 81st Street and amazing country house in Connecticut, he spent all day on the phone and in meetings, practically betraying his profession. As Horowitz told me many times: “Isaac just plays out of tooon (tune).”
Isaac Stern holds a unique place in music’s history. Other well-known musicians help those that they feel are deserving and ignore those that do not appeal to their taste. Heifetz and Horowitz helped a number of young talented musicians over the years but they did it in private and refused any public recognition. In contrast we often joked in Israel that “Isaac does not even go to the bathroom without a TV crew.”
Stern’s destruction of worthy musician that he perceived as rivals or threatening is well known among professional musicians and these reports are NOT rumors but the painful truth…
The fact is that once Isaac rejected you NO Manager will come with a mile distance. It is all over. Especially if you are Israeli. What I heard 1,000 times is “Since you are Israeli and Isaac did not help you, you are no good and we can not work with you”. I barely survived as a pianist and somehow kept my sanity as a man by playing 27 New York Recitals in 27 years with all different programs and creating 31 beautiful CDs for posterity besides publishing historical recordings that gave me great satisfaction by bringing back to life forgotten and never before available recordings by David Nadien and the other great artists on my label.
In the end, ironically enough, the man who “saved” Carnegie Hall actually destroyed its acoustics forever as a result of the 1986 thoughtless renovation. Vladimir Horowitz was very upset when he played for five minutes in an unannounced performance at the beginning of the re-opening ceremony. Horowitz’ name was not printed in the evening program and he never returned to Carnegie Hall. He said: “Isaac killed Carnegie Hall for me.” The last recitals by Horowitz were given at the Metropolitan Opera House.
(c) Mordecai Shehori/www.slippedisc.com (all rights reserved)
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