San Franciscans, musicians remember Isaac Stern

Louis Heilbron was part-time principal of Congregation Emanu-El's religious school, when he organized a concert by two young violinists, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin, and piano prodigy Ruth Slenczynski.

Stern was a student at the religious school, and the concert was held around 1932, Heilbron estimates.

"An assembly of children from kindergarten to confirmation was always a rather difficult one to have a unified feeling, but the music calmed them and reached them all," the 94-year-old San Francisco resident said.

Stern, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, died of heart failure Saturday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 81.

The master violinist, among the last of a generation that also included the late Menuhin, was also renowned for his devotion to Carnegie Hall and his successful efforts to help save the building from the wrecking ball.

He became a mentor to many younger musicians, among them violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Yefim Bronfman.

Stern was born on July 21, 1920 in what is now Ukraine. He moved with his parents to San Francisco the following year. His mother, Clara, studied voice and began teaching her son piano when he was 6.

But it was Emanu-El's cantor at the time, Reuben Rinder, who noticed that the young Stern's fingers were somewhat awkward on the keyboard, and he suggested that he try the violin, according to Fred Rosenbaum's book "Architects of Reform: Congregational and Community Leadership, Emanu-El of San Francisco, 1849-1980."

Once he took up the violin, Stern began studying at the San Francisco Conservatory. Rinder found patrons to support him, including Jennie Zellerbach and later Lutie Goldstein, who was initially skeptical about Stern's talent.

Stern debuted with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the age of 16.

By 1950, Stern had established himself as one of the best young violinists on the concert circuit. He was the first American-trained violinist to achieve such a high level of international recognition.

Stern was an ardent supporter of Israel. Vera Lindenblit, the second of his three wives, said he became deeply attached to the fledgling nation while performing there in 1949.

During the tour, parents approached Stern and asked him to listen to their children play.

He extended his support to Israel's young musicians by becoming chairman of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, which provides scholarships and support for young Israeli musicians and raises money for Israeli cultural organizations.

Stern also worked with the Rothschild family of England to found the Jerusalem Music Center in 1973, which has a recording studio and concert hall, and holds master classes with visiting musicians.

Violinist Gil Shaham first met Stern in one of those classes.

"He was very encouraging. And particularly during the string program. We'd meet a couple of times a year and it was very inspiring for us."

Shaham remembered that once, when he was a teen, Stern heard him play with a poor violin bow.

"He went into the back room and came back with his own personal collection of bows. And he said, 'Look, Gil, I want you to pick a bow and use it until the end of the summer until you find your own.'"

Violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet taught with Stern both in the United States and in Israel.

"It was wonderful to be with Mr. Stern in Israel, because he was so loved there," he said. "He's done so much for the country."

Setzer recalled that Stern was an excellent teacher — "very tough, but also very encouraging.

"He got the students to think about what they were doing. He would challenge them and say, 'Why are you doing this?' The look of approval on his face when his students were performing — I wish everyone could see it: the wide grin on his face, knowing he had done something really worthwhile."

Setzer said he believes Stern's outlook in life explains in part his deep ties to Israel.

"There was a certain idealism in Isaac Stern that had to do with music, with art, with politics, with culture — with not accepting when someone would say this is impossible. I think that's why he had such a connection with Israel, since Israel really is an impossibility after all, isn't it?"

That same idealism led Stern to become a savior of Carnegie Hall in 1960 when it was slated for demolition to make way for an office tower.

"It's not naiveté," Setzer mused. "It's a certain kind of idealism where you don't take no for an answer if it's something you feel strongly about. I think that's why he was able to accomplish so much in his life."

Stern's inspiration in Israel went well beyond musicians. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Stern cleared his schedule and immediately went to Israel to perform in hospitals and for Israeli soldiers. During the Gulf War in 1991, he continued his performance in Jerusalem after a siren went off, indicating a possible Scud missile attack.

Stern's concern for world Jewry extended beyond Israel. Setzer said Stern used his influence to help Jews get out of the former Soviet Union.

His ties to San Francisco also remained strong, and he played at a dinner marking Emanu-El Cantor Rinder's 45th year with the synagogue at the Fairmont Hotel. He also was honored at a packed-to-overflowing 70th birthday celebration in Stern Grove in 1990. The program ended with a spontaneous encore of "Hava Nagila," with concertgoers doing the hora.

Aside from his musical and humanitarian contributions, Stern will be missed on a personal level, Setzer said. "It was always fun to be with him. He really enjoyed his life."

Stern is survived by his wife, Linda; three children from his second marriage, daughter Shira, a rabbi; sons Michael and David, both conductors; and five grandchildren.