Stern Reflects on His Life in Music

Stern Reflects on His Life in Music

Rice News Staff
November 11, 1999

Even without his violin, Isaac Stern can stir a crowd.

On the afternoon of Nov. 2, Stern taught a master class for Shepherd School students in Stude Concert Hall. That evening in Stude Concert Hall, he reflected on his life in music and told some spellbinding stories.

For the evening program, Stern was joined by Raphael Fliegel, professor emeritus of violin and former concertmaster and principal second violinist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. After their conversation, Stern signed copies of his new memoir “Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years” (Knopf). The events were sponsored by the Shepherd School of Music and Brazos Bookstore.

For the master class, Stern walked on stage without an introduction and got down to business. “I’m not here to show how but why,” he told the students. One of the foremost violinists of the century, Stern has mentored young musicians throughout his career.

Working with three student string quartets, one group at a time, he stressed the need to think long and hard about a piece before performing it, in order to capture the character and essence of the work.

The first group, the Gotham String Quartet, played Haydn. The group features Lun Jiang, violin; Quan Jiang, violin; Sheila Browne, viola; and Cheng-Hou Lee, cello. The second student quartet–featuring Jonathan Godfrey, violin; Heather LeDoux, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Louis-Marie Fardet, cello–performed Mozart. The third string group, featuring Liza Zurlinden, violin; Gillian Clements, violin; Robert Meyer, viola; and Clara Lee, cello, played Schubert.

Stern praised all three groups of musicians for their outstanding instrumentation. He encouraged them to take this time in their musical lives to reach a greater intellectual and spiritual understanding of classical music and to discuss with each other the true meaning of the music they play. To the Schubert-playing quartet Stern advised, “Don’t be afraid to argue, but remember that the last voice has to be Schubert’s.”

During the evening discussion with Fliegel, Stern stated that he has been living his life in music in a state of “amazed awe,” and said that a musician has the responsibility “to know and respect the rules of the craft before you can break them.”

Stern told some unforgettable stories. He recalled when he was in Dallas the day that his friend, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Sitting in a cafe at the Dallas airport, while waiting for a connecting flight to San Antonio, a devastated Stern and a friend downed a bottle of bourbon. Looking out the window, they could see Air Force One which was carrying Kennedy’s body.

The next night, Stern was scheduled to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor with the San Antonio Symphony, but at the morning rehearsal he told the conductor that the piece seemed inappropriate.

The only thing he felt he could play was Bach. That night he told the 4,000 people in attendance that musicians sometimes pray by playing certain kinds of music, and that he prayed by playing the “soul-cleansing” music of Bach. Stern asked the audience not to applaud at the end.

While playing the Bach Chaconne, he wept uncontrollably. After he finished the piece, there was dead silence. He put his violin back in its case, left the auditorium and flew back to New York.

Stern, who played a major role in saving Carnegie Hall from demolition, called it the world’s most celebrated concert hall. He said that if you walk on stage when the hall is empty, you can feel the presence of all the legends who have played there: Toscanini, Rachmaninoff, Casals, Heifetz and many more.

“They’re all there in the walls,” Stern said. “They put their arms around you and say: ‘Welcome! Come play music!'”

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