Will the Berlin Philharmonic remember its 90 year-old dropout?

Will the Berlin Philharmonic remember its 90 year-old dropout?


norman lebrecht

March 15, 2018

Hellmut Stern, born in Berlin and for 34 years a front-desk player in the Philharmonic, will turn 90 in May.

A fugitive in China during the Second World War, he was spotted as a bar pianist in Jerusalem by Isaac Stern and sent for audition as a violist to the Israel Philharmonic.

He moved on to orchestras in St Louis and New York before returning to Berlin and playing in the Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan for 34 years.

I got to know Hellmut when he was a leader of the Karajan rebels in the orchestra, fighting the orchestra’s subjugation to the maestro’s financial empire. He was enterprising, principled and utterly fearless.

After Karajan’s death he helped organise the Berlin Phil’s first trip to Israel with Daniel Barenboim.

He published a memoir, Saitensprünge, and now lives in Florida.

I hope the orchestra does something to remember his 90th birthday, on May 28.



  • Pedro says:

    Being a rebel to Karajan is not a quality for me. He was a great musician though.

    • Leo says:

      A lot of the current problems in the classic music world, especially the bland business over content type of problems, go back to Maestro Karajan’s “innovations”.

      Celibidache remarked justly as he said of Karajan “Er ist ein sehr unmusikalischer Mensch GEWORDEN” (Video of that interview is available on YouTube).

      What started with Karajan expanded to include most of the classical music world-turned-industry.

      Opposing such a man at the height of his power is to me a heroic demonstration of uncompromising musicianship.


      • Bruce says:

        To agree with Leo:

        Karajan’s grasp on power was universally admired by conductors, whatever they may have thought of his musicianship. Probably because conductors, by nature, are overbearing, selfish/self-centered, autocratic — excuse me, I meant to say “driven by an inner passion and deeply individual vision” — and by the nature of the business they have to make compromises constantly, e.g. the orchestra doesn’t have the budget to do a complete Mahler cycle in a single season, or we won’t be able to convince people to come to a Chadwick festival. Karajan was able to project an image, at least, of always being able to do whatever he wanted and never having to submit to the reins of management. Of course, many of his artistic decisions were made with the aim of making money, so that there was often no conflict to worry about; but expressing disagreement with him, particularly as a subject in his kingdom, was asking for trouble.

        • M2N2K says:

          That may be true, but in addition to all this HvK was an outstanding musician. Just because eternally jealous and/or envious, notoriously snail-paced SC said something predictable negative about his “rival”, such pronouncement does not necessarily become universal wisdom.

          • Leo says:

            Outstanding musician?

            I am not so sure.

            Karajan was a master conman who knew how to fake everything anytime anywhere.
            His conducting technique is a brilliant veil to disguise the fact that often he had no idea at all of what he was conducting.

            His breathtaking speed of doing things has only been possible by this faking, as well as by silenced musicians (anyone who realizes the emperor has no clothes must shut up) together with happy business executives, especially from the record sales.

            Celibidache’s slowness was because of his serious and uncompromising attitude to music, seeing it as “a revelation higher than all philosophy”, as Beethoven is quoted to have said.

            Celibidache knew his scores by heart, in and out. Karajan didn’t always bother to even open them, he was too busy making money.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            “His conducting technique is a brilliant veil to disguise the fact that often he had no idea at all of what he was conducting.”

            Not true at all, Leo. Karajan was known for holding extended and highly detailed rehearsals, often (but not always) entirely from memory. I have been in a few of his rehearsals myself and was astonished how much he still worked on fine detail in standard repertoire he and the orchestra had performed and also recorded numerous times already, like Brahms 1 and Beethoven 9.

        • Hilary says:

          “Of course, many of his artistic decisions were made with the aim of making money, so that there was often no conflict to worry about”

          A notable exception being his wish to include Sabine Meyer in the BPO. She was voted out by the orchestra 73 to four.
          Contrast this with the aforementioned Celibidache, whose sexism is fairly well known.
          Credit, where credit is due.

          • Michael Comins says:

            Hellmut told me that HvK put Meyer into the orchestra, contravening its rules of audition and voting procedures. The BPO members voted to exclude her on those grounds, not on gender issues. With the BPO, the rules are the rules.

          • Bruce says:

            Hilary – I actually agree with you. He did hire (or attempt to hire) Sabine Meyer. As I recall reading in a biography, not only did he think she was a great player, but also it would be great for public relations. Hard to say from this distance if he thought “terrific player, who cares if she’s female,” or “hiring a woman would be a stroke of genius — and she’s a terrific player too.”

            Nevertheless, it caused a huge crack in his relationship with the orchestra when they refused to accept her. So yes: credit where due, and also prepare for unpleasantness when thwarting the will of the king.

      • Cadogan West says:

        H v K turned Furtwangler’s BPO into a Mantovani Orchestra of schmaltz ugh!

        • Leo says:

          What we need is new generation Furtwänglers. Tables need to be turned. A “heritage” of superficiality has to be rejected, and in its place the connection to a real, valuable heritage, reestablished.

  • Harvey Seigel says:

    Congratulations, Hellmut, on your upcoming ninetieth birthday, from your friend and former-St. Louis Sinfonietta-and-retired-Boston-Symphony-violinist colleague. Having just passed that ninetieth-year landmark myself, I wish you well.

  • Michael Comins says:

    I first met Hellmut @ Chicago’s Grant Pk, summer of ’59 where he played after the SLSO’s winter season was over. As far as I know, it was from St. Louis that he returned to his hometown Berlin to audition for the BPO. Having moved to NY in ’60, I would then see him when the BPO came to Carnegie Hall. Going out to dinner in a Chinese restaurant, I was startled and amused to hear this German Jew bantering with the waiter in Chinese. Besides English, German, Chinese and Hebrew, he also spoke French and Japanese because as an elected administrator helping to plan the BPO’s tours he simply had to. Happy 90th, Hellmut!

  • Erich Eichhorn says:

    My acquaintance with Hellmut Stern dates back to the early 1990s at Dr von Bayer’s House in Cleveland when I played first violin with the Cleveland Orchestra. After reading his book “Saitensprünge” I want to be in touch with him in Florida and wish him happy birthday. Can you you help me with finding an email address or telephone number for Mr Stern so I can be in touch with him?
    Erich Eichhorn
    Cleveland Ohio

  • Erich Eichhorn says:

    I am an old friend of Helmut and have unsuccessfully tried to locate him in Florida. Do you have his address?