Saturday, July 12, 2014

Stern in the dock

Violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) is remembered as one of the stars of classical music in the United States, particularly from the 1950s through the ’70s; as leader of the forces that saved Carnegie Hall, mobilizing resources and public opinion to prevent the landmark New York concert hall from being torn down in the 1960s (its main auditorium is now named for Stern); as a tireless supporter of Israel; and as mentor/promoter of musicians such as Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.

Stern also had the reputation of being a ruthless musical politician, able and willing to retard the careers of potential rivals among violinists and other artists who got on the wrong side of him. Stories of his machinations have long circulated by word of mouth, and have been hinted at in various memoirs by musicians and music-industry figures.

Norman Lebrecht, the British writer who has made a specialty of exposing the seamier aspects of the classical-music business and its dominant personalities, has obtained detailed accounts of Stern’s abusive behavior from violinist Aaron Rosand and pianist Mordecai Shehori, who taught Stern’s children in the 1970s and early ’80s.

Here is Rosand’s story:

And Shehori’s:

Reader comments appended to the two posts go into even more dismaying detail about violinists said to be victims of Stern – Henryk Szeryng, Erick Friedman, Ruggiero Ricci, Uto Ughi and Ivry Gitlis are some of the more recognizable names – and others on the receiving end of his power plays.

As a journalist, my only person-to-person encounters with Stern were a couple of telephone interviews in the 1980s, which were neither pleasant nor especially informative. I heard him perform live a half-dozen or so times, mostly in the later stages of his career, during which he pretty consistently lived down to his backstage nickname, “Isaac Scratch.”

I’ve owned many of his recordings, but have kept very few in my collection. In most every piece he ever recorded, there are other violinists I would much rather hear.

I can’t attest to the factuality of the stories that Lebrecht is amassing; but I can say they don’t shatter one of my musical idols.