In defence of Isaac Stern

In defence of Isaac Stern


norman lebrecht

July 16, 2014

In the interests of balance, and in the belief that we all good made up of good and bad in unequal parts, we are publishing the following response to recent revelations on about the great American violinist.


Dear Norman,


Below is what I said at the June 1987 Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) when I had the honor of presenting the League’s Gold Baton Award to Isaac Stern.  Re-reading it now, after all these years, I think it is still a good summary of who Isaac was, and what he did.  In the 40 years or so that I knew him I never heard him speak ill of another musician. He did often suggest artists to me that he thought were talented and deserved a chance to perform – something I rarely experienced other soloists doing.

While I obviously can’t prove that Isaac Stern never spoke against other musicians, or prevented them from appearing at Carnegie Hall or the 92nd Street Y, I agree with you that he could not have destroyed the careers of musicians who would otherwise have made it to the top. There were plenty of other reasons that Aaron Rosand, Ivry Gitlis and Erick Friedman’s careers did not go as well as they would have liked, and it is utter nonsense to say that Szeryng’s and Heifetz’s careers were in any way damaged by him.

All the best,

Peter Pastreich (former Executive Director of the Nashville Symphony, the Kansas City Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra)

isaac stern






June 12, 1987

My first encounter with Isaac Stern was in March, 1960.  I was Manager of a community orchestra in New York City called the Greenwich Village Symphony, and we were going to perform the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with our Concertmaster and principal violist as soloists, in the auditorium of PS 41 on West 11th Street.  The violist knew Isaac Stern, the famous violinist, and thought he might get him to agree to be photographed with our conductor and soloists, and that one of the Greenwich Village weekly newspapers might print the photograph.  They were invited to Mr. Stern’s apartment, with me going along to take the picture, and as long as we were there, Mr. Stern listened to them play the entire piece, then spent over an hour coaching them in it, and finally offered our Concertmaster, whom he’d never met before, the use of a better violin for the performance.  In the 27 years since then, I, and all of you, have had many more opportunities to witness Isaac Stern’s generosity, his caring his knowledge, and his passion for music.

Isaac Stern was born in the Ukraine and was brought by his parents to San Francisco when he was 10 months old.  He began to study the violin at 8 and made his debut in the Saint Saens b minor with the San Francisco Symphony at 15, a year later playing the Brahms Concerto with Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony.  In the 51 years since, he became a major cultural force and the greatest violinist America had produced.

Isaac Stern has honorary degrees from a dozen universities including Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Tel Aviv.  He is a Commander of the French Legion of Honor, has the Danish Commander’s Cross and is a Kentucky Colonel. He has received the Wolf Prize, Israel’s most important prize, for service to humanity; the Kennedy Center Award, presented by the President of the United States, for lifetime achievement in the Arts; and the first Albert Schweitzer Music Award for “a life dedicated to music and devoted to humanity.”  Today the American Symphony Orchestra League has the privilege of presenting Isaac Stern with its Gold Baton Award, the highest honor this nation’s symphony orchestras can bestow.

What is it that makes Isaac Stern so unique as a man and as an artist?  First, his incredible energy, which permits him to play concerts and recitals, record and play chamber music, plan and supervise projects in New York, Paris and Tel Aviv, stay in touch by phone with musicians, managers, composers, instrument dealers, politicians and heads of state, all simultaneously, and still to be a loving and devoted husband to Vera and father to his children, Shira, Michael and David.

Then, his extraordinary loyalty.  In 1940, Sol Hurok became Isaac’s manager, and he remained his manager until Mr. Hurok died in 1974; ICM has been his American manager since then.  Michael Rainer, and Rainer’s father before him, managed Isaac in France since 1949, and in that same year, Harold Holt became his English manager. Both relationships continue strong after 38 years.  He has recorded for one company — CBS Records — for 41 years.  For 33 years, from 1940 to 1973, Isaac Stern’s accompanist was Alexander Zakin, the longest such musical relationship in history.  No artist has appeared as often with the New York Philharmonic, or the San Francisco Symphony, as Isaac Stern.  Married, so far, for 36 years, Isaac’s many friendships are close and unwavering. It is inspiring to me to see, when Isaac returns to San Francisco to play with our orchestra, as he has 94 times in the last 52 years, how he always spends time with the friends of his childhood; how he never forgets those who helped him as a young man.  At every one of his San Francisco concerts, Mrs. Blinder, the 91-year-old widow of Naoum Blinder, Isaac’s teacher and the San Francisco Symphony’s Concertmaster 40 years ago, sits in the auditorium, proudly beaming at Isaac.

Third, there is the breadth and depth of Isaac Stern’s interests and accomplishments.  Fluent in five languages, an expert on international relations, politics, education, a connoisseur of string instruments and bows, of food, wine and cigars, Isaac’s musical interests and knowledge are comprehensive and far ranging.  He has recorded over 200 works by 63 composers and has played virtually every important work written for the violin.  He gave the first American performance of the Bartok First Violin Concerto and the first performance of the Leonard Bernstein Serenade. He made the first recording of those two works, of the Samuel Barber and the Hindemith violin concertos.  Penderecki, Rochberg, Dutilleux and Peter Maxwell Davies all wrote major works for him and he not only performed but recorded all of them.  His influence has been felt in the world of television and film, including his appearance, as Eugene Ysaye, in the film “Tonight We Sing,” his “ghosting” for John Garfield in “Humoresque,” his performance on the sound track of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the documentary films “A Journey to Jerusalem” and “Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China,” which won an Academy Award.

Fourth, there is Isaac Stern’s social conscience.  In 1963, when I was General Manager of the Nashville Symphony, there was only one great and famous guest artist we could get to appear with our orchestra — Isaac Stern.  There were other great and famous artists around, but their fees were too high; only Isaac kept his fee low enough so he could be heard in cities like Nashville, Tennessee.  Some other aspects of Isaac’s social conscience are obvious: He saved Carnegie Hall from destruction and preserved it as a great cultural resource for New York and this country, and he still serves as President of the Carnegie Hall Corporation.  He was the founder of the Jerusalem Music Center in 1973 and is Board Chairman of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. These things we all know, and they represent the public side of Isaac’s social conscience.  But what many of us don’t know is the private side.  Possibly we know how he helped Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz, bringing Pinky and Shlomo to the United States, arranging for scholarships for them to study with Dorothy Delay, finding them management and helping their careers. But when I called Dorothy, she told me about the many other young music students she’s taught, who arrive in New York without friends or money, and about Isaac finding them friends of his to live with, sending them to his dentist, at his expense, getting them instruments and bows, and most important, listening to them play.  Dorothy said to me, “People know that when there’s any really talented kid, Isaac will want to know.  He’ll always find time to listen.”  Dorothy said, “I love Isaac — and I’m so happy he’s there.”

But the most important source of Isaac Stern’s uniqueness is Isaac Stern, the musician.  In his playing we hear the spirit of his musical heroes: Kreisler, Heifetz, Hubermann, Ysaye, Oistrakh . . . and Casals, who, like Isaac, could leave no note uncaressed.  His playing is characterized by a depth of understanding of the composer and by a unique ability to communicate the composer’s innermost meaning to his audience.  When he plays, Isaac talks to us, he sings to us, he makes love to us.

When someone recently asked another long-time friend of Isaac’s, Alexander Schneider, the question, “Who is the best of the young violinists?” Sasha replied, “Isaac Stern.”

We’ve all heard the joke about two old people walking on 57th Street.  One says to the other, “I heard Isaac Stern last night,” and the other replies, “Yeah? What’d he say?”  We’re here to honor Isaac for what he said, for what he played and for the way he played it, for what he did, and for what he has done for music and for the people who make and love music.

What’d he say?  What’d he do?  Very likely more than any other musician of our time.

Isaac, it is a great honor for me to present you with the American Symphony Orchestra League’s 1987 Gold Baton Award.

                                                                                – Peter Pastreich, 12 June 1987


  • Larry Tucker says:

    A truly wonderful tribute to a great man. Thank you Peter for sharing it.

  • Doug says:

    The biggest crime of all in this slobbering sycophantic bleating of pure fiction by an ASshOLe toady is comparing Stern to “Kreisler, Heifetz, Hubermann, Ysaye, Oistrakh . . . and Casals” Have you no shame?!!

    • muslit says:

      Crime? A little touchy, aren’t we? I heard Stern perform in 1965 on a regular basis at the Meadowbrook Music Festival in Michigan – as soloist and as a chamber musician. He sounded fantastic. Meanwhile, Rosand was around Tanglewood in 1970, along with Oscar Shumsky. Shumsky was the big star. Rosand, not so much. I suppose Stern was responsible for that.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    ==comparing Stern to “Kreisler, Heifetz, Hubermann, Ysaye, Oistrakh ==

    Well, Stern famously did that himself. He referred in an interview to the recording of Vivaldi double concertos he’d made with David Oistrakh and marvelled at Oistrakh’s beauty of sound, intonation, style and all that. And then finished off saying “Listening to the recordings now, I can’t tell which is him and which is me” haha

    ==When he plays, Isaac …. makes love to us

    Please, no !

    • M2N2K says:

      If he really said that, it means that he was either a shameless liar or musically deaf. Possibly both. Without a doubt – blindly in love with himself and his own “greatness”.

  • Professional musician says:

    In lieu of the carefully worded allegations penned by two estimable musicians, I’m uncomfortable and embarrassed reading Pastreich’s heartfelt tribute. Apparently Stern had possessed the power and ability to hurt people he was threatened by. I believe this as do others. His life was virtuous Pastreich’s says over and over. Perhaps at times but his under handedness shenanigans within the business, divorce late in life to his lifetime partner, deteriorating relationship with his children which was followed by the shady (immediate) sale of his musical possessions (after his death) which included his famous Ysaÿe Guarnerius violin unbeknownst and not left to the family to decide its fate, was certainly not virtuous. Dear Carnegie Hall – please take down the life size portrait of Stern hanging in the front foyer.

  • Robert Levin says:

    “In the 51 years since, he became a major cultural force and the greatest violinist America had produced.” Peter Pastreich

    What about Oscar Shumsky? Nathan Milstein, with whom I studied, once told me that Shumsky was the greatest violinist America produced.

    • M2N2K says:

      That is a fair point, but not the only one. How about Yehudi Menuhin? He was definitely “produced” in America, more so than Isaac Stern who was actually born in Ukraine. And by the age of 12, Yehudi was already a better violinist than Stern ever was at any time.

  • Steven Epstein says:

    I worked with Isaac for at least 20 years as his primary record producer. I was a kid when we first worked together – 30 years his junior – and he always treated me with collegial respect and kindness. What can be more rewarding than to work so intimately with someone whom you had idolized as a child through maturity. Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect. And it is difficult to reconcile some of the unfortunate statements made above. His musicianship and artistry was second to none, in my opinion. This doesn’t mean that the aforementioned musicians weren’t great – they were. They all had a profound mastery of their instrument and even more importantly, communicated to the listener the highest level of this art form. Now that Isaac is gone almost 13 years, I think it’s pathetic to witness those who ‘crawl out of the woodwork’ and bash a man who contributed so much beauty to the musical world.

    • Dave says:

      Dear Mr. Epstein,
      In the comments to Aaron Rosand’s piece, someone wrote that “nothing could top the number of edits that were made for the Stern-Istomin Beethoven Violin Sonatas recording from 1985. Literally THOUSANDS of edits. That it was even releasable was due to the magic of the producer, Steve Epstein.”

      Would you be so kind as to offer your version of the event? Thank you.

  • Robert Levin says:

    Further to my above post regarding Oscar Shumsky, David Oistrakh called him “one of the world’s greatest violinists.” So, we have two fairly talented and somewhat famous fiddle players, Milstein and Oistrakh, who recognized Shumsky as a great American violinist. Of course, Isaac Stern, in his prime, was also a great violinist. It is interesting to contemplate why one had such a major solo career while the other did not.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    Each of us is certainly entitled to our own opinions. Stern did not persuade me, in person, or with his playing. Neither have some of his proteges. In fact, I became so uncomfortable with all the schmaltzy violin playing that for years I have hardly listened to anyone but Heifetz. I feel my time is well spent.

  • Nick says:

    It is perfectly understandable that a frequent collaborator and friend like Mr. Pastreich should praise Isaac Stern in his ecomium at such a public presentation. It is the very nature of such occasions that only the good and the positive are mentioned. In any case, in 1987 whilst some in the profession were whispering rumours and allegations about Stern’s extra-curricular activities in the music industry, few were talking publicly. We should also recall that these only started coming to light with books like the memoirs of Maxim Gershunoff and Earl Wild (and perhaps others I have not read) quoted in earlier threads which were not published until 2005 and 2011 respectively.

    Yet, I find it utterly extraordinary that Mr. Pastreich should write this: “There were plenty of other reasons that Aaron Rosand, Ivry Gitlis and Erick Friedman’s careers did not go as well as they would have liked, and it is utter nonsense to say that Szeryng’s and Heifetz’s careers were in any way damaged by him.”

    No mention of Stern in his position as President of the Carnegie Hall Corporation blocking Heifetz, Ricci, Shumsky, Rosand and Elman from appearing in the venue unless they were either guest artists with visiting orchestras or paid for the use of the Hall themselves. According to Earl Wiid, they were all blocked by Stern from appearing in Carnegie’s own concert series, as Wild himself was (p 375 of “A Walk on the Wild Side”).

    As for Mr. Rosand, there has been plenty of evidence presented in various threads in highlighting the effect of Stern’s influence in ensuring he did not have the career he certainly should have had. Those high up in the profession may pooh-pooh such pernicious influence and suggest that Rosand did not achieve his true potential on the international concert circuit for “other reasons”. With respect Mr. Pastreich, that is disingenuous and utterly disrespectful.

    Let’s re-focus the discussion a moment and concentrate on the average concert goer. In the July 8 thread HIGH EXPLOSIVE: AARON ROSAND ACCUSES ISAAC STERN OF SABOTAGING HIS CAREER, I quoted a record reviewer on He starts his review of a Rosand recording thus – “I tend to be sceptical of ‘cult artists’ whose fringe reputation seems to be in proportion to the rarity of their recordings, never for major labels and always with improbable, third-rate orchestras. If they are so great, why don’t they record with the Berlin Phil and Rattle, and for EMI or DG, or even Chandos?”

    If that view is held by the average average concert-goer, one can tell immediately how devastating a word here and a nod there from a highly political artist like Stern could have affected careers.

    No doubt Mr. Pastreich felt that Mr. Rosand was not good enough for his San Francisco Symphony. As an illustration, perhaps he can now tell us how many times Stern was engaged as a soloist with the SFOS during his 21-year tenure as CEO and contrast that with the number of engagements of Mr. Rosand.

  • Robert Levin says:

    Pamela, do yourself a favor and listen to Stern’s Brahms Concerto with Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra or his Lalo Symphonie Espagnole with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. These are both wonderful examples of his great virtuosity and artistry. Also, his playing in the 1946 film Humoresque is marvelous and there is a fantastic 1959 Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saens on You Tube. In my opinion, Stern’s violin playing was not as extraordinary as that of Milstein, Heifetz or Oistrakh, and his tone could be a bit gritty, but he was impressive, nevertheless, especially when he was practicing and in his prime.

    • muslit says:

      Thank you. ….or the Wieniawski 2nd Concerto with Ormandy – still one of the best around.

      • Dave says:

        And the Brahms sonatas, the Mendelssohn concerto, the Dvorak, the Brahms and Schubert trios… The list is endless and those are all great, great recordings.

  • Veritas vos liberabit says:

    As a musical administrator (a person who usually is a failed musician) and not a serious musician, Peter really is not qualified to give any musical opinions. I think it was Plato who said, ‘Not all opinions are of equal value.’ This statement Peter made ‘In his [Stern’s] playing we hear the spirit of his musical heroes: Kreisler, Heifetz, Hubermann, Ysaye, Oistrakh . . . ‘ further proves validity to the Greek philosopher, and simply takes all credibility on his part, regarding musical knowledge away.

    Stern was not even one of the very best American violinists, let alone, one of the great violinists in the world. There were a handful of other US born contemporaries of his, such as Friedman, Rosand, Shumsky, and Nadien to name a few, that played rings around him.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      That’s unfair. He had closer contact and knowledge of great violinists than most musicians do.

      • gus says:

        Mr. Liberabit’s first name,Veritas, is apt.

        I heard Stern in recital in the mid 70’s. It was more than disappointing. He started out with some unaccompanied Bach. “What is he playing” I remarked to my witty seat companion. “I have no idea, but what ever it is, I think it’s it’s in G minor.” The playing we heard that evening was deserving of that sort of bon mot, but certainly not of praise.

        A few years later, I heard Shumsky’s Brahms concerto from my chair in the viola section of a “town and gown” orchestra. Due to bad weather, he arrived late for the rehearsal looking exhausted and more than the worse for wear. This was 1985. He was 68 years old. He looked much older. He proceeded to play the hell out of the piece. . It had it all; complete technical command, fire, passion; you name it….Shumsky had it.

        A few years latter Rosand played with us as well. Alas, I can’t remember the concerto…but the his encore remains in my memory …a stunningly difficult movement from a Ysaye unaccompanied violin sonata. My orchestra collegues all seemed to share a common question after hosting both Shumsky and Rosand. Why are they playing with us? They should be playing in Paris. And we didn’t mean the one in Illinois.

        Shumsky’s Brahms and Rosand’s Ysaye remain in my mind after almost 30 years for the right reasons. Stern’s Bach remains in my mind for the wrong ones.

        As for Mr. Liberabit’s suspicion of the worthiness of an arts administrator’s critical abilities…that ring true as well. I’m a modest viola player, but I will say this: my perspective arises from a daily struggle to make good, honest sounds. . The daily struggles of and Arts administrators is largely to o smooze.

        Who would you rather trust with musical opinions?

    • Mark says:

      Re: Stern not being a great violinist – when Stern toured the USSR in the 1950s, Prof. Abram Yamplosky, teacher of Kogan, Sitkovetsky and Goldstein (among many others) said Stern’s playing was a “revelation” and “the very soul of violinistic greatness” (I am quoting from the various memoirs of Russian emigre musicians I’ve read) . Here was one of the eminent violin teachers of the XXth century who was certainly not beholden to Stern in any way.

      • M2N2K says:

        The last name was Yampolsky. In 1950s, USSR was still such a closed society that there was no access to “western” recordings, and musicians from the West were only starting to tour there toward the end of the decade, so Stern was among the very first whom they had a chance to hear – no wonder he made an impression when they had not heard Heifetz, Menuhin, Milstein, Szeryng, Ricci, Shumsky, to name just a few.

        • Gus says:

          I’m in no position to comment on Stern’s professional machinations but do feel qualified to complain about the performance I heard him play 40 years ago when I was a poor undergraduate. Hard-earned money (derived from many tedious hours shelving books and scores in the music library) were parted with to hear Mr. Stern play Bach out-of -tune.

          It was a shanda.

          Four decades later, and I still want a refund.

  • cabbagejuice says:

    I read the story of Noa Guy’s car accident and although she is discreet enough not to mention who was responsible, the implications are horrifying. I can only think of the Captain of the Concordia preened to an absurd level of narcissism that his ship could ride over dangerous rocks so he could have a photo op. Two billion dollars to salvage the ship, maybe more and 39 dead are only at the end of a slippery slope of thinking that one is al powerful and invulnerable. The same with DUI’s.

  • Mark says:

    Yampolsky heard and knew personally Heifetz, Kreisler, Poliakin, Milstein, Szigeti, Seidel etc. Really, Ricci ? There is more to music then fingerboard acrobatics.

  • Steven Epstein says:

    Guys, get a life!

  • M2N2K says:

    The reason I mentioned Ricci is not because I think that he was a great musician – I do not – but because I think he was a great violin virtuoso who was virtually peerless in at least one aspect of violin playing which in his case can be described as sheer technical mastery of the instrument and virtuosic brilliance. There is no single aspect of violin playing I can think of in which Stern was superior when compared to the best of his contemporaries.
    If Yampolsky truly said what was reported here about Stern after hearing the playing of all the greats that were mentioned, then we would need to know his exact wording and the context in which he made those statements. We would also have to know exactly what he said about those other great violinists so that we could compare. Then and only then would we be in a position to evaluate his opinion about Stern’s playing.

  • Steven Epstein says:

    Dear Dave,

    I appreciate the generous quote!
    Having personally chosen the takes for the 1985 Beethoven Sonata recordings, I can unequivocally state that the amount of editing for these sessions was not significantly more than other albums of similar repertoire. I’m curious as to where this notion of ‘thousands of splices’ originated.Chamber music, by its nature, requires more editing than, say orchestral or solo piano recordings. I think the most important consideration is that artists who have a truly clear and consistent concept of how they wish to interpret a piece of music, can splice ad infinitum and still yield a cohesive, coherent, and organic performance. Conversely, artists who don’t have a clear approach to a piece can yield uneven and unsatisfying results even with minimal editing since contiguous complete takes won’t necessarily relate to each other.
    Hope that helps.

  • Dave says:

    Dear Steven,

    Thank you for your clarification. May I suggest you write something about your collaboration with Isaac, as so many have over the past month? You could offer invaluable insight and not only I but, I’m sure, a lot of people would be very interested in reading you. All the best, D.

    • Steven Epstein says:

      Thanks, Dave, for your kind words and suggestion. I’ll try to follow up in the near future.
      All best, Steve