Did Isaac Stern wreck the lives of rival violinists?

Did Isaac Stern wreck the lives of rival violinists?


norman lebrecht

May 29, 2014

The death of David Nadien, a revered performer and sometime concertmaster of the New York Philharmronic, has revived old rumours that his career, along with several others, was ruined by the machinations of America’s master-violinist Isaac Stern.

isaac stern

Other supposed victims include Oscar Shumsky, Aaron Rosand, Eugene Fodor, Michael Rabin…. anyone, in short, who failed to match Stern’s supreme American fame.

Now Isaac was influential, no question about that. He single-handedly drove the campaign to save Carnegie Hall from the wrecker’s ball and he advanced any number of string talents through ICM Artists, which was run by his former secretary, Lee Lamont. He had first reports on new talent at Juilliard from his friend Dorothy DeLay, the strings queen. He was close to Leonard Bernstein. He was in a position to help others, but that does not mean he could also harm.

I looked into all of this when researching my book, When the Music Stops (published in the US as Who Killed Classical Music?), and found no trace of any kind of godfather mania on Isaac’s part. He wielded influence, and gave money, on behalf of those he believed in. That’s about it.

There was no way he could have killed a career. ICM represented a lot of instrumentalists but it was a boutique on the US concert scene beside the supermarket that was Ronald Wilford’s CAMI. Neither had absolute power to make or break. Promoters and orchestras unhappy with one agency could always turn to the other. America was, and remains, an open market.

Yet the gossip persists that Isaac Stern fixed a few careers. A well-connected observer told me today it’s what ‘everyone says’.

I believe it is untrue. In the absence of any objective evidence, it’s time to lay the slurs against Isaac Stern to rest.



  • Nick says:

    I cannot provide any proof, but these rumours about Stern’s influence with promoters and hall managements were certainly rife for decades. ICM may have been far smaller than CAMI, but Stern did have a group of artists over which he seemed to wield much influence, including Yo Yo Ma, Cho Liang Lin and others. I once presented Aaron Rosand. To this day I cannot understand why he did not have a much bigger international career. In my view, he should have appeared far more often in all the major concert halls than he did.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    A wondrous fiddler no doubt. The Stern/Istomin/Rose Trio arguably the greatest of all time.

    The pianist Earl Wild suggests in his autobiography that Stern also blocked his career.

    I may be wrong in this.

  • Richard Walker says:

    No, Earl Wild claims in his autobiography that Isaac Stern barred him from being officially engaged by Carnegie Hall. Certainly, SOMEBODY barred Earl Wild from any Carnegie recital engagements, because although Wild did play there, he had to rent it every time, which is appalling. Wild was one of the greatest pianists America has ever produced, but Carnegie Hall blatantly snubbed him – and only Isaac Stern could have been the cause of this snub: It was HIS hall, and Stern decided who played there, period. Certainly none of the Carnegie Hall directors would have dared engage any artist on Stern’s “do not engage” list.

    • Mark Mortimer says:

      Tx Richard- most interesting

      • Nick says:

        I concur 100%. Wild was not only one of America’s greatest pianists, but one of the finest of his time anywhere. Richard Walker is correct in his comments about Wild having to hire Carnegie Hall for his own recitals.

        Wild’s autobiography is not at all kind to Isaac Stern and it does refer to his being the leader of a musical mafia “M.M.” which “became well known for not treating many of the other musicians (violinists especially) very well” – page 375. These comments are generally about Stern and Carnegie Hall. Wild claims some of the artists Stern “excluded” from performing in the Hall included Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and Ruggiero Ricci. Heifetz in particular had a long history of performing in the Hall before Stern took over. Thereafter, like the others, he was restricted to paying to hire the Hall himself or appear with a visiting orchestra. Elman, a great musician but always an excitable character, “hated Stern with a passion,” says Wild.

        None of this is evidence of a worldwide “mafia”. But remember that ICM was created essentially by Stern out of the ashes of the old Hurok Empire. He put Shelly Gold in as its CEO but made sure that Ms. Lamont, his former secretary, headed up the soloists division, taking over from Gold after his untimely death in 1985. It may have been smaller than CAMI, but with soloists of the calibre of Perlman, Zukerman, Ashkenazy, Arrau, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and, as NL points out, the pick of the younger generation due to his ‘influence’ at Juilliard, ICM packed a considerable punch. Not proof, assuredly, but not enough to bury the “slurs” in my view.

        • Joe Rosen says:

          No, there was no world-wide Mafia — but certainly Stern led what was known as the “Kosher-Nostra”.

          • Mary says:

            This is true- I’ve heard from first-hand knowledge he did what he could to ruin H. Szeryng’s career after he converted to Catholicism

  • Jehi Bahk says:

    It’s true. He tried it once on me and my quartet. Tell me if you want to hear the story.

  • Jeffrey Levenson says:

    He also left no tone un-“Sterned”.

  • Samuel Marmelstein says:

    Let it be said: Earl Wild’s playing remained at the highest caliber well into his 90’s, whereas Isaac Stern’s playing deteriorated by the mid-1970’s, and it never again regained the high standard on which his reputation was based. And as for “single-handedly” saving Carnegie Hall: Certainly Stern was the passionate organizer of the movement to save the hall, but he had LOTS of help, so the over-all deification of Isaac Stern is not totally appropriate. Certainly he did a lot of good in his life, but so did many other artists — who did not seek fame & glory for their good deeds (something Stern insisted on). I think Lebrecht got it right in one of his books years ago, where he said something to this effect: Stern came to realize that although he was a very good violinist, he would never be Jascha Heifetz, so he decided to scale the heights of music-politics. If he couldn’t be the best violinist in the world, then at least he could “control” the music world, and in his way, he did just that.

  • D L Ludwig says:

    Alas, it is apparently true. My mother knew Ruggieri Ricci early in his career. He was a fantastic violinist – even late in life, better than I ever heard Stern play. But he knew that Isaac had effectively roadblocked his career in the markets that Stern and his “mafia” somehow “controlled.” A shame that we never heard more from Ricci, a truly magnificent musician.

  • Mark says:

    He help launch the careers of numerous violinists (some greater than himself) – from Perlman and Zuckerman to Shaham and Chang.
    Banal as it might sound, a successful career requires more than just talent – energy, personal charisma, the ability to make contacts etc. etc. are equally (if not more) important. Stern (whom I met) possessed all these qualities in abundance.
    While it’s true that his playing in the last 20 years wasn’t quite what it used to be, having heard him on several occasions, I can testify that even old Isaac Stern played with an inimitable romantic sweep and grandeur.
    Albert Spaulding in his memoirs “Rise to Follow” described Joachim’s playing at the end of his career as a crumbling gothic cathedral, still awe-inspiring.
    That’s how I remember Stern – a grand master to the very end.

    • Nick says:

      There is absolutely no doubt he helped start careers. I also met him (which I considered a privilege) and he told me how he first heard Perlman and Zukerman in Israel, telling Hurok that whilst the agency would pay their families $100 per week (a lot in those days), only he Stern would decide which engagements they played. He also told me that when he first heard Sarah Chang at Juilliard, she was still a child. Yet it was the first time in his life when he felt there was nothing in an artist’s technique he could correct.

      Even late in his career, there were still flashes of the great player he once had been. But assisting young artists and continuing sometimes to play brilliantly in later life is not really a response to NL’s suggestion. I believe enough has been written in this thread alone to suggest there is more to it than “He wielded influence, and gave money, on behalf of those he believed in.”

  • Veda Kadinoff says:

    Clearly, Stern thought God was speaking through him every time he put his bow to the strings — to the point where Stern thought he was above practicing scales (he wasn’t), and that he was simply above practicing, period. I recall a 1980 Tanglewood performance, where one well-known violinist (who shall remain nameless) said to me “It’s amazing how anybody could play so well — and so badly — all at the same time!”

  • m2n2k says:

    Promoting a career of person A in and of itself is equal to damaging the chances for person Z. So, saying that his activities in support of certain musicians were not detrimental to others is totally disingenuous.

    • Nick says:

      WIth all respect to M2N2K and despite what will be read as an anti-Stern tone in my earlier posts, I suggest that a lot of artists at all levels try to assist careers of artists with whom they have enjoyed working together or who have been students. A word here, a wink there is very much part of most professions, and may just be of some little help in obtaining one date with one organisation. However, the issue here is surely less about a major artist helping A and not Z than it is ensuring Z is denied opportunities on some form of regular basis.

      In his autobiography, Stern openly states that having heard the young Midori at the age of eleven, “I determined to take a personal interest in her development.” That may have meant discussions with Ms. Lamont and ensuring ICM represented her. It may have meant talking to presenters about an artist whom they should consider presenting. But had Midori not been equal to the challenges of the finest concert platforms, it is unlikely her career would have gone very far, despite Stern’s support.

      • m2n2k says:

        Your suggestion is, in my opinion, absolutely correct, and it does not in any way contradict the meaning of my comment. So, I am essentially in agreement with you on this.

  • David says:

    Is it perhaps relevant that the violinists Stern is said to have promoted were quite young (and not real rivals), while those whose careers he is said to have blocked were contemporaries, more likely for him to be jealous of and also less likely to fawn on and praise him?

    • RF says:

      Well, it seems Stern promoted David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and tried to promote Arthur Grumiaux.

  • Robert says:

    That Stern blocked major talent is undeniable. Read Henry Roth’s book. Apparently the casualties also include Eric Friedman. He also tried to block Henryk Szeryng. He was the real threat to Stern, and a much better talent. But Szeryng had Rubinstein as a backer. I know for a fact that he torpedoed Aaron Rosand , who had a fabulous carreer in Europe, but none in the US. He was the head of the string dept at Curtis, and was never invited to play with the Phila Orchestra. Why? To prove the point, when Stern did a master class at Curtis, Rosand would not be present. He despised Stern, who really killed the career. Rosand could play Stern under the table.

  • Angela Sullivan says:

    I have heard many stories about Isaac Stern from other violinist etc. My Violin teacher Erick Friedman, that I knew very well since 1981 till he passed away, was a victim of Isaac Stern’s jealousy. The reason I believe this is I have heard these stories from many different musicians that did not even know each other. But the sad fact is Isaac Sterns playing began to reflect his behavior and he could never ever play as beautifully as Erick Friedman did. My teacher was a great admirer of Aaron Rosand as a person and Violinist. Ivry Gitlis was also a victim of Stern’s envy. I never liked Isaac Stern think he was a mean Bastard!

  • Terry Pollak says:

    I too studied with Erick Friedman, though only for a year. I recall the same stories as Angela mentions. I don’t remember many details of the stories, but his disdain for the man is unforgetable. Funny… I only came across this article as a result of Isaac Stern appearing to me in a dream this morning, and I thus being drawn to look him up. It was as vivid as if I were right there in the room with him. In the dream, he was sitting at an upright piano, ready to accompany a student. His violin was on top of the piano. A beautiful, old, chocolatey brown colored violin, it was, surprisingly, strung with gut strings which were tied to the tailpiece. He stood up and grabbed the instrument to demonstrate something. Just before he began to play, I was awakened, as my wife turned on the morning news. Ah… saved by the neon god!

  • Sheila Novitz says:

    I have certainly read the nasty comments, but have not ever heard evidence of Mr Stern’s “machinations.” Am not prepared to allow gossip to influence my opinion of Isaac Stern.

  • Richard Margitza says:

    I remember many years ago when I met a lady, who was very close to Jascha Heifetz, I will not state her name. Told me that Isaac Stern once told JH to play concerts in LA and Not
    To come to NY to play concerts in
    Carnegie Hall. True story!