Classic Mornings

My Outing With “Uncle Isaac”


I was honored – and terrified! I had been granted an interview with the legendary Isaac Stern!

It was an in-person opportunity, not via telephone. I still can see him sitting there casually dressed with sun glasses turned upward and resting on top of his head. He held a long cigar between two fingers.

From the look on his face, I wasn’t sure that he was all that excited about being there. So I decided to get right to the point and ask him about the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he was in town to perform, and which I had heard him rehearse with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

After all the times he must have played it, I asked him how he kept it fresh. I was hoping he didn’t think it was a trivial question. He began his response in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner and said the work was such a great one that “no matter how long you live, you’ll never know how much there is in it and how much is yet possible to do. That is one of the great wonders of music. And that’s what keeps a musician alive...” He went on to say that “with every performance it’s a different hall, a different conductor, a different orchestra, a different temperature – you feel differently. So there are so many unknown qualities which can effect a performance, especially a performance which is being fine-tuned down the years to where a millimeter of pressure or a hundredth of a second of thought process will make an entirely different thing happen. And therefore, if there are no constants – and we are not, thank God, machines – it becomes then, in essence, truly a first performance each time.”

I remember being dazzled by his words. He must have sensed that. He continued: ..”the greatest thing in art is to learn to do complex things simply. To be simple is the most complex thing in art. The very simple lines of a Matisse drawing – they are nothing but a few lines. And yet whole characters come out of those few lines. The main melody of the Beethoven concerto that I’m playing (and here he hummed the tune) – six notes. Big deal. And yet it touches heaven.” He said of the second movement of the concerto that he didn’t know of another movement in all of classical music that begins, develops and ends in G major. “And yet there’s a whole world to say there. It’s one of the monuments to human creativity. It’s essence is simplicity...”

There was a question I asked a number of classical performers back then, namely whether they considered themselves entertainers. Many shrugged it off. Stern took it by the horns: “...(R)ather than entertain, a world-class performer of classical music dominates the audience. You demand their attention simply by what you are. There’s a thrust that goes out from the stage. It says: ‘I am here. You must listen.’ And that’s domination. You don’t play out to the audience. You don’t go to them. You stand down stage and bring them out to you. That’s the major difference between entertainment and being an artist in our field. You bring the audience to you. You make them a part of your world. You have to get infused with the magic and the unexplainable, the wondrousness of musical concepts and in some way must make them feel just as awestruck as you do, but as involved. Don’t ask me how you do it or what the process is. You simply do it. That’s what they mean by being a stage person. It is that which attracts and brings an audience to a performer over and over and over and over again through the years. Playing to an audience is very simple and it has worked very often for a long time. But it’s a transitory thing. It’s on a different level.”

By this point we both were in a different world. My arm was a bit stiff from holding the microphone out to him. But I gladly endured the discomfort and moved on to another area. Knowing that Stern had been the one responsible for saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball, I asked him about it. I could tell that he was excited to talk about the hall’s acoustics. “It’s still the most glorious sound in the country.”  He referred to a couple of famous renovations of movie theaters into concert halls including Powell Hall in St. Louis and Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh. He said that the natural room space of those theaters was good for acoustics. Specifically, the wood and plaster, including all of the rococo art and art deco, makes them naturally good sounding halls. “The minute you have concrete and steel and glass you already start with four strikes against you.” He said it’s the secret of old halls and it’s very simple. He added that the sound of Carnegie Hall is based on its back wall which is four feet thick, brick and plaster, brick and mortar with its foundation going into the bedrock of Manhattan. “It’s a building. It’s solid, top up and down. And it’s all wood and plaster inside.”

A fan of old theaters myself, I felt near the end of the interview that I had just become acquainted with a long lost uncle. So I brought the conversation back to earth. I asked him if he was still a Yankees fan. He was. He said that he liked sports in general. He loved tennis and watched it avidly. He’d been fortunate to have attended the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the French Open and to have friends among the players. He loved to watch basketball and had become a friend of “Dr.” Julius Erving – “Dr J.” – of the Philadelphia 76ers. “There’s a beauty, a physical grace in basketball that is quite astounding,” he added. “It’s probably the most musical sport, if I can put it that way.”

He concluded by saying: “I like living. I like people. And I like young people. And they’re the ones that keep my young.” I still wonder what it would have been like to sit next to him at a ballgame

July 21st marked the centennial of the birth of Isaac Stern, who died in 2001. I never forgot that 1984 interview. And the occasion made me want to share a bit of what he shared with me.

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