Violinist  Isaac  Stern

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Most musicians are busy.  They play concerts, they tour around the country or around the world, they teach, they record, and they have personal lives.  But some are on the go even more, often becoming whirlwinds or human dynamos.  Such was the case with Isaac Stern.

Many of his activities are listed in the appreciation which appears at the end of this interview.  Let me just say that it is inconceivable that Stern would be idle for more than a few moments in his entire life.

Despite this hectic schedule, he was gracious enough to meet with me on one of his visits to Chicago.  It was 1991 and his friend Daniel Barenboim had just taken the reins of the Chicago Symphony. 

Our conversation was both a discussion and a lesson.  Some of what he said is deeply philosophical; other ideas are elegantly simple and direct.  But everything is musical.  Every nuance stems from the same foundation that molds the sounds that emit from his violin.  They begin in the same mind and are given to an audience, so whether they are English words or pitched tones, these thoughts become music in the highest sense.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You are both performer and administrator.  How do you divide your time between those two very taxing activities?

Isaac Stern:    Very simple.  I’m not an administrator.  I’m interested in music.  I’m interested in people who make music, who play music, who are involved with the presentations of music, and who care about the quality of life to which music is central.  Administrative problems I leave to those who are gifted for it.  One of the things you learn after many years is what you don’t know.  I’ve learned that administrative, daily details, the nuts and bolts of daily administration, is neither my forte nor my interest.  Therefore, we have people who are very good at it.

BD:    It’s not even your mezzo piano?

IS:    Not at all.  What is my interest is to find people who are capable and give them full support because I believe in what they’re doing.  My primary responsibility is to put the full force of my enthusiasm, my interests, behind people who do things in which I believe, as well as they.  And if they believe as I do, then I give them my full support and then a little extra.  

BD:    But you still have to oversee and guide a little bit.

IS:    No, I don’t guide.  I’m aware of, and I’m involved only to the extent where I’m asked to be involved, and in that case I weigh the options presented, make a decision and I act upon it.  In most cases it will be a series of options which have already been more or less decided, and I and my colleagues — not I alone, all my colleagues on the board, executive committee particularly, whatever organization I’m involved with — become aware of the problems.  Those of my colleagues who are not as aware of the details or the subtleties, I try to inform, because having been involved in the art of music making and in the business of music presentations for over fifty years, I have a little experience.  I try to bring that experience to bear for two things only:  the promulgation of musical excellence and the support of new talent; to give the opportunity to the creative artist to fail, not to succeed, but always to give the opportunities, because unless we give people the opportunity to fail, you will not get the occasional wonderful success.  It’s like growing a garden.  You fertilize the ground.  You seed it; you irrigate it; you encourage it.  Some of the plants die, but once in a while, the great wonderful blooms and flowers grow.  Those are the things that make it worthwhile.

BD:    I assume you hope for that in each plant, though.

IS:    You do that always, but you don’t demand; you don’t make that a price of support.  You make it a condition only to have a certain talent that comes from the gut of the person involved, and you hope it’ll work.

with JFK

In the East Room of the White House, with President and Mrs. Kennedy, and Mme. Malraux, May 11, 1962.
Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

:    You’ve been watching this talent come and go for over fifty years.  How has it changed?  Has it gotten better in that time?

IS:    It depends what you mean.  Which talent
— the talent of the performer, or the talent of the composer?  There are all kinds of talent.  There are talents in performers, there are talents in composition, there are talents in administration.  There are talents in the presentation of ideas; all kinds of talents.  Through one’s experience, and never losing, as they say in French, never losing the north, you try to continue to have a coherent line of absolute passion for qualityquality of life, quality of opportunity, quality of questioning, quality of trying to find new ways of finding truth and beauty in music.  These are fancy words, but they are actually existent!  I sometimes feel a little bit sorry for those who are not involved with music, who don’t know, who’ve never had the opportunity to have that ecstasy of those moments when it all comes together.  You are transported into another time, another life, at that moment that will never exist again.  There is a magic in the arts that only the artists can be part of.

BD:    Roughly how often does that happen?  Once a month, once a year, once a decade?

IS:    [Laughs]

BD:    Once a lifetime?

IS:    No, not once a lifetime.  Many times.  But you never know when it might.  The only thing you can do is to try to create the opportunities within yourself, where you yourself are involved, or where others are involved, that the circumstances make it possible, for a moment, for this whole — how shall I say? — concatenation of circumstances comes together, and something very special happens, which will never happen again, but happens at that moment!  That makes it all worthwhile.

BD:    I’m glad it happens more often than just once in a while.

IS:    Oh, it happens quite often.  It happens sometimes when you yourself are playing.  It happens in the middle of a performance.  You try for it at every performance you give, and it may not happen through the whole evening, yet somewhere, sometime, it happens once, twice, three times, four times, six times, eight times — you never know, but it happens
— and then you’re grateful for being a musician.  It’s something that you share with the listener.  It also happens when you create a series of circumstances for other people to do it, and you sit down and listen from the outside and hear it put together.  Then you give thanks that you are able to be in a position where you could help create the circumstances that made it possible for others to realize dreams.

BD:    It sounds sort of parental.

IS:    Not really parental.  It’s being part of a continuing belief in the validity of man’s humanity, of the inventiveness of the creative mind and the re-creative spirit; of believing that life is not just living from one moment to another as best you can, but reaching out for the stars.  These words have been said many times in many ways by different people.  It’s been said by poets; it’s been said by musicians; it’s been performed by conductors, by singers, by pianists, violinists, all kinds of people.  There are moments that occur.  You never know when they’re going to happen.  The best you can do is to realize that you make the circumstances for it to happen as possible as you can, either from your own efforts, with your own work, or for others.  That makes all the effort of the years you’ve put in yourself, as well as the years you’ve put in for others, a worthwhile life.  I began at fifteen; I’m seventy-one, so that
s fifty-six years on the stage, I’m very lucky!  I’m really a fortunate person.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you see yourself as being part of a long line of violinists, stretching both backward and forward through the ages?

sternIS:    Oh, I should say so!  I’m part of a long line of musicians
people who have made music, who have meant something in their own time and been pathfinders to some degree.  I’ve been a part of the whole of the musical fabric of my lifetime.  I’ve know most of the major musicians intimately for the past half century.  Here in Chicago, I first played fifty-one years ago with Frederick Stock.  That’s a long time!  There is not a single Music Director of the Chicago Symphony with whom I have not appeared more than once.  Not a single one!  I have appeared with every single one since Frederick Stock, and I have been here with guest conductors, too.  So I’ve heard this orchestra in all its years, its changing years, its glorious years, its difficult years.  And to come now and hear this orchestra, to this day having a special kind of esprit de corps is very rare amongst orchestras.  There is perhaps one other orchestra in this countryClevelandwhich has something like this.  And there are two or three others in the world that have this kind of pride in themselves.  It is something to come and play and to make music.  To play a work like the Beethoven Concerto four times, and the four different performances are different from the performances I played two months ago, and different from the performances I played a year ago, and different from the performances I did when I recorded it with Daniel Barenboim some years ago in Paris.  This is the evolution of music.

BD:    Is it better or worse, or just different?

IS:    If it were worse, I shouldn’t be here.  [Both laugh]  It is different.  It is an accumulation of knowledge, experience and constant rethinking and reinvestigation deep into your own gut, into your mind, into your thought.  With every performance there is an idea of a memory, of that which has not been quite the way you wanted it before, so you fix that one.  Then there’s another one; then there’s another.

BD:    Is it ever possible to get it a hundred percent right?

IS:    No.  Absolutely not!  That is the secret of music!  If it were possible to get it one hundred percent right, then all the rest would be nonsense.  It is not possible to encompass all the possibilities in one lifetime because you’re evolving all the time.  And if you have any brains, any sense, any kind of duality, you have ideas and ideals in your mind, and at the same time you have an innate sense of terrific self-criticism, pitiless self-criticism, to say, “That was not quite as it should be.  This could be better.  That can be different.  There can be a different concept.  There can be a different line.”  There is no such thing as playing the same thing twice the same way.  You are not the same that day.  The weather isn’t the same.  The fiddle is not in the same condition.  The audience is never the same.  The orchestra will play a little differently.  The pianist with whom you are playing your recital does not play the same way.  When you fine tune a performance to the degree that we do at this stage of our lives and with the experience we have, every one of these things makes a small difference that leads into another path.  Therefore, it is the first time.  Therefore, no time is exactly like any other.  Therefore, that performance is the one, that time, like no other.

BD:    Now let me throw a joker in here.  What about a recording, which is, every time you play it, exactly the same?

IS:    No, it isn’t.  It’s only at the time when you play it, at that time.  When you listen to it, it’s the same, because it’s repeated, but when it was recorded, it was the way you recorded it at that moment, that day, that hour.

BD:    And once it’s recorded on the plastic, any time you play that piece of plastic...

IS: just a repeat of that moment.  It’s nothing more than that.   It’s a repeat of that moment in time, and that’s all that recording is.  It’s a frozen moment in time.  Time changes; the recording doesn’t.  But time does, and so does the artist.  So do all the other things around it.

BD:    So do the listeners?

IS:    Always the listeners change!

BD:    Will listeners change by listening to the same recording over and over?

IS:    Maybe.  It depends on how they listen.  It depends on what they listen to.  It depends on their equipment.  It depends on their mood when they listen.  They’ll react differently listening to it under different circumstances; if they listen to it in the morning, the evening, when they’re tired, when they’re fresh, when their minds are somewhere else, or when they’re concentrating.  All these things are different.

BD:    Should there perhaps be a warning put on records?  Caution — listening to this when you’re tired could be hazardous to your musical health?

IS:    Not at all!  The caution is only that listening to this may help you have better health.  That’s the only thing that’s worth it.  That’s why the recording exists.  But the recording is no more than a very temporary moment frozen in time.  A recording made one day, and a recording of the same work, with the same people involved, made three days later, will be different.

BD:    Do you play the same in front of the microphone as you do in front of an audience?

IS:    You try to, as best possible.  The audience doesn’t listen with the same idea of having a microphone staring down your tonsils and seeing whether the fourth follicle on the left harelip is bending left or right.  In the concert hall, you have the special quality of the empathy between the player and the public.  In the concert hall, you also have the physical presence where you dominate the audience.  You try to do that on the recording, to make them listen.  You don’t ask people to listen.  You say, “I am here!  Now, listen!”  You try to do that.  It’s hard to do with a mechanical means.  You do your best.  The best recordings, mostly, are those which have the sweep of a major performance all the way through.  Live performances have something very special to them.  They have their faults.  A machine would be perfect, but that’s not music making.  Music making is a human voice, and it changes.  It changes with the way you feel.  It changes with the way you sense things.  But a recording, because of the demands of the recording industry and being able to clean this and repair that, rarely has quite the sweep of the intensive magnificence of a happening, of a live performance.  You try your best.  You try to do that in a performance.  If it comes off on the recording, God bless you!  That’s what you’re really trying for.

BD:    Are the in-performance recordings, then, coming closer to this?

IS:    It depends on the circumstances.  I can’t speak for anybody else.  There are times I’ve made recordings of a work and it’s taken six hours; and I’ve recorded four works in three hours.  It depends on the circumstances.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the recordings that have been issued over the years of your work?

cd coverIS:    To a degree.  There are some that stand out in memory.  I very rarely listen to my own recordings, very rarely!  As a matter of fact, I don’t even have a whole set of my own recordings.  A few years ago, my three children said, “Hey Dad, you know, we don’t have all your recordings.”  I’ve been with one company, CBS, for over fifty years.  I have been longer with a company than any artist in the history of recording.  Nobody has remained with one label as I have!  So I asked the recording company to get things out and get me a complete set.  I got four or five complete sets of everything I had done.  We gave them to the kids and we had a couple of complete sets at home.  I don’t think I have a quarter of them left, because they keep being given away by my wife as gifts.  So I don’t even have a complete set of my own recordings at home!  Sometimes I have to check with the company, “Please send me a couple of this, and a couple of that.”  And, oh, those are out of print, so I have to get them out of the icebox.  Fortunately, because I’ve recorded for so long, they are now doing reissues of all the recordings, starting with my first ones from 1946, retrospectives, all being put out and remastered on CD’s.

BD:    Is that scary?

IS:    No, not at all!  It’s enjoyable.  I listen with some wonderment to that pair of powerful, young, unafraid hands just blasting away!  That’s marvelous to listen to that!  It’s also a lesson in how much has been done.  I’m amazed at how much I have recorded.  I think I’ve recorded over two hundred and fifty or something like that.  I don’t know how many there are, but everything is being re-released in packages.  I’ve forgotten how they title them; everything that I’ve done, both as a soloist and in chamber music is going to be available.  It is largely available now, and will be available completely within a year or so.  Everything I’ve ever done since 1946 will be available on CDs.  That’s a long and large legacy.  I think I’ve recorded more twentieth century works for the violin than any of my colleagues, and a huge amount of repertoire.  I’m not through yet because there are plans.  Your next question will be what am I planning to do?  I’m not going to tell you.

BD:    No, I don’t ask that.

IS:    Because once I do them, then they’ll be evident.  But I have recording plans for the next three years.  It’s all music I care to make.  I’m in a very fortunate position.  I find myself very happy that I can pick and choose to do what I want, play where I want, when I want.  I don’t like to do concert touring as such, just to do concert tours regularly, any longer.  I will take a month or two and I will spend that much time going to this part of the world or that part of the world, and playing recitals with a colleague with whom I enjoy playing, or with young people.  I love making music with young people!

BD:    Especially the recitals you have this huge array of possibilities to choose from.  How do you decide which ones you will play and which ones you’ll let go?

IS:    Whatever I feel like doing!

BD:    What is it you look for that makes you feel like it?

IS:    The quality of the music.  There’s not much music that I haven’t played, but there is a certain body of music that I have not yet played and recorded.  I will pay attention to that in the next two or three years.  But the works that I choose to play are works that I feel passionate about, whether it’s contemporary or classical or romantic.  But they have to be works which I love to do, which I want to do!

BD:    This is what I’m trying to get at — what is it that makes you love to do them?

IS:    The music.  The composer’s passion.  It’s my job, my life, to understand the passions of the creative mind, the creative spirit.  When I feel that I understand that spirit and there’s something there which communicates itself to me that I feel that I must communicate to listeners, then I choose to play it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve premiered a few concerti.  Is there a special feeling when you can work directly with the composer?

IS:    That’s always a special feeling.  There have been some works that have been written for me in the last few years which I’ve performed and recorded.  Those are ones that I believe in
the Rochberg, the Penderecki or the Dutilleux, which I think is one of the great works of our time.  [See my Interview with Krzysztof Penderecki.]  I gave the first performance of the Leonard Bernstein Serenade, the first recording of the Barber Concerto, the first recording of the Bartók First Concerto.  One work after another...  I don’t want to go through a whole litany; it would be pointless, but these are works that I’ve played because I’ve believed in them.  And they are not works that I’ve played once, but I’ve played often and replayed again and again in cities all over the world because if I believe in them, then I play them everywhere.  What’s much more important for the composer is not the first performance, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth.  Therefore, if I believe in it enough to give the first, I’ll give the first five.

sternBD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to write music for the violin?

IS:    Understand that the violin is the nearest instrument to the human voice.  It’s not an instrument to be beaten, scratched, hit, abused.  It’s to be used as a singing instrument.

BD:    Caressed?

IS:    Always!  Just as a mother’s voice caresses a child or a lover to his loved one, that’s what a fiddle can do!  And that’s what a composer has to use the violin for
whether it be Bartók, who did it as beautifully as anybody in his own language, or Brahms or Schumann or Bach or Mozart or Schubert or Beethoven.  They all had a sense of the violin as a singing instrument.  Above all, it sings.  It can be sad, it can dance, it can be happy, it can be gay; it can trifle, it can giggle, it can frown, it can shout.  But always as a singer.

BD:    Is the giggling and the frowning and the shouting the composer, or the interpreter?

IS:    It can’t be the interpreter if the composer hasn’t had it in him.  It has to be a reflection of what the composer wanted.  The extent to which you use it in that way is your understanding of what the composer intended.  You do it to highlight as best you can, knowing not only what the composer wrote, but the style in which he wrote, the time in which he wrote it, where he came from, what it meant in his time, and what he was trying to say and to what extent it fitted the time and the society in which it was written.  All these are part of it.  You know, essentially there is no boring music; there are only bored musicians.

BD:    This is not to say you would put Salieri on the same level as Mozart, would you?

IS:    [With a sly grin]  He didn’t write anything for the fiddle.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Nicely dodged!  What advice do you have for young
fiddle players, as you call them?

IS:    Learn what the violin can express as a voice.  Learn how to breathe.

BD:    Take singing lessons?

IS:    Learn.  Listen not to violin records; listen to great singers.  Learn.  Listen to great symphonies, to great quartets.  Listen to the great performances of Beethoven and Bartók by the Budapest Quartet.  Listen to all the great conductors of the past.  Learn opera scores and learn to read them, and hear how operas are put together.  Hear what great lieder singers do, how they breathe.  Learn what it means for a flute or an oboe or a horn to take a breath before the instrument is played, and then breathe as you play.  Learn about the mind and psyche of the composer who lived in his time and what influenced him.  Get totally immersed in that lifestyle so that you don’t play as they did.  You cannot play as they played in that time because we don’t live in that time.  We don’t live in the time when horses galloped on mud roads.  We have bathrooms.  We take baths.  We don’t use perfume to hide the fact that we didn’t bathe for three weeks.  We don’t wear perfumed wigs.  Instruments have changed, have been improved.  One plays with greater power and greater range of sounds.  There is a lesson to be learned from performance practice in certain times, but it’s not to deny what we have today.  To go backwards and say that one should play only with the limitations of the time when they played is like saying that you’re going to be operated on with a dull buzz saw and a crude screwdriver, instead of modern instruments.  You don’t go to save your life in that way.  In the same way, I cannot believe, for example, that a genius like Mozart —
genius is a word I use very rarely — but a genius like Mozart or Beethoven and those creative spirits like Mendelssohn or Schubert, who saw things that other people didn’t see, and put them together — that they wouldn’t have, with relish and complete abandon, taken advantage of all the modern abilities to play instruments and use them to the utmost advantage.  So you use your instrument to the utmost advantage, but you remain simple.  You don’t embellish beyond its weight on the music that you play.  You play it in the style of its time, but you use the whole force of contemporary technique to make it better.  There are innumerable details in all of this.  One should have a knowledge of the history of performance and know what is possible.  Most of all, you have to learn the parameters of taste, and if you want me to define taste, I won’t even try!  That’s a combination of knowledge, personal perspicacity, understanding, caring, instinct, perception, feeling, touch — all these things.  You put it all together and it’s still only the beginning of the search.  The real answer to all the questions you’ve asked is that it is an unending search which never stops.  And that is why one is a musician.

BD:    Why is one an audience?

IS:    Because you need to know what man’s mind has been able to achieve, and to give you for a few moments a look into the untouchable of time, which is out of time, and carries you away from the daily grind.  It puts you into another world.  It brings you into contact with a river of continuing beauty that’s lasted through wars, through battles, through revolutions, through changes, and still continues to be beautiful.  It’s the one continuing stream of humanity to which you can belong, and from which you can gain strength, and with which, for a moment, you can feel you’re part of.

BD:    That’s a marvelous perception!

IS:    It’s mine.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you go into a new concert hall, how much do you have to adjust for the acoustics of each concert hall to make that hall your own?

IS:    You do your best.  You listen to it; you try it.  You use it as an instrument that adds to your own, as best you can.  If it’s a good one, it gives you added strength.  If it’s a bad one, you try to make up for it in any way you can.  And that’s all you can do.  You use all your experience to know how to handle every hall individually.  You try; you do your best.  It’s all you can do.

BD:    You have your own instrument under your chin.  A pianist must fight not only the hall, but different instruments.

sterncdIS:    Well, hopefully he’ll have a good one.  We try to get the best pianos available, and we kick and scream when the pianos are not good enough.  There are at least a dozen cities in the United States that have new pianos after I’ve threatened to use the pianos that they had for firewood at the next outdoor cooking!

BD:    [Laughs]

IS:    And they bought new pianos!  People seem to forget that music is written as a totality; it’s just not the soloist standing with his bare face hanging out, pretending to be the big star.  The music is written totally, with the piano usually having a much more important voice than most people understand.  Most people don’t understand, for example, that the Beethoven Sonatas are written for piano and violin, not violin and piano.  Also, Mozart Sonatas are piano sonatas with violin obligato.  Brahms already the combined instruments; Schubert did also, to some degree; Bartók, certainly, and Prokofiev as well.  You take things as they come along, and you make do as best you can.  That’s what you call being professional.  You can kick, as we do.  You can scream, as we do.  You can carp, as we do, and still you have to make the best of it.  That’s what it means to be a professional.  It comes with the territory.  You have to understand it.  Some pianists can afford to say, “No, I’ll take my own piano, and that’s the only one I’ll play.”  Very few today do that.  There are certain pianos that we know are good.  Shortly after this interview we’re going off to play in Taipei and Hong Kong and Japan.  In Japan, for example, a piano tuning is a minimum of ten to twelve hours!  I was very much impressed with the quality of the pianos that I saw there some years ago.  The Japanese are very well organized.  They have a cartel
those who handle central Japan, southern Japan, northern Japan.  They have approximately a hundred applicants to be piano tuners for every ten they pick.  Their training period to become a piano tuner is ten years.  Ten years to learn how to take an instrument apart and put it together again.  They get some of the great Steinways from Hamburg or from New York, mostly from Hamburg.  They take them all apart and they put them back together again.  They check every single millimeter that’s in that piano.  [See my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, 1968-1992.]

BD:    Sounds like their final exam
is to take it apart and put it back together again.

IS:    Exactly.  And their pianos are wonderfully regulated.

BD:    I was going to ask if the pianos over there were Japanese-made.

IS:    No, they use mostly Steinways.  Daniel Barenboim was telling me that he just acquired two magnificent new Steinways here at Orchestra Hall.  One’s American and one is from Hamburg.  He’s a pianist so he knows how to pick them.  And on top of that, there’s a piano tuner who’s moving from New York to live here in Chicago and become the piano tuner — not the piano
tuner, but the technician to arrange for the control of both instruments.  He will become one of the most important people here in the city.

BD:    He’ll oversee those pianos and others?

IS:    And others.  But these are the qualifications that are necessary.  These are the demands of standards.  People forget, in this age of automization and the amount of unending noise that comes from the tube, that these things are not electronic.  Life is not simply a constant stream of unending sounds that you don’t listen to.  Another thing we lack today is silence.  Nobody knows what silence is.  I have silence in my place up in the country in Connecticut, which is far away from everything.  Occasionally an airplane flies over or a truck that passes by on one road not far away; otherwise, I can literally hear a blade of grass bend!  I hear nothing but the earth.  It’s very rare today.  When Verdi was composing on the Via Manzoni a couple of blocks from La Scala, when he was in residence at the hotel a couple of blocks down from La Scala, they would put hay on the dirt paths of the street so that he wouldn’t be troubled by the horses’ hooves while he was working.  I can’t imagine anybody doing anything for any intellectual effort today to give that sense!

BD:    Putting you in a soundproof room, though, would be too artificial a silence?

IS:    A soundproof room is the most horrible thing you can imagine!  I’ve been in absolutely soundproof rooms in certain areas, and it’s not possible to think!

BD:    You need the sound of the quiet — pure nature?

IS:    You need the resonance of sound.

BD:    Thank you for coming back to Chicago.  I appreciate speaking with you.  I assume you will return?

IS:    Oh, I probably will.  I enjoy playing with Danny; we’re old friends.  We’ve been playing together for years.  We have a ball!

BD:    I think we are getting an excellent music director.

IS:    Very much!  You’re in for a great era!


Isaac stern was born in Kremenetz, Ukraine, on July 21, 1920. His family travelled to the United States when he was one year old and settled in San Francisco. He was trained in music by his mother, a professional singer and, at age 7, first began learning the piano, then the violin at age 9. He later studied for 3 years with Robert Pollack and for a few months with Louis Persinger. He also studied until age 15 with Nahum Blinder, whom he considered his only true teacher. He was later to say, "He taught me how to learn by myself, which is the most important thing a teacher can teach you." From this time on, Isaac Stern became very interested in chamber music, already playing quartets and quintets with the principals of the San Francisco Orchestra. At age 15, he performed J. S. Bach's Double Concerto on stage with his teacher. The following year, in 1936, he played the Brahms Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux, then the Tchaikovsky Concerto in Los Angeles under Otto Klemperer. On October 11, 1937, he made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall, a concert-hall where he again appeared in February 1939. This new public appearance was hailed by enthusiastic critics, placing him at the forefront of musicians of his generation. During World War II, he gave many concerts for the Armed Forces.

The beginning of an extraordinary career

In January 1943, Isaac stern gave his first Carnegie Hall recital. The following year, he appeared twice with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. In 1945, he made his first recordings for Columbia, and the following year, he was chosen by Hollywood to double the violin parts for the actor John Garfield in the film Humoresque. This launched his career, and thereafter he went on to play with the greatest conductors : Sir Thomas Beecham, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein and George Szell. He played the part of Eugène Ysaÿe in the film Tonight We Sing, relating the life of the great impresario Sol Hurok. In 1948, he made his European debut at the Lucerne Festival. In 1950, he took part in the first Prades Festival, organized with Pablo Casals by Alexander Schneider to celebrate the 200th anniversary of J. S. Bach's death. He again appeared with Casals during the following years in Perpignan and Prades, and a few years later at the Puerto Rico Festival.

A passion for chamber music

His meeting with the famous cellist was a determinant influence and led him to devote part of his activity to chamber music, with Eugene Istomin, Alexander Schneider, William Primrose or Paul Tortelier. In the early 1960s, he organized a trio with Eugene Istomin and Leonard Rose, which became extremely successful and toured widely until Rose's death in 1984. In 1956, during the cold war, he was also one of the first US musicians to tour widely in the USSR. On the other hand, contrary to Yehudi Menuhin, he always refused to play in Germany, in memory of the atrocities committed under nazi rule. He had very strong ties with the State of Israel and collaborated assiduously with Israelo-American cultural centers and foundations, providing advice and support to young musicians in that country. He thus played an important role as a pedagogue and mentor for young Israeli virtuosi including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Myriam Fried, Sergiu Luca and Shlomo Mintz.

A perfect balance between virtuosity and musicianship

In addition to his activity as a violinist, Isaac Stern participated intensively in American musical life, making important contributions as music director for the National Council for the Arts. Since 1960, he has also been Chairman of Carnegie Hall, that prestigious concert-hall which, with others, he saved from demolition. In 1979, he made a trip to China, and the film relating this event, From Mao to Mozart, was awarded an Oscar in 1981. Many contemporary works were composed for Isaac stern, including William Schuman's Concerto in 1950, Leonard Bernstein's Serenade in 1954, George Rochberg's Concerto in 1975, Penderecki's Concerto n°1 in 1977, Dutilleux's Concerto in 1985 and Maxwell Davies' Concerto in 1986. In 1987, Isaac stern formed a new trio with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, which performs and records in company of such artists as Jaime Laredo and Cho-Liang Lin. Due to his fiery temperament, unique generosity of tone and fascinating musicianship, Isaac stern has achieved the ideal balance between the virtuoso and the musician. A symbol of American violin playing for over 50 years, he is also one of the greatest 20th century masters.


Guarneri del Gesù (1737) "The Vicomte de Panette" which Isaac stern bought in 1947 and sold in 1994. In 1996, Vadim Repin recorded the Ravel and Medtner sonatas on this instrument, which was lent to him be his present owner, Mr. David Fulton.

Guarneri del Gesù (1740), which belonged to Eugène Ysaÿe and includes a label signed by the Belgian violinist and stating: "This violin was the faithful companion of my career." Later owned by Charles Munch, this violin was purchased by Isaac stern in 1965. It was also played by Yehudi Menuhin and Ivry Gitlis.

Stradivari (1721) "The Kruse", which belonged to Rodolphe Kreutzer

Carlo Bergonzi which now belongs to Paavo Berglund.

G. B. Guadagnini (1750).

G. B. Guadagnini (1754), which now belongs to Boris Belkin.

J. B.Vuillaume (1846) "The Tsar"



F. X. Tourte, Persois, N. Kittel, E. Pageot, D. Peccatte, Voirin, Henry, Sartory which belonged to Ysaÿe.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on May 27, 1991.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.