Thursday, August 19, 2010

Remembering Isaac Stern on his 90th birthday at the Jerusalem Music Centre

In the late afternoon of July 2nd 2010, people were leisurely making their way through the paths of Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe quarter to the Jerusalem Music Centre, to be met and welcomed by Hed Sella, director of the JMC. Drinks were being served on the terrace that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. There was time to enjoy the late afternoon breeze, to meet and reminisce. We were gathered to remember the great violinist and musician Isaac Stern on what would have been his 90th birthday. Founded in 1973, the JMC was inspired by the vision of Isaac Stern, Yad Hanadiv (Rothschild family trusts) and the Jerusalem Foundation.

In the auditorium, the soiree program opened with Hed Sella welcoming members of the Stern family – Isaac Stern’s widow Mrs. Vera Stern, daughter Shira, son David and some members of the younger generation. Sella also welcomed the French Ambassador to Israel who was attending the event. Professor Menahem Ya’ari, chairman of the executive committee of the JMC, spoke about the “three maestros” whose initiative it was to found the JMC – Isaiah Berlin, Teddy Kollek and Isaac Stern. He referred to today’s JMC players as “Stern’s children”.

David Stern, one of Isaac Stern’s two conductor sons, addressed those present, explaining that he himself had a selfish reason for suggesting The JMC hold the event – he had the need to hear his father’s voice again, to hear what he had to say, to remember what he stood for, to keep his father’s values alive, to remind us that they continue to be relevant. David spoke of his father as a good man, humorous, incredibly sincere, an idealist, childlike in his desires and his simplicity but someone who breathed understanding and confidence on the concert platform. Isaac Stern’s idealism was never clearer than when, following the siren announcing a scud attack during the Gulf War of 1991, he stood alone on the stage of the Jerusalem Theatre and performed for the audience. David said the family had to share his father with many young musicians, several of them present at today’s event. He also mentioned how fitting it was for Isaac Stern to create a music centre in Jerusalem and added that his father believed that the best training for students was to give them the tools to teach themselves.

This was followed by a short film in which Isaac Stern talked about what performing music entailed. He referred to it as “an open invitation to all to create its power and dynamics” and as an “act of personal discovery and of strengthening ideas”. Stern talked about the fact that musicians know much about living together.

Maestro Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, told those gathered that his first encounter with Isaac Stern had been in Bombay, that Stern was one of his first soloists with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Mehta said he misses Isaac Stern the artist who, on stage and in rehearsals, was sensitive to every note played by both soloist and orchestra. Mehta saw rehearsals with Stern as an education!

Benny Galed, president of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, spoke of Stern as a father figure, a friend and a demanding but trusting boss.

‘Cellist Zvi Plesser, today a member of the faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, spoke of when he joined the JMC’s outstanding young musicians’ program in 1979 or 1980. “My understanding of English was not of a high level, but I was, nevertheless, able to sense and admire Isaac Stern’s passion and presence. I learned much about expressive intonation and color from him and felt fortunate to be have stayed in touch with Isaac.” Plesser’s words were followed by a beautifully expressive performance of G.Faure’s Elegy for ‘Cello and Piano in C minor opus 24. Joining Plesser was pianist Yaron Rosenthal, adviser and tutor in the JMC’s program for outstanding young musicians and member of the Jerusalem Trio. The Jerusalem Trio – Yaron Rosenthal, violinist Roi Shiloah and ‘cellist Ariel Tushinsky, all graduates of the JMC’s outstanding young musicians’ program – then gave a tasteful, expressive reading of the second movement – Andante espressivo – of F.Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor opus 66.

Legendary violinist Ivry Gitlis talked about having spent much time with Vera and Isaac Stern in New York in the 1950’s adding that they were like family for him. Gitlis spoke of Stern as being timeless, of not being absent. He proceeded to perform Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebeslied” (Love’s Sorrow) with Yaron Rosenthal at the piano. Gitlis’ playing was spontaneous, ending the soiree on a nostalgic note.

Mrs. Vera Stern addressed the gathering briefly, expressing how happy she was to have been present and hoping that musicians present would have something to take away from what they had heard about Isaac Stern. I believe we all did.