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New memoir: ‘Isaac Stern tried to expel me from the US’

July 11, 2014 by norman lebrecht

32 comments.


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.

shehori2

 

 

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.”

mordecai_Shehori_Live_Vol_6

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)

 


Comments (32)

  1. Darren says:

    Good for Mordecai that he was strong willed and that his love for music prevailed. After reading this however, one wonders how many talents did this kind of ‘authority’ ruin in the end…and who are the Isaac Stern’s of various instruments today?

  2. Isaac Stern says:

    Why don’t everyone tell their stories of how Stern ruined their career.
    People like Aaron Rosand and Mordecai Shehori should look in a mirror and blame the person they see as the person responsible for their lack of career, instead of blaming a person who is no longer with us to defend himself.

    SHAME ON YOU ALL.

    1. Jeffrey Davidson says:

      Truth too painful for you, eh?

      1. musician2 says:

        Reality too painful for you?
        Be happy with the careers you had, and know you got exactly what you deserved.

    2. Pamela Brown says:

      This post highlights perhaps the most insidious aspect of being a victim of bullying — namely, that the victim is supposed to be completely isolated without a voice, and that speaking up will only bring shame. In the case of those who were bullied and silenced by Mr. Stern, it is unfortunate that he is unable to hear the anguish of those he tried to silence. As this practice of banning and shunning performers is certainly not isolated, we can hope others will be courageous enough to speak up while a bully is still alive.

  3. GEll says:

    Once again, I am shocked. Truly.

  4. Mark Stratford says:

    ==Instead of practicing his great violins in his gorgeous Studio on 81st Street and amazing country house in Connecticut

    That’s a fair point. I read in interview once that he spent an inordinate number of hours, even right before going on stage talking to his brokers and equity salesman. He loved $$$ which gave him even less time to practise.

    1. Michael Endres says:

      He could play stupendously well despite being kept being busy in other areas….
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6dVkjfzpXE .

  5. Musician says:

    Isaac Stern was one of the highest paid soloists of his day earning as much as $20,000 per set of concerts with orchestra. I once happened, completely by accident in a storage room rummaging around for a tape, on a contract from 1975 or so that read an astonishing $22,000 paid to Isaac Stern for three (or was it four?) concerts with the orchestra (one of the top tier but not top five in the US):

    According to the website “Measuring Worth” – In 2013, the relative value of $22,000 from 1975 ranges from $74,600.00 to $219,000.00.

  6. Sheila Ainsworthy says:

    Go, Modi ! ! !

  7. Olaugh Turchev says:

    As a Jewish friend quipped: “two Jews, three opinions”.

    1. Brent Hudson says:

      Rosand’s account contained a couple of instances of “three jews, two opinions,” Rosand becoming the odd man out. Why Stern commanded so much deference from the rich and powerful is an interesting question in itself.

  8. Doug says:

    Hey Isaac, don’t complain to us just because the Prince of Darkness makes you share a bunk with Josef Stalin. You can go back to managing your banjo orchestra now.

  9. Sergei says:

    Luck Isaac didn’t live in the U.R.S.S.. He could have been the official censor, and probably Shostakovich would have been executed.

  10. JAMA11 says:

    We should not accept all criticisms of Stern without considering them carefully. I had trouble making it through this entire essay after this at the opening: “Maybe I upset him because I had a more intellectual and artistic approach to music?” And later: “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.”

    The need to portray Stern not just as a tyrant, but also as a second rate musician, colors some (but not all) criticism of him that I’ve seen recently. Forgive my skepticism.

    1. Nick says:

      I don’t see the two comments referred to by Jama11 as suggesting his conclusion that Stern was a second rate musician. There have been enough posts about Stern being a first-rate musician and performer, as mentioned by Aaron Rosand in his comments made 4 days ago – “Isaac was a powerful player, and a superb musician with a beautiful tone.”

      But I believe that comment refers specifically to the first half of his career. The issue pointed out by many posters in several threads is that as he became more immersed in power and musical politics, his playing deteriorated. It is a fact well known to many in the profession that he just did not practise as he should have – as any performer must. Inevitably this affected his playing with the result that his standard of performance fell considerably below that from earlier in the career.

    2. GEll says:

      Way are you skeptical? After all, the expositions come from two distinguished and well respected musicians. What would they have to gain by recounting any lies? You just can’t handle the truth.

  11. Sofia says:

    I have heard other stories of this kind. Even if Stern truly felt that Shehori didn’t have the goods to be a concert pianist, what right did he have to try to destroy someone’s career? It seems that his power was out of control.

  12. ruben greenberg says:

    Too bad too be true. He couldn’t have veen satan incarnate.

  13. Brent Hudson says:

    I used to admire Stern highly. Oh to know the ENTIRE story! I’ve had someone take an extreme dislike to me without any explanation. Turns out I’d been maliciously slandered by a third party, also for reasons unknown. Some people are just paranoid NUTZ! Trust your own perceptions. Don’t listen to gossip. Keep your own counsel. And “hold your judgement for yourself, lest you wind up on this road,” (Bob Dylan).

  14. Musicmuse says:

    Well, Mr. Shehori — the close relationship you pursued with the Stern family ultimately back-fired on you, and that’s something that only you could explain. Surely you had an agenda for ingratiating yourself with the Sterns (as did everybody else), and it’s well known that you had far more success with Vera than with Isaac — so that was certainly the source of Isaac’s animosity towards you. Vera championed you publicly & aggressively, but as everyone knows, her musical knowledge was shallow at best, so her opinions were fueled by personal feelings rather than any artistic expertise. That Isaac didn’t agree with Vera’s opinion of your work created friction between them, and it was embarrassing for Stern, as he was concerned that Vera’s overt enthusiasm for you would be interpreted as coming from Stern himself — which was not the case. Stern’s behavior as you describe it is not defensible, but you might ask yourself in what ways you may have contributed to this situation.

  15. Mark Stratford says:

    Stern was friendly with Henry Kissinger and once lobbied for money to buy Leah jets for Israel.

    1. ruben greenberg says:

      Mark Stratford; I thought Stern was a life-long Democrat. What was he doing with Kissinger? Mind you, you get some strange bedfellows in politics, and in his own little way, the man was in politics. It’s a real pity he didn’t just stick to playing the violin.

  16. Maxim Gershunoff says:

    Enter your comment here…

  17. Harold Lewis says:

    …as distinct from Rachel or Rebecca jets?

  18. cabbagejuice says:

    What ‘chutzpa’ to try to interfere in someone’s life and career! I would say though, as per the above few details, “Cherchez la femme” in this case. Men are not usually as thoroughly vindictive and petty besides.
    Also another point, as for visibly peacenik musicians: “Follow the money trail”.
    C’est tout!

  19. Maxim Gershunoff says:

    Adding to the brouhaha surrounding Isaac Stern within these columns, I put forth here my own personal recollections regarding the violinist, improbable but successful entrepreneur, and ambitious leader of the pro-Israel Kosher Nostra.

    I relate first at how during the Fifties when I assisted in the administration of the Los Angeles Music Festival led by Hollywood composer, Franz Waxman, he recounted his experiences with Stern in the Forties. When he was composer of the film music for “Humoresque” and the studio heads wanted a stellar violinist to play the solos for the male star, John Garfield, they first approached Jascha Heifetz whose demand for a fee of around $100,000 far exceeded the budget; next in line of consideration was Yehudi Menuhin whose fee would have been somewhere in the vicinity of $80,000, but, alas, contractual commitments elsewhere precluded his possibility of accepting the film assignment. Waxman stepped into the mix with the suggestion of hiring a young violinist from San Francisco just making a name for himself, Isaac Stern. Stern was delighted to accept an actual fee of $20,000 and was signed on. (Here both John Waxman, Franz Waxman’s son, and I differ with Aaron Rosand’s inaccurate claim that Stern’s fee was $7,500.) The lustre of being associated with a major Hollywood movie of the era, most certainly added to the growing fame of the youthful violinist. Later during the early Fifties, Waxman, counting on how much he had done to assist Stern was hoping Stern would be a guest artist on the summertime Los Angeles Music Festival held annually at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. Waxman telephoned repeatedly to Stern in New York City. He was never able to speak to Stern but only to Stern’s wife Vera who would cover when answering each call. She would say that Isaac was not then available but would get back to Waxman. Such was not to be case, however, and Waxman remained thoroughly disappointed in the violinist he had once championed and the violinist’s apparent lack of gratitude.

    I was to have my own encounters with Isaac Stern as my career path led me into the offices of the late, great impresario,Sol Hurok during the Sixties (until 1972) where I eventually became a Vice-President of Hurok Concerts, Inc. Originally a practicing musician trained at the Curtis Institute of Music, my responsibilities at the Hurok organization were highly varied and I contracted all of the orchestras for such as the Bolshoi Ballet, Kirov Ballet, and the Royal Ballet, etc. For all of these, I hired the first class and as yet unknown concert violinist Guy Lumia as Concertmaster responsible for all of the traditional ballet violin solos. James Levine subsequently took Lumia on as Associate Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Without resistance from Isaac, who held a definite sway over such matters, I was able to add Guy Lumia to the Hurok roster of artists. However, I encountered very strong opposition from Isaac when I wished to add virtuoso violinists Glenn Dicterow, then based in Los Angeles, and Aaron Rosand to the Hurok roster. (Here again, I differ with Aaron Rosand’s recollections and my request for Rosand’s addition to the Hurok roster was made at an earlier time when Sheldon Gold held no authority to make such a request . He was then a regional sales rep for the firm’s roster. Gold’s asking must have been made years later than mine when he did hold an executive position after my departure.) Isaac insisted that the office only push the young Israelis, Itzhak Perlman from 1962 and Pinchas Zuckerman from 1968, allowing the office latitude to be “nice” to our Soviet violinists, David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan. At around the same time, Sol Hurok himself shared in the Stern dilemma when stellar pianist Artur Rubinstein made a direct request of the impresario that he add violinist Henryk Szeryng be accommodated on the roster. Despite Szeryng’s artistic merits, Isaac hit the ceiling angrily. But a rare personal request from Rubinstein, in this case to assist a fellow Polish man, could not be denied by Hurok. Szeryng, naturally, knew of Isaac’s displeasure and would not speak to Stern for 11 years.

    There are those who question how Isaac wielded such a good deal of power within the Hurok structure, especially as regards violinists. The inconsistent cold war politics of the era made the contractual commitments of the Soviet violinists a rather tenuous affair. If those artists could not appear as announced, Hurok needed a “name” to quickly replace them and Stern filled that bill. Although the brilliant violinist Nathan Milstein was on the roster, he lived abroad and would only travel by boat to America. So it was that Sol Hurok had to depend solely on Stern to always be a handy replacement as the insurance policy for the Hurok lucrative subscription series held annually in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Isaac held that card and often dealt it lethally.

    Still, later, having left the Hurok fold, I had contracted with Valery and Galina Panov to represent their interests once they had emigrated from Russia to Israel. Other Israeli political interests entered into the picture and engaged American legal counsel to wrest the Panovs from their contractual commitment to me. Isaac sent an emissary in the form of his personal friend Martin Feinstein, head of the Hurok publicity office, to offer me a substantial monetary sum to cease and desist with regard to pursuing the Panovs legally because they were then a major tool being used as a source of fund raising for a variety of pro-Israel organizations. I refused the offer and lost the lawsuit in an obviously biased New York City pro-Israel courtroom. This was circa 1976/77 and I did not speak to Isaac Stern for many years after. I only encountered him once again at a music industry party and we exchanged civilities.

    My memoir, It’s Not All Song and Dance, A Life Behind the Scenes in the Performing Arts, (Limelight Editions, 2005) recounts a good portion of the foregoing at length.

    1. Pamela Brown says:

      Indeed. I just bought a copy…Amazon US and UK have it…

  20. David says:

    Unfortunately, the stories shared on this post, as well on the other one regarding Aaron Rosand, reflect a sad reality affecting the classical music world as a whole, perhaps even many of the other arts. Whether Stern’s alleged tactics may be corroborated or not is almost irrelevant, as similar tactics are and perhaps have been, to some degree, used for a long time by those in charge of the “business” — people who may have absolutely no scruples whatsoever sabotaging the most impressive talent and, conversely, celebrating “talent” that sometimes turns out to be mediocre at best: this is precisely where the famous “emperor has no clothes” syndrome is perhaps most visible, as one is then compelled to ask whether audiences are always equipped with sound musical judgment and thereby able to disregard the claims imposed upon them by a very powerful and sophisticated marketing machine. This is also a business highly driven by ego, by an insatiable need for power, and by a sometimes pathological level of narcissism and bad faith. If having a career, as one poster seems to suggest, were merely a question of getting what one “deserves”, this would be a perfect world indeed. One does need talent and drive; however these factors alone will never be a guarantee of getting the career one “deserves,” as talent accounts at best for half the story — the other half being determined by extra-musical factors, among which the sheer power of luck should never be discounted. The problem seems even compounded in today’s world — a world so driven by image, technical perfection (and yet a certain sense of conventionalism that avoids any “controversial” excesses) as well as — lest we forget — market forces, that to believe that only those bringing in the highest artistic contribution will make it would be rather naive. Music, as a “subjective” business, is far from immune from what has long plagued many other arts: the instances of so many literary masterpieces having had to endure a long history of rejection, of countless painters and composers who became famous only posthumously, is echoed in the reality of incredible performers who somehow never will have the opportunity to record for a major label and shows that recogntion remains indeed a rather complex affair. It also shows that personal judgment is often reserved to the few — for those still able to see through the thin veneer of the order of the day, of what has somehow become authoritative and fashionable.

    1. Pamela Brown says:

      Even in an area as complex and sophisticated as classical music it seems to me that allowing some to do the thinking for others always ends up being a mistake.

  21. Joe P. says:

    Mordecai’s recollections are totally in sync with those of others I have spoken to about Stern (See the Earl Wild biography, for example). I had my own negative interaction with one of his sons, in an example of the apple’s proximity to the tree. One correction to Mordecai’s recollection about Horowitz: when he appeared at that gala reopening of the hall on Dec 15th, 1986, it was the day after he had played at the Met Opera House, and that brief appearance at Carnegie proved to be his last public appearance ever in the United States.


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