Isaac Stern told me: play big – bigger than life

Isaac Stern told me: play big – bigger than life


norman lebrecht

March 23, 2018

Anthea Kreston’s weekly diary:

I am on a morning train to Frankfurt from Berlin – it has been bitingly cold here, the entire sky is solid, dark grey, and the brown, flat landscape outside my window is patchworked with snow, stagnant grey fog. I take the early train back home tomorrow, and meet directly at the University of the Arts for intensive rehearsals with my piano trio – our pianist is en route from Philadelphia now. What a pleasure it will be to dig in deeply to our program of all Brahms – and to work with violist Roberto Díaz for the Op. 25 Piano Quartet.

I am working on quartet repertoire – juggling pieces we are currently playing onstage with new repertoire we are learning, and keeping all of the repertoire for our upcoming US tour fresh and ready. In addition, the piano trio repertoire is being reworked – I find myself changed as a violinist since joining this Quartet – a mix of learning from my colleagues, observing concerts, and teaching European students.

What I learned from Isaac Stern in those intense Trio years – to play big, have huge phrases (as few as possible in each movement), to be bigger than life – this has been augmented, or changed. Trio playing is different from Quartet – my personality must be razor sharp, my communication radius larger, the subtle details and timing that are a necessary fabric of Quartet life are supplanted by large sections where we designate a leader and follow them, demanding from them total clarity of vision. Pre-planning (Quartet) is exchanged with spontaneity. Safe fingerings (for uniformity if sound, balance and intonation consistency) are thrown out the window for fingerings which bring contrast, virtuosity. And yet, as I have done some pre-rehearsing alone with Jason, I have tried to merge the two. The big playing I have brought with me to Quartet might work the other way – we can try to add much more subtlety into our gigantic phrase structure. Will it weaken the power of Trio? Or will it bring a new level of clarity and intellectual stimulation?

I have also become accustomed to sharing responsibility in Quartet – I am a bit of a brute with my intense musical personality in Trio – but now I ask Jason to lead more. We take turns leading a section, then decide to share the leadership once we have a basic agreement on the emotional plan. Feels good – can’t wait to try it with Amy Yang, our pianist.

The Fortnightly Music Book Club has its formal debut this Sunday, and I have been busy with planning, designing and negotiating specifics with our first guest, Eugene Drucker from the Emerson Quartet. As a former student of his (the hierarchy of the classical music world is deeply ingrained) I can hardly even manage to call him by his first name. I am particularly, obsessively and protectively worried about the comments section, which cannot be turned off for the book club. I have come to love that section, though, and it has brought me together with many new friends, rekindled old connections, and forced me to improve. Still – I lose sleep over the possibility of harsh comments reaching Mr. Drucker, who has agreed to the Club, and to do his own book, at my request. Please be kind.
So – just for fun, I dug up some of my favorite nasty comments from the Slipped Disk comment section – enjoy!

On being a bad mother:
“Clara Schumann was known as “raven mother”. She didn’t care much of her nine children. Piano career was first priority. Not a great role model for A. Kreston”

On being a terrible writer:
“Such cheap ad. There are millions of musicians who can tell much more interesting stories about their lives. It’s clear for me that she trying to make herlelf popular. Because without tjiis article nobody will know who is Anthea Kreston.”

“Can you please stop publishing this Kreston twaddle.”

And now some beauties from one of my all-time favorite commenters (and now a friend of mine) RW2013:
“The gepflegte Langeweile continues…”
“Just imagine if all musicians wrote their diaries here! Already wearing thin…”
“Read? More like the fascinating glance at road kill…”

Have a great week and see you at the Book Club!



  • Alexander says:

    dream big – play big – …. I would probably notice that some lines of your opus ( I mean this topic , especially when you talked about the weather and personal thoughts on certain work issues ) could be put in line with the first 2 bigs ( speaking of their “quality”) , so I end like that – write big … cheers 😉

    • David says:

      Stern’s words sound like terrible advice to me – what we in Europe think of as American school, more about making a good effect and impressing (the less demanding part of) the audience than about the music. Sandor Végh always used to criticise people for using what he called ‘Swiss fingerings’. Glad to hear you feel the interest of the opposite approaches.

      • James says:

        What a ridiculous generalisation of the “American” school of playing. There are good musicians and bad musicians everywhere, regardless of their passport.

      • Sue says:

        Nasty stuff.

        Anthea, it seems people are dipping with envy. That ought to make you feel proud!!
        All the best,

        • David says:

          If you don’t realise I was praising Anthea, her description of the complexity and multiplicity of approaches in her playing, in contrast with advice that still sounds to me deeply dangerous, then you really have got the wrong end of the stick!

      • Karen says:

        “more about making a good effect and impressing (the less demanding part of) the audience than about the music”

        I find this is usually what musicians with neither musicality nor impressive technique like to say in order to justify their mediocrity…

      • Bruce says:

        David — I find it charming that you are so certain that you know what Stern meant from reading Anthea’s interpretation of his advice.

        I think if you looked up a performance or two of the quartet (or one of hers) on YouTube, you might be able to decide whether this was actually terrible advice or not.

      • Dan says:

        David, could you explain what Vegh meant by “Swiss fingering”?

  • Mr Getreal says:

    Ahhh, those favourite “favourite nasty comments”…

    Did it ever occur to you that your relentless bragging about yourself may the cause of it ?
    Not everybody embraces such relentless self promotion, which you are an expert of.

    Try a bit bit of understatement and modesty for a change, you may find it works well and you might even like it in the end.

    • Sue says:

      That’s a bit tough; I don’t think she brags at all. It’s great to hear from the other side of the footlights and good luck to her. She’s living the dream.

  • Anthea Kreston says:

    I love all of the commenters! Just be mean to me though, not to the book club. If I didn’t have an extremely thick skin combined with a good sense of humor and a realization that I am an absolutely average person, I wouldn’t be able to survive one day in a Quartet (or one week on Slipped Disk). I think what I mean about Big is – big heart – playing can be personal, quiet, loud, whatever – just alway stretch those heart muscles until they actually ache – big inside!

    • Doug says:

      I admire your attitude. But I disagree with you about Stern. His approach of business first, music second, influenced the American scene to an overwhelming degree in a very negative way. It lowered the art to a commodity. You can try to deny this up and down but it is a fact of life in the US and I have a lifetime of experience to prove it. Have you ever attended a “business lunch” in France, for example? You never talk “business” while eating. Do Americans ever not talk business?

    • Alexander says:

      o’k “big heart” is in the line too 😉

    • Tod Brody says:

      I’m a huge admirer of the trio recordings Stern made with Istomin and Rose. A few minutes (or, better, hours) listening to those will make crystal-clear the kind of “bigness” you’re referring to. And btw, as a working musician, and married to a long-time string quartet violinist, I am a big fan of your writing here. The mean people amaze and sadden me.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Hum… do it big… bigger and better… play bigly… where did I hear something like that before? 🙂

  • Elvira says:

    Maybe the “big” means not to loose the long uninterrupted sentences that makes the music so beautiful to listen.

  • Bruce says:

    A couple of my favorite comment threads from the past (yes, I looked them up and saved the links):

    It’s funny, as amusing as it is to re-read comments from “Milka” and “ALLA ARANOVSKAYA, FIRST VIOLINIST OF THE GRAMMY-NOMINATED ST. PETERSBURG QUARTET,” I don’t actually miss them at all 🙂

  • Bruce says:

    I was going to retell this story of an Isaac Stern master class I once attended, but I found where I had told it before on one of those comment threads, above (only 2 years ago: Bruce, you should stop repeating yourself so often). So here’s a copy/paste.

    I attended an Isaac Stern master class when I was in college. One of the school’s resident hotshot students got up to perform for him and was doing his usual dramatic motions & emoting while he played. After a few minutes Stern stopped him, walked up to the student, said “start again from the beginning,” and held onto the scroll of the student’s violin. With the violin unable to move, the energy the student was putting into his movements was suddenly directed into the instrument. The student’s tone doubled in size and his playing (as opposed to his acting) became enormously more dramatic.

    I’m well aware of Stern’s reputation as a power broker, maker & destroyer of careers, etc.; and I honestly was never a fan of his playing. But — that was a great piece of teaching I saw him do that day. I almost wonder if, in a strange way, he missed his true calling…

    Every time Anthea reports a piece of his wonderful (or, depending on your view, terrible) advice, that same thought comes back to me: I wonder if he missed his true calling.

  • RW2013 says:

    Apropos Big – I remember Christa Ludwig once telling a student at a masterclass –
    “Open big ze mous, and big ze sound comes out”.
    And darling Anthea – if you have the time to read my tired old posts, you must have time for a spring coffee, or another visit to a graveyard…
    (after Easter).

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Hi RW!
      I looked those up on the train. You are such a funny mean person! Yes for sure – maybe after I get back from the States? Graveyard sounds fun……

  • Robert Roy says:

    Mr. Heifetz once scolded a student saying ‘Do you want to be a violinist or a dancer?’

  • Marg says:

    I am in no position to comment on Isaac Stern’s playing or advice, but I can comment on Anthea’s blog – as always I love starting my Sat morning reading it. I enjoyed her rumination on the difference for her between quartet and trio playing. Thanks Anthea, keep the blogs coming, Oh – and my comments will always be positive!!