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VC INTERVIEW | Isaac Stern's Centennial - Michael Stern, David Finckel & Wu Han

The three musicians discuss Isaac Stern's life and legacy

On the occasion of legendary violinist Isaac Stern's centennial, the Violin Channel sat down with his son, Michael, and Music@Menlo and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Co-Artistic Directors, David Finckel and Wu Han.


Michael, tell us about your father.  What words for you would best describe him as a musician, educator, and human being?

Larger than life would be a good way to describe him. Now almost 20 years since his death, and in his 100th year, what I keep thinking about most is how large his view of music and the world was.

He was not tall, to put it charitably, but all that he attempted, all that he valued, all of his enthusiasm were accomplished with exuberantly big gestures. Certainly it was reflected in his playing — he took musical chances, always, and he was all about the long line.

And it was certainly present in his love for food and drink, and for cigars. But it was also reflected in his passion for the arts as a force for good, for his commitment to education and young people, in his belief in cultural diplomacy, and the generosity of his teaching — all of it was full throttle.

He often repeated one of his favorite quips: “Making music should be like making love — all or nothing.” When he threw himself into a project, you could count on it being 100%.


What would you say were the major milestones of his career and life? 

To paraphrase another one of his favorite sayings, he would often remind students and aspiring players that the arc of a career was not measured by the last rehearsal or concert, but by the sum total of what one can do in a lifetime.

He made an indelible mark as a musician on so many people, as a soloist, as a chamber music collaborator, and in his coaching. 

But even just considering the Jerusalem Music Centre, and the lasting legacy of a thriving Carnegie Hall, I would say that his civic and musical activism were as important as anything else, and bear witness to his commitment to education and to the next generations.


What would you say were your father’s true motivations in life? 

He loved music; he loved the inspiration he got by working with and inspiring younger colleagues and young people; and he wanted to be useful.


How was your relationship with your father and how was it to grow up in such a rich musical environment?

I think my siblings would agree that in our house growing up, things pretty much revolved around him. But both our parents were rather remarkable forces of nature, and we were lucky to have not only such direct access to music, but also to such a close knit family. And even now, as a musician, I still have, almost all the time, his voice and his sound in my ear.


Your father had a very public life, but what is something that somebody outside your direct family might not know about him?

I think he came off publicly as very confident, and he certainly did know the contents of his own mind. But he never appeared arrogant, and that was an honest reflection of who he was.

He actually was very humble, more than a little self-deprecating, certainly self-aware and self-critical. He was a person of action, but he knew how to live with doubt.


When you eventually look back at your own life, what are the major tangible and intangible life lessons you will have learned from your father?

All his life, he listened — he certainly did it in his playing, and as well when he didn’t have the violin in his hands. He knew how to collaborate, to cajole, to convince, and to concur with an idea that wasn’t his. He really knew how to listen.


How do you want your father to be remembered in history?

As a really great fiddler and musician who left his world a little better for having passed through it, and who gave back much more than he was given.


David and Wu Han, what are the main professional and life lessons you felt you learned from Mr. Stern?

There are a couple of ideas that we learned first from Rostropovich and that were re-affirmed by Stern. The first is that when it comes to art and music, nothing is impossible. That is what Rostropovich taught his students to believe by challenging them with assignments that all seemed initially impossible, but in the end, actually were possible. Thus, he gave his students the greatest gift of all: confidence in their own abilities to conquer, succeed and go beyond where they thought their limits were. 

During the five years we knew and worked with Stern, he imparted that same idea through his demands on his students and on himself. One must remember that he saved Carnegie Hall, against all odds, before he was even forty years old, and in the midst of a hectic international career. How he did that is hard to imagine, but when all others gave up, he did not, and we have the hall as a testament to his determination to succeed, no matter what. 

The other idea that Stern embodied was an unwavering faith in the value of music -an absolute faith in the intrinsic value of music and of its crucial place within the larger society. These convictions were for him non-negotiable and not even worth discussing -let alone questioning. 

We remain, to this day, perfectly aligned with his advice: always seek artistic excellence, be inspiring to others, be true to the music, and invest in the next generation. We hope that we are doing a good enough job in keeping the profile of classical music as strong and as noble and as essential as it has ever been.


How did his approach to music and education affect your own career perspective and choices?

When we worked with Stern, the timing was fortuitous for us: we had just gotten our first artistic directorship, with La Jolla's SummerFest, in 1997. He was aware of and was keen on keeping tabs on our work.

He would summon us from our apartment to his in the Beresford on Central Park West, and perhaps over a Sternini (his own signature cocktail), would ask us - no, grill us - on what we were doing, what were the challenges, what were our solutions. And with the Sternini in hand came words of wisdom just as delicious (and powerful) as the drink, and we never forgot them. 

He had the clearest mind imaginable when it came to the business of music and the effect of one's behavior, for better or worse, in any given situation.

To this day, his advice has never proven wrong. It's like a Bible of artistic principles that people like us read over and over again; they guide us still in what we do, almost each and every day. We hope he's looking at us with some sense of reassurance that his passions and convictions are living on in a couple of his most faithful artistic children.


Catch the special Music@Menlo "Remembering Isaac Stern" celebration On Sunday 4th October at 8.00 (EDT). Tickets are free.

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