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On the Aisle



Eighty Candles for Isaac Stern

by Philip Anson / September 24, 2000
On the Aisle

Violinist Isaac Stern’s eightieth birthday was feted at Carnegie Hall in late September with a busy weekend of concerts and film screenings. The festivities concluded with a sold-out Birthday Concert on Sunday Sept. 24, performed by Stern’s friends and colleagues. Carnegie Hall executive director Xavier Ohnesorg welcomed the audience in English, French, German, and Hebrew. Shira Stern praised her father’s “edifice complex,” referring to his role in saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecker’s ball. The famous Hirschfeld caricature of Stern was projected above the stage.

The musical offerings ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. One highlight was a superb reading by pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma of The Swan from Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals. Ma’s pure and tender tone was matched by Ax’s limpid pianism.

They were introduced by 79-year old Sir Peter Ustinov, who did a comic German professor routine, singing both the contralto and instrumental parts of “a newly discovered cantata written by Johan Sebastiann Bach at the age of two.” Broader comic relief was offered by veteran stagers Comden and Green, whose Borscht belt humour was quaintly dated. They croaked the opening number from On the Town and a few other Bernstein ditties.

Serious music included Stravinsky’s 20-second Greeting Prelude, composed for Pierre Monteux’s 80th birthday in 1955. Beethoven’s rarely heard Triple Concerto was rather shakily played by violinist Sarah Chang, cellist Sharon Robinson (both occasionally off pitch), and pianist Joseph Kalichstein, with Isaac’s son David conducting. Movements 3, 4, and 5 of Bernstein’s Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium) (1954) were well played by New York Philharmonic principal violinist Glenn Dicterow in honour of Stern, who had premiered it on Sept. 12, 1954. Violinist Midori and violist Pinchas Zukerman gave an interesting East meets West reading of the third and fourth movements of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 364. Midori’s playing was silky and lyrical; Zukerman’s hearty and frank. Pianists Yefim Bronfman and Leon Fleisher dashed gaily through Schubert’s four-hand Rondo, D. 608. Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op, 20 (III, IV) was badly sight-read by eight top American string soloists, including members of the Guarneri and Juilliard Quartets, who shall remain nameless. The excellent Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music was the band.

The evening ended with a surprise performance of Ernst Toch's a capella Geographical Fugue, adapted to key words from Stern’s recent biography “My First 79 Years.” Kurt Masur directed “The Carnegie Hall Staff Chorus” -- office workers and administrators who performed this droll work with verve and accuracy. Finally, the audience joined in singing Happy Birthday, and a giant birthday card covered with signatures was wheeled out. The concert was especially poignant as it fell one month after Stern underwent open heart surgery. In a short, teary speech, the diminutive, white-haired musician thanked God and his doctors (“virtuosos of thoracic surgery”) for his survival and vowed to live another 30 years.

Copyright by Philip Anson


(c) La Scena Musicale 2000