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.

 

There is a widely held perception, which I address in the May issue of The Strad magazine, that the violin is somehow a ‘Jewish’ instrument.

It is true of course that many great violinists were Jewish – Mischa, Jascha, Toscha Sascha. Also true that in certain important violin traditions – the French, for instance – there are few, if any, outstanding Jewish players.
So why the myth?

Here’s one of my suggestions:

The simplest answer is portability. Jewish mothers in the
Pale of Settlement did not sit their kids down at the piano. Pianos were too
heavy to take abroad if there was a threat of pogrom. Cellos, likewise.  The violin is an instrument of dispersion, a
relic of persecutions and a ticket to a better way of life. It was the Blackberry of musical transmission, the laptop of an imperilled school, the most effective instrument of ensuring that tyrannies could not destroy a tradition.

Agree?

Twenty years ago, I got taken to a convention of music critics in Washington DC. Isaac Stern depped as keynote speaker for a sick Lenny Bernstein and the atmosphere was chummy and convivial until the session was thrown open to the floor and the gripes began flowing thick and fast.

‘My editor wants me to interview pop stars,’ complained one critic from the midwest. ‘My review space has been cut to 300 words,’ grouched another. ‘My boss has never been to a concert in his life,’ chimed a third.

So whose fault is that? I wondered. It occurred to me then that some of the senior colleagues were not keeping up with changes in editorial taste, dynamics and technologies, and a few of them looked well past their sell-by date. But seen from the editor’s seat one could readily understand why US city newspapers were starting to cut back on classical coverage.

As editor, try explaining to your chief executive why you are holding a full staff job to report on an art that never makes news, an art that plays the same old music, year after year, with the same parade of expressionless faces on the platform. An art whose audience is greying and unattractive to advertisers. An art whose music director is an absentee European and whose few glamour soloists will only agree to talk about their new record or hair makeover. 

An ex-chief of ASOL, the former trade organisation of American orchestras, asserted recently in this blogroll that newspapers were being derelict in their social duty by firing music critics. As usual, ASOL got it wrong.

It’s not the newspapers that are to blame but the orchestras that over two decades failed to make enough news of any wider relevance to enable editors, many with the best intentions, to retain their music critics. Symphonic stasis is not the sole reason that music criticism is being extinguished across America, but if anyone is pointing fingers the first cause must surely be the stultifying complacency of American orchestras in recent years.  

Twenty years ago, I got taken to a convention of music critics in Washington DC. Isaac Stern depped as keynote speaker for a sick Lenny Bernstein and the atmosphere was chummy and convivial until the session was thrown open to the floor and the gripes began flowing thick and fast.

‘My editor wants me to interview pop stars,’ complained one critic from the midwest. ‘My review space has been cut to 300 words,’ grouched another. ‘My boss has never been to a concert in his life,’ chimed a third.

So whose fault is that? I wondered. It occurred to me then that some of the senior colleagues were not keeping up with changes in editorial taste, dynamics and technologies, and a few of them looked well past their sell-by date. But seen from the editor’s seat one could readily understand why US city newspapers were starting to cut back on classical coverage.

As editor, try explaining to your chief executive why you are holding a full staff job to report on an art that never makes news, an art that plays the same old music, year after year, with the same parade of expressionless faces on the platform. An art whose audience is greying and unattractive to advertisers. An art whose music director is an absentee European and whose few glamour soloists will only agree to talk about their new record or hair makeover. 

An ex-chief of ASOL, the former trade organisation of American orchestras, asserted recently in this blogroll that newspapers were being derelict in their social duty by firing music critics. As usual, ASOL got it wrong.

It’s not the newspapers that are to blame but the orchestras that over two decades failed to make enough news of any wider relevance to enable editors, many with the best intentions, to retain their music critics. Symphonic stasis is not the sole reason that music criticism is being extinguished across America, but if anyone is pointing fingers the first cause must surely be the stultifying complacency of American orchestras in recent years.