Isaac Stern: An orchestra player’s view

The reassessment continues, this chapter consisting of a closely-observed memoir by Joseph Scheer, a distinguished chamber musician.

 

joseph scheer

I was 20 years old and, after 3 years of study at the New England Conservatory, for various rather unpleasant reasons, I found myself at my uncle’s house in Phoenix Arizona . I auditioned for a position at the Phoenix Symphony which was for 1 season as part time associate concertmaster. I would end up sitting 3rd chair for about half of the 33 week season. The other half I was at the back of the firsts, outside 8th stand. Eduardo Mata was the Music Director and Max Wexler was the concertmaster. This was in 1975.

I was understandably very excited to see that Stern was coming to play the Beethoven. At the first rehearsal, the concertmaster set up so that the first stand was where the first stand of 2nds usually are, leaving me to face the soloist in the 3rd chair. When I queried Max about this prior to the rehearsal he said. “Stern is a jerk, I want nothing to do with him” and “I’m sitting over there to keep out of his way.”

It was coincidental, but I had played concertmaster on the Beethoven for 2 violinists at NEC for their graduate recitals during the previous spring and so felt very well prepared to deal with the piece, and was looking forward to seeing Stern close up, performing it. I could hear Stern in the artist room warming up and it did not sound very good. It sounded like he had not practiced and he was “cramming”. I went onstage to discover the setup and sat down to warm up myself. When rehearsal started and Stern entered the hall he walked over and shook hands with Mata, then turned to me and glared at me in a most unpleasant way.

I looked at that age like I was around 16 and was a slightly cocky kid and I remember being quite perplexed by this. Why on earth is the great Stern glaring at me? Nonetheless, I continued to look directly back at him, right into his eyes. Mata began the concerto and I began to play, all the while looking right at Stern and he glaring at me. As I had performed the piece many times in the recent past I had no difficulty in playing the entire tutti from memory, while Stern kind of huffed and puffed in front of me all the while staring and glaring right into my eyes.

I was able to see the conductor peripherally with ease and so I just looked right back. I certainly had experience in dealing with big personality violinists, having played in masterclasses for Tibor Varga, Joseph Silverstein and Henryk Szeryng, but this just felt all wrong, I was a young, bright eyed and bushy tailed fan, having a particular fondness for his Barber recording among others.

As Stern entered with the solo line he continued to face me directly and played very aggressively all the while glaring at me as if I had done something awful. I knew I hadn’t and was actually getting really pissed off by this time. “Who treats people like this, that they don’t even know?” was going through that part on the brain not directly involved with playing the tutti. So I just kept staring into his raging eyes and began to wonder just how this was going to end and becoming convinced that this must be some kind of twisted test. “Should I stop staring back?” “Is this a test?” “What have I done to deserve this?”

isaac stern frown

 

 

Time passed, understandably, very slowly. I kept looking into him and as he came to the passage of 16ths about a minute in, he began to have a little trouble moving his fingers with the bow. He turned immediately a beet red and a bead of sweat began to trickle down his cheek. Nonetheless he continued to glare into me. Within a few more bars the breakdown was nearly complete and I saw not the glaring rage of moments ago, but a glimmer of terror, as he faltered, like a great live Humpty Dumpty on the edge of precipice. Then, seeing a look of absolute terror in his eyes, I smiled. Not a full smile but more of what those who know me well call the Joe Scheer smirk.

At this point he broke eye contact and did something really remarkable. He turned away very quickly, and with his 4th finger, yanked violently on his E string and immediately demanded an “A” from the oboe saying “Give me an A, my violin is out of tune”, all the while scrapping viciously on the open strings as if to illustrate the point.

He did not look at me again at any time for the rest of the run. Several violinists in the orchestra had been watching this with concern and amusement, one in particular asking at the break, “What the fuck just happened?” I was already well aware of the reputation of Stern as a powerful force in the violin world and after that I avoided him. I figured I would just have to make my way without his help, since I was certain that after this brief yet powerfully unpleasant encounter that he would always remember me.

(c) Joseph Scheer/www.slippedisc.com

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  • Apparently, Stern needed to provoke an adversarial relationship with somebody, to get his psyche up to a performing energy level — like John Mcenroe and the Chair Umpire. His lack of preparation is flabbergasting. It’s as though he lost interest — perhaps seduced by the political life?

  • He didn’t play with the National Symphony Orchestra very often but I do remember his Mendelssohn concerto Carnegie Hall appearance with us with Slava conducting in the mid 1980s. I was new in the orchestra and nervous on first stand. He was short, a bit heavy, intimidating sort of man. I could tell that he thought of himself as a significant player. I haven’t forgotten the manner in which he turned around to tell us and to show us how to play certain kinds of bow strokes, usurping Slava’s power on the podium. That really was not fair to Slava, but I believe he was a good sport about it. Pontificating to the orchestra was, in retrospect, a bit odd, a bit disparaging. He is the only one that comes to mind who has ever done it. His only other time as soloist I remember was a Mozart concerto years later with Slatkin conducting. The house was absolutely full and I believe his playing had slipped by then – possibly due to a hand injury during this late period of his career. I did hear from the boys in the orchestra that his Tchaikovsky concerto recording in 1979 with the NSO and Slava conducting was a disaster and that countless takes were necessary. I have never listened to that recording.

    • I had the “pleasure” of working with Stern in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra once during his senior years and I would have to agree – totally unjustifiable level of arrogance and disrespect to his fellow musicians. At a time when his playing skills were clearly in decline, the Mozart was very rough, it was a glaring contrast to the gentleman diplomat Yehudi Menhuin, who had come recently before.

  • I don’t get where you were sitting. Could it be that Stern was glaring at you because he thought you were in the wrong place? Just wonderin’.

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