Copyright © 1999 Isaac Stern with Chaim Potok.
All rights reserved.
Early one October morning in 1937 I boarded a double-decker bus at 72nd Street in Manhattan and disappeared. I was seventeen years old.
For the next six hours, no one knew where I was: not my mother, whom I had left at our apartment without informing her that I was going out, nor our friends. The bus traveled up and down the length of Manhattan, from Washington Square to Washington Heights and back again, and I rode and rode, entirely unaware of what I was doing.
I sat on the top deck, gazing out at the streets but not taking in what my eyes were seeing. I had to face a critical moment in my life, and I needed to be alone. My head was filled with the reviews of my debut performance at Town Hall on the evening of October 10. The reviews, I thought, were disastrous.
One critic, writing that I had "sailed into Tartini's 'Devil's Trill' Sonata with the greatest aplomb, revealing a big, beautiful tone of the G string and a pleasant one on the others," added a tart comment about my "generally erratic understanding of the structure and the musical content of the ancient and honorable composition." About my playing of the Glazunov Concerto in G Minor, that same critic wrote that "the work brought no new elements from the violinist's equipment to the surface" and alluded to "a few technical smears."
Another critic began his review with these condescending words: "From that far away land of violinistic prodigies, movie 'yes-men' and sunshine, California, there comes yet another violinist"; and then went on to mention, as if in passing, that I had "definite possibilities." A third wrote, "His tone is good, especially in the lower part of the scale," but added, concerning my technique, "it can scarcely be called transcendent."
I remember yet another critic mentioning that violinists seemed to be "as prevalent in California as oranges," and while conceding that "his talent is indubitable," nevertheless concluded that "one was not wholly convinced that he has actually traversed the Great Divide that separates the promising player from the artist."
I had hoped that my Town Hall debut would be the moment of breakthrough for me, the beginning of a career as a solo concert violinist. Instead, the New York critics were telling me to go home and practice some more, to learn how to ride the horse better. And, riding that bus, I was asking myself repeatedly: Should I keep on trying to become a concert violinist, or should I take one of the many jobs I had been offered by symphony orchestras in New York for more money than I had ever dreamed of making, money that would have meant security for my family?
The hours went by. I didn't know it at the time, but there was a huge panic developing over my disappearance. My mother was telephoning friends to find out where I was. She called the concert manager's office and was beginning to consider calling the police.
In the meantime, I was riding back and forth, trying to decide. My mind was churning. I sat there, letting it churn.
I had come for that Town Hall performance from San Francisco, where I grew up and still lived with my parents and my younger sister, Eva. My father, Solomon -- a dour man, then in his mid-forties was born in Kiev. There are pictures of him as a dashing young man with a goatee, wearing high boots and an open silk shirt and holding an easel and a paintbrush. He came from the upper-middle class, as did my mother, Clara, who was seven years younger than he. Her birthplace was Kreminiecz, a town on the Russian-Polish border. My parents told me that they and their families, who had been there for at least a generation or two, always considered the town Russian. And during the week of my birth, my mother had received a scholarship to study singing at the conservatory in St. Petersburg, which was then headed by the famous composer Alexander Glazunov. In order to study in St. Petersburg at that time, she'd had to wear a yellow star, a rule for Jews living outside what was called the Pale. During the turbulent years of 1918-1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Kreminiecz changed hands about every two weeks. I was born there on July 21, 1920. It was the Polish two-week period.
In the midst of the Russian Civil War and shortly after the failed Bolshevik invasion of Poland, my father obtained a Polish passport and a visa to the United States. The passport showed his profession to be artist-painter, and his domicile Kreminiecz. After months of travel through Siberia and across the Pacific, we arrived in San Francisco, where my mother's older brother had settled some years before. I was ten months old.
My parents' language was Russian; neither spoke English. They knew a little Yiddish, but it was not a language we used in the house. It's a very expressive language, with many untranslatable phrases, and my parents would use it only to heighten or color certain comments. There was no hint, in anything my parents said, of their having lived anything remotely resembling a traditional Jewish life in Kreminiecz.
I doubt that my father ever had a bar mitzvah, and he felt no inclination to insist that I should, so I didn't. The traditional Jewish home challah every Friday night, candles, prayers did not exist for us. Religion played no part in my family's life.
Politics, yes we were refugees from Russia. My parents were well educated, and naturally liberal. I was impressed then, and still am, by the truth that you can take a Russian out of Russia but you can never take Russia out of a Russian. My parents had nothing to do with Soviet life or the Communist cause. There were long political discussions between them and with other Russian émigrés; they were part of a large group of people to whom everything Russian was familiar and necessary.
My father wasn't trained in a profession. As an artist of sorts, he knew a little bit about paints, so he became a house painter and was quite ill in later life with lead poisoning. He loved stewed prunes and hot chocolate, and he drank coffee; no, he drank sugar with a touch of coffee in it. A normal breakfast for him consisted of eggs, sausage, hotcakes, cheeses which might have contributed to the ulcers he developed. During the Depression years, he started going from house to house, selling MJB coffee. Occasionally during the worst times of the Depression, when we didn't have enough money for food, we received the day's version of food stamps: boxes of cans without labels, whose contents we never knew until we opened them.
We moved a number of times during our early years in San Francisco. The two houses I remember best were the Buchanan Street house and the one at 383 29th Avenue. The house on Buchanan Street had a long series of steps that went up to the front door; it was situated on one of those typically steep San Francisco hills that always scare anyone who has never lived in a city like that. The 29th Avenue house, pale yellow or dirty white, was located in the Sunset district, about five blocks from the bay, and two or three miles from the Pacific Ocean and the beach, where there was a seal house and seal rocks and an enormous building, Fleischaker Pool, that had three or four pools, some with salt water and some heated quite an exciting structure and for many years a great meeting place. Nearby was the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the 1915 World's Fair.
That was the normal topography of my life. As a child, I would go with my parents and sister, and with cousins and uncles and aunts, for Sunday picnics in Golden Gate Park, one of the largest and most beautiful urban parks in the country, and I remember all our drives through it. There was the area for buffalo, and the large aquarium, and a Japanese teahouse and garden with its little bridges, and Kezar Stadium, home of the San Francisco Seals, the double-A farm team of the New York Yankees, where Joe DiMaggio and Dom DiMaggio played and were trained by the famous batting coach Lefty O'Doul. I saw my first football games in that stadium. The city was also the cultural center of California, for everything except movies. There were theaters, the Geary and the Curran, and the Opera House and the Veterans Auditorium, a huge public library, and beautiful stores . In those days, no lady went downtown without wearing a hat and white gloves. There were few high-rise buildings. To this day, I remember the sound of the foghorn and the rich sea scent of the fog as it rolled into the Bay Area from the Pacific. There were only ferries then to take you across the bay to Oakland and the trains, and to Marin County. The ferries left from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, the dock area, where all the ships came in and were loaded and unloaded. In Chinatown, the largest in the world outside China, the street signs were all in Chinese; the district had its own telephone central, in Chinese. The Fillmore area, thick with drugs and rock music during the sixties, was the Jewish shopping district when I lived in San Francisco. There were stores where you bought herring and pickles and lox and rye bread. Fillmore and Divisadero Streets were like the lower East Side in New York. That was the world I grew up in.
I remember that my mother sometimes sang and my father played the piano. When I was six, I started piano lessons, shortly before my sister, Eva, was born. At that time, we were living on a street about three blocks from the northern side of Golden Gate Park. Across the street from us lived a family named Koblick, with whom my parents were friendly. They had a son named Nathan. When I was eight years old, Nathan was already playing the violin.
I've often said that I didn't return home from a concert one day and plead for a violin. Nor did I begin, at the age of five or six, to pick out melodies on the piano. None of that; nothing so mysterious, so romantic. My friend Nathan Koblick was playing the violin; therefore I wanted to play the violin. I can't recall what Nathan looked like as a child. The adult Nathan was tall, gaunt, with a long nose and a pained, sardonic expression on his face. He was, for a time, an insurance salesman and, later, a good tutti violinist with the San Francisco Symphony.
I don't remember how I acquired my first violin; probably my family got it for me. It was a little fiddle. I had one teacher for a while, then another, and another. Those teachers none of them particularly effective found that I was progressing beyond their capacity to teach me, at a faster pace than they could handle. I insisted on continuing with the violin, not because I thought I was musical but because Nathan Koblick was still playing. My parents must have turned to some friends for advice. Suddenly, for a reason not clear to me, I was enrolled in the Sunday school of San Francisco's prominent Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. I proved to be a very apt student, learning to read Hebrew in a short time and becoming the best Hebrew reader in my class. That I understood not a single word of what I was reading was another matter.
The cantor at the temple was a man named Reuben Rinder. He was a very good cantor of the old school, and he loved music. One day there was some occasion when I played the violin in the temple. Cantor Rinder chanced to hear me and suddenly realized he was hearing talent. He knew my family had no money for lessons; there was hardly any money then for us to live on. And so he spoke about me to a certain maiden lady.
I can only conjecture about all the connections that were taking place, none of which I understood at the time. Temple Emanu-El was founded in 1850 by German Jews. The building where I attended Sunday school had been built in 1925 by people of wealth and influence, people who knew music and the arts, who were supporters of the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of those supporters was a woman named Lutie D. Goldstein.
She was a little pigeon of a lady. High-heeled, but sensible high heels, not spike heels. Long skirt, white gloves, little black hat, sometimes with a veil; an elfin face, always with a ready smile. She had no family except for a sister. They were the only children of a man who had made a large fortune in produce, in central California. The two sisters lived not in a house but, I seem to remember, in the Mark Hopkins Hotel. I do remember that Lutie Goldstein rode around in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac. Such high class! She was among the group of people to whom the conservatory, the symphony, and the opera always went for support. Cantor Rinder suggested that I play for her. And she adopted me, financially and personally, if not legally. It was she who brought me to the attention of the conservatory and for many years supported me in my musical studies.
The heads of the conservatory at that time were Lilian Hodgehead and Ada Clement, two women who were determined to encourage culture and musical education in San Francisco. The conservatory was then situated in a ramshackle building on California Street, but it did have a faculty. The first decent music teacher I had was a man named Robert Pollak. There is a photograph of Mr. Pollak and his class, with me in there and my friend Miriam Solovieff, who now lives in Paris. She was six; I was eight. We remain friends to this day. I have another photograph of Mr. Pollak, this one of him alone, dated 1930, on which these words appear above his signature: "To my beloved pupil Isaac Stern May he watch every day over the treasure nature has given him."
After Robert Pollak, my teacher was Nathan Abas. By then I was the concertmaster of the conservatory orchestra. The criterion for the choice of a concertmaster was talent: who played best and could lead a group of players. I remember playing with Ernst Bloch, the famous Swiss composer, who was head of the school at the time and conducted the orchestra. One of the pieces he conducted, with me as concertmaster, was his Concerto Grosso. I wore short pants, and when I sat, my feet didn't reach the floor.
Music was a natural part of my parents' life, not an acquired social function. They would scrape together money to go to concerts; they owned a crank-up Victrola, with one of those arms that came down and had a bamboo stylus at the end that wore out after half-a-dozen plays. There were recordings by Stokowski and Toscanini in the house. It became quickly apparent to the people at the conservatory that I was an exceptional talent, and as soon as my parents realized it, there was suddenly pressure on me to study. They desperately wanted me to be a musician, a good musician. Of course, they cared about the element of success that came with being an accomplished performer, but that was not the driving force for them. What they wanted most was that my abilities be realized. My father took a great interest in my work, and my mother even more so. She was home all the time, and she kept me to the practicing grind when my tendency was to be elsewhere.
One day when I was ten years old, I suddenly discovered that I could do things on my own with the violin, things no one had taught me move the bow in certain new ways; feel my fingers on the strings; bring forth shades of sound. I do not believe in moments that come out of nowhere. As I see it, what happens is an accumulation of experiences that blossom into a sudden sense of self and the ability to actually do something on one's own. These moments differ from child to child; they depend so much on what the child has been exposed to. In my case, suddenly one day I became my own master. I wanted to play; I wanted to learn how to play better. I wanted to do it because I was beginning to revel in my own abilities. That was when things changed for me; when I began to discover what I could already do and to sense the possibilities of how much more I might be able to do. Never again did I need to be urged to practice.
At about that time, someone on the San Francisco Board of Education suddenly woke up and asked why I wasn't attending public school. I had been taken out of school by my parents at the age of eight because they had decided my time would be better spent practicing the violin than going to school. From time to time, I had what might laughingly be called tutors; they helped me read certain things, taught me the rudiments of mathematics. I was receiving no formal schooling, and the Board of Education decided I should be tested to find out how backward I was. They gave me the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, which was supposed to measure what the mental acuity of a child was at a given age. I took it for age ten, and it turned out that I had the capacity of a sixteen-year-old. The Board of Education told me that I was all right on my own, I should go on doing what I was doing, but I wonder about how much I missed by never having gone to high school and college. All my life I have learned from talking with people, from arguing, and from listening to others trying to convince me how wrong I was about some matter. I've made a profession of informal education.
Some months later, I gave my debut recital, in Sorosis Hall on Sutter Street. On the printed invitation, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music announced that "Isaac Stern, 10 year old student of Nathan Abas, would give a violin recital, with Miss Dora Blaney at the piano," on Tuesday, April 28, 1931. The music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle was present at the concert. In the review the following day, there was a comment about "a boy violinist of exceptional talent" and his excellent technical control of the instrument.
Around that time, I went to hear the pianist Ruth Slenczynska. Her father was there, and, informed that I was a young, promising violinist, he turned to me and said, "Show me your hands." Dutifully, I put out my hands. He took one look and said, "No good, you'll never be a fiddle player."
There is a picture of me, taken one year later, when I was eleven. I'm holding a violin. The picture, which appeared in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, carried below it a statement that "Isaac Stern, talented 11 year old violinist, pupil of Nathan Abas, will give a recital at the Community Playhouse next Thursday night." At that recital, I played Tartini's G Minor Sonata, Bloch's Abodah, Schubert's Ave Maria, the slow movement of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, Wieniawski's Scherzo-Tarantelle, and other pieces. The music critic of the Chronicle, Alexander Fried, wrote that the violin recital "proved that he belongs to the higher order of precocious talents," and singled out my playing of a Tartini sonata, where, he commented, "his musical insight, nurtured by a distinctive schooling, was especially apparent." That was the very same Tartini piece I played six years later in my Town Hall debut to considerably less praise from the New York critic Samuel Chotzinoff.
It was Lutie Goldstein who backed the idea of sending me to New York to study with Louis Persinger; she paid for the trip, the rented apartment, and the lessons. Louis Persinger had been Yehudi Menuhin's teacher in San Francisco and had since moved to New York, where he was one of that city's leading music professors. Someone had come up with the idea of having me play for him. I was almost thirteen; studying with Persinger seemed the next logical step for me. A letter went out to him, recommending that he take me as his student, and he replied affirmatively. My parents were informed; there were discussions; my parents, in turn, informed me. I was to travel to New York with my mother; we would live there for six months; I would study with Louis Persinger; my father and sister would remain in San Francisco and manage on their own. No one asked me what I wanted. "This is what we suggest will be good for Isaac," people said. And Isaac went along with it.
And so one day I found myself on the ferry to Oakland, together with my mother and Lutie Goldstein. In Oakland, my mother and I said our goodbyes to my benefactor and boarded the transcontinental train to Chicago. We must have had sleeping accommodations of some kind; I don't remember nights of sitting up. In Chicago, we took the Broadway Limited to New York. The trains crossed the country in the impossibly quick time of three days. I carried with me a fiddle I had borrowed from someone in San Francisco, a fiddle of now forgotten name and origin.
Louis Persinger turned out to be a warm, friendly man in his mid-fifties, dressed casually in a jacket and sport shirt. He was short and stocky, with hair around the perimeter of his head and more than slightly bald on top. Always with a chuckle in his voice, and his face wreathed in smiles. We met in his studio; I don't remember where it was located. Nor am I able to recall what I played for him. I do remember his playing the piano, and then picking up his violin and strumming the accompaniment, pizzicato, with the instrument tucked under his arm.
In the months that followed our first meeting, I went to him at least once a week. The time between lessons I spent with my mother in our apartment, practicing, always practicing. I was constantly astonished by Persinger's ability to play by heart the piano parts of any of the compositions I prepared for my lessons. He was a sweet, gentle, amiable man, not at all strict or demanding and, in retrospect, I'm not sure that amiability was what I then needed from a teacher.
As a child, I had only been taught some of the more rudimentary exercises of the Carl Flesch Book of Scales and Etudes. Flesch presented a series of scales, first single notes, then thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths; a method that trained a lot of people very well the kind of training I never received. It was a piece of artillery I didn't have; I had to develop my own artillery as time went on.
The money given us by Lutie Goldstein, a few thousand dollars, ran out, and I returned with my mother to San Francisco. I was by then no longer at the conservatory; I had left about a year before. People began to look around for another teacher for me. Again, Lutie Goldstein entered the picture. She knew that the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had just engaged a new concertmaster, a violinist named Naoum Blinder. When Blinder arrived, in 1931, the orchestra was on strike, and it remained on strike for a year. The conductor was Issay Dobrowen, who went off soon after the strike began and was replaced by Pierre Monteux, in 1932 or 1933. Monteux, one of the truly great conductors of our time, was the first great conductor whom I met and with whom I played.
Naoum Blinder had escaped from the Soviet Union with his wife and young daughter years before: he went to Japan on a concert tour and never returned to Russia. Eventually he came to New York to teach at the Institute of Musical Art, which later became the Juilliard School. His daughter, who was my age, had died suddenly in New York.
When he arrived in San Francisco to assume the role of concert-master of the orchestra, Blinder found himself in a phantom position because of the strike. It was arranged for me to play for him, and he took me on as his student in 1932. He was my first true teacher; my only real teacher, as a matter of fact. I studied with him for five years, until I was seventeen, and haven't studied violin with anyone else since.
Blinder was very special for me. He influenced the way I've felt about music-making and music-teaching throughout the rest of my life. He was not a classically trained musician; he didn't have the background in harmony and theory of the German instrumentalists who studied in Berlin in the twenties and early thirties. Nor was his train-ing that of the Carl Flesch method or the Russian school, where violin playing became ingrained by repetition and endless exercises of scales and études. He lived in a hectic time and had a more intuitive approach to music. His teacher had been a man named Adolph Brodsky, with whom he studied in Manchester, England. Before that, in Odessa, he had studied with Pyotr Stolyarsky, who had taught Milstein, Oistrakh, and others. It was Brodsky who had played the world premiere of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, so there was a direct line, a connection, from Blinder to that concerto.
He knew the standard literature of the violin and some chamber music, and learned a great deal more in San Francisco. He was the most intuitively gifted musician one can imagine, one who thought of the violin in terms of beauty and songfulness. Through him I learned some things that became my strengths, and did not learn some other things, which became my weaknesses. Most important, he taught me to listen, to think for myself. He taught me to become my own person, not an imitation of him, not merely his disciple, and I've found that to be one of the most valuable things I ever learned in music.
He didn't, on the other hand, insist, as did other great teachers, on daily exercises and on constant practicing of scales. I would use the scales in the Beethoven concerto or the chords in a Bach sonata to train myself to think harmonically. I played scales from various compositions, always changing the fingerings to suit the musical direction of that scale. Great violinists like Heifetz and Milstein, two generations older than I, shared that tradition of rock-solid grounding in the basic training of the hands and the bow arm; it gave them ease in performance and continuing strength in their later years. The same is true of others approximately my age, like Arthur Grumiaux, the great Belgian violinist, and the Russian Leonid Kogan; and, closer to our time, Gidon Kremer; and today, performers like Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Anne-Sophie Mutter. I envy the basic building-block training that all these superb artists experienced, and which gave them such a Gibraltar-like base on which to build. I remember that Heifetz, probably the greatest exponent of classical violin playing, would always ask violin students who gathered the courage to play for him, and somehow managed not to drop their instruments out of sheer fright, to do scales in odd keys not only C major, D major, or A major, but also F-sharp minor or E-flat major, in scales, arpeggios, octaves to test whether they had learned the proper, basic skills, a first necessity for violin study.
As I didn't have that training from Naoum Blinder, or from any of the teachers who had preceded him, I had to learn some of these basics on my own. I was fortunate to have had a natural facility for the instrument and a good ear for the underlying harmonies of whatever I was playing, whether it was a fast virtuoso piece or a slow, beautiful melody. And the cooperation between what my ear wanted to hear and what my hands wanted to do gave me a measure of the freedom I hear in some of my early recordings. As I developed and began a full-fledged concert career, I learned how to think about a new work and to train my hands as I practiced it; how to compensate for the physical difficulties and find ways to make the music simple and seemingly inevitable.
Today I am not completely convinced that I was gifted enough to do anything my ear and imagination demanded without having gone through the mill of endless basic preparation and mindless repetition that the other kind of training demanded. Yet that pitiless method of physical training by rote forced the fingers to play in preset patterns rather than encouraging a flexibility to change those patterns. I felt then, and still do, that the composer's musical directions to any series of notes always held primacy over playing the notes simply through some ingrained habit, but I know that many intelligent, gifted, and capable colleagues will disagree with me. At any rate, I had to discover for myself how to overcome numerous physical and technical problems; how to respond to the increasing difficulties I faced as I learned more and more literature for the violin and my repertoire began to grow. Those were among the things that Naoum Blinder thought it best to have me teach myself.
He was a tall, portly gentleman who always dressed in shirt and tie and generally wore a jacket and a vest with a gold chain and a gold watch. I have the watch to this day; his widow gave it to me. He had many students. As the concertmaster, he became the teacher of the area; young people came to him from everywhere. He was never dogmatic, never rude, never caustic. He spoke with an inherent dignity. His was a kind of benign strength. He didn't stamp out a student's personal approach to music so that one recognized the teacher, not the student. In time, his students constituted half the violin section of the orchestra. He was an astonishingly strong personality, without any trace of the egotistical about him. He encouraged me to follow my instincts and would stop me only when he felt I was doing something wrong. In other words, he let me develop my own voice on my instrument. His way of teaching became the forming ethic of my whole musical life. He taught me how to teach myself, and for that I will always be grateful. He was the single most important factor in my development.
We were very close. Later, when I came back as a successful traveling fiddler, I was allowed to call him Nousha. In a way, he adopted me and my future career as a memorial to his dead daughter though I understood that only years later, of course. When success came and the touring began, if I was anywhere near San Francisco I would go see him and play for him, and we would talk about music. We were good friends until his death, in 1965; and I remained close to his wife, Genia, until her death, in 1989.
Naoum Blinder and Pierre Monteux became very close, and their wives took to each other like sisters. The women looked much alike: squarish from the neck down to the ankles, with thickness to match. They were determinedly gracious, very careful to associate with the highest social elements in the city while making sure that their husbands were part of those elements. And they were both very good housekeepers.
Blinder organized a string quartet, first with Willem Dehe as cellist and later with his own brother, Boris, who had become the first cellist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I would listen to them play. Through him I got to know all the first-chair players of the symphony. At thirteen, I began to play chamber music once or twice every week with the best musicians in the city, who adopted me as their mascot. I played with Herman Reinberg, cello; Willem Dehe, cello; Al White, viola; Mafalda Guarnaldi, violin; Lev Schorr, pianist; and Frank Hauser, a pupil of Blinder's who in time replaced him as the concertmaster.
I remember Dr. Leo Eloesser, a leading surgeon, who was the unofficial physician of the orchestra, the doctor of virtually every one of its players. He was a short man with a birdlike neck who favored starched, inch-high collars, looked like a young man who had suddenly grown old, and played the viola horrifically. During the Spanish Civil War, he organized and paid for a field hospital and went over to Spain to care for wounded Loyalist troops. An exceptional human being. We would play chamber music in his apartment, which was near Lombard Street, or in Herman Reinberg's home on Maple Street. We played trios, quartets, sextets. You put music on the stand, and you played another couple of quartets. There was a hunger for music and food. We were nourished by both.
I was the new kid on the block, yet the men with whom I played treated me as an equal. They were in their thirties, forties, fifties; we were a generation or two apart; but I was accepted as a colleague. There was not the slightest hint of condescension from them. I was very careful not to make serious mistakes, because I knew I would never get away with them. Whenever they would hear me doing something wrong, they would lay into me like nothing you ever saw. They were without pity something for which I am everlastingly thankful. From them I learned how central chamber music was to the life of a musician.
Because I was a fresh talent and Blinder's student, I was taken by one person or another to every concert that came to town. And I was allowed to go to all the rehearsals of the orchestra, including those for the opera. When I was fifteen, I heard the Wagner Ring cycle for the first time, with the famous Wagnerian conductor Artur Bodanzky and a cast that included such "local" singers as Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Elisabeth Rethberg, Lotte Lehmann, and the great bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr. Great artists and great performances that left behind lasting impressions.
Watching Monteux rehearse and conduct, I began to learn repertoire simply by listening. And I was also listening to records at home on our Victrola. I heard my first recording of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 with Stokowski; to this day, I can remember listening to the last movement, the passacaglia, with the soaring flute solo played, I believe, by William Kincaid.
At fifteen, I heard for the first time performances of all the Beethoven and Bartók quartets, played by the Budapest String Quartet. They appeared at Mills College, in Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, where the composer Darius Milhaud was in residence at the time. Alexander (Sasha) Schneider, the quartet's second violin, and I played some tennis and, despite that, became very close friends, and when I moved to New York in 1940, he became my closest friend, both musically and personally, until his death in 1993. His thoughts and attitudes about life and music exerted a profound influence upon me. He was my severest and most unrelenting critic, loudly telling me the "troot," and also my greatest musical champion.
What a revelation it was to hear the entire cycle of Béla Bartók's six quartets! It led me to learn the twentieth-century language of Bartók's music, which was based on the great past of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.
During those teenage years, I heard Rachmaninoff give an all-Beethoven-sonata program; I heard Artur Schnabel; I heard Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. Music, all kinds of music, was my whole life. It was not just playing the fiddle; it was being a musician. It was talking, doing, living music. San Francisco's rich musical life was my training ground. It formed me.
It has taken this long look back for me to realize what a fortunate youthful life I had. One could enjoy the outdoors all year long in San Francisco; one listened constantly to music; one ate fairly decently. I still remember when we lived on Buchanan Street, a block or two from Union Street. My "teenage period" revolved around two friends, both also pupils of Blinder: Nathan Ross, a Canadian to whom my parents had rented a room in our house, and Henry Shweid. Nathan would do his practicing in his room and I in mine. We'd take a break and go out and play tennis on a nearby public court; my life-long passion for tennis was born on that court. Then, when we got thirsty, we'd go to a store and buy a watermelon, cut off the ends, slice it in half, and eat the whole thing. There was a fabulous ice-cream parlor on the corner of Union and Van Ness. Henry Shweid and I would slip away from practicing and get the greatest milk shakes God ever invented. Eight inches tall, and so thick that when you put a spoon in, it stood straight up. That was a real milk shake! My mother kept wondering why I wasn't losing weight.
In those years, there was, at least for me, no "dating," as the term is understood today. I remember one of Blinder's students, a girl, coming to me one day in a diaphanous dress and asking me to "listen to her play." I listened, and that was it. I didn't know what else to do. My teenage life was music.
I had a tutor for a while, and I began to read seriously. Between all the sessions with the violin were the books of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, John Dos Passos, and first readings of Shakespeare. One book that made a great impression upon me was Man, the Unknown, by Alexis Carrel. It made me aware of the awesome power of the human mind.
There were always people around the table in our house, my parents' friends and members of the family. All kinds of grown-up conversations took place. I learned from them what was going on politically. We read the morning Chronicle and Examiner and the afternoon Daily News. As far as I can recall, there were no Russian or Jewish newspapers in our house. The language of the house was English, with some occasional Russian. My sister, Eva, seven years younger than I, was going to school all through those years and was involved in her studies.
And, of course, there were the movies. To go to a movie, you traveled downtown to the Golden Gate Theater on Market Street, the city's major downtown thoroughfare. Those were the halcyon days of the movies, with orchestras in the pit. I especially loved the Westerns and the romantic comedies with Carole Lombard.
In February 1935, I made my recital debut at the Veterans Auditorium. I played the Bach Double Violin Concerto, with my teacher, Naoum Blinder. A woman named Betty Alexander, the first pianist I worked with professionally, was our accompanist. I remember also playing the Ernst Concerto, a fiendishly difficult work, which I haven't had the courage to play ever since. The critics were favorable. A year later, I played for the first time with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Civic Auditorium, a huge convention space one block south of City Hall. It was the Saint-Saëns B Minor Concerto; the orchestra was conducted by Willem Vandenberg, then the assistant conductor and first cellist. The critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Alfred Frankenstein, wrote, "There is nothing of the boy prodigy about his playing anymore."
In March 1937, I played my first really professional concert, with Pierre Monteux conducting. It was on a Friday afternoon, one of a series of concerts broadcast live coast to coast, sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco. Suddenly the country heard this young kid out of the West playing the Brahms Violin Concerto. Apparently it went quite well, because there was a ripple effect. That concert was the immediate launching point for my first tour, to the Pacific Northwest, on which I played concerts and recitals in Vancouver, B.C., Portland, and eastern Washington State.
Betty Alexander was once more my pianist. A gracious, quiet person, who seemed to me much older than what she was in fact: in her late forties. She wore her blond hair pulled back and was always beautifully dressed in what could be described more or less as English country style: light tweeds and sensible shoes. She was very well educated and extraordinarily gentle, but firmly helpful when necessary. She lived in San Francisco on Lombard Street, a steep, serpentine, narrow thoroughfare that at the time had only a few houses on it. Hers was the third from the top, and we rehearsed there often. She had a gentleman friend, the pianist Henri Deering, who lived in Carmel, and sometimes I would visit and work with her there.
In the summer of 1937, I played the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto at what was then called the Rosebowl Concerts, in Portland, Oregon. The conductor was Basil Cameron. Before the concert he carefully instructed me about doing something special onstage at the end of the second movement when the orchestra would be playing plik plik plik plik, and then the harp would go pyappyappyappyappyap, and I would play papapapopopop harmonics together with the flute, all very dainty. Basil Cameron said to me, "You know, Isaac, let me tell you how to make a success today and in your future years. When you come to this part, look up toward the heavens as if you were playing to the angels, and the whole audience will applaud." I don't recall if I looked up appropriately, but I do remember the advice.
By the time I was seventeen, I had appeared in many places in and around San Francisco, and people were beginning to say, "This is really talent, he should go to New York and make his debut." That was the start of the idea of my playing in New York, the dream for every musical family. You went there to prove your worth. It was too early for me to play Carnegie Hall, with its 2,800 seats, but the second venue, Town Hall, was beautiful and acoustically wonderful. It had about 1,500 seats.
Lutie Goldstein went to a local violin expert and asked him for a good violin, a really fine violin, for Isaac Stern to play, and he sold her a Giovanni Baptista Guadagnini for $6,500. She then gave it to me as a gift. Someone arranged with a New York management company to rent the hall, print the tickets, handle the advertising, contact the critics. For the second time, my mother and I traveled to New York, sponsored by Lutie Goldstein.
There was a sense of destiny about that trip, especially on the part of my parents. From the time I was ten, they had shaped their lives to the needs of their wunderkind, and they hoped with all their hearts for my success. Menuhin was by then world-famous, and he was only four years older than I. Two other prodigies had emerged from San Francisco: the pianist Ruth Slenczynska and the violinist Ruggiero Ricci. All of San Francisco saw me as an equally magical talent. Friends from the orchestra accompanied me on the ferry to see me off. Now came the necessary moment of self-realization on the stage of Town Hall.
People in San Francisco wrote letters to their friends in New York, asking them to attend the concert. Many people were pushing tickets. Critics were called and cajoled into attending, which may account, in part, for their grudging reaction. Lots of free tickets were given out to create an audience.
The hall was by no means full. I wore a dark suit, a white shirt, a dark tie. I remember very little about the hours before the concert. My accompanist was Arpád Sándor. We rehearsed, and I played the concert. Bach. Wieniawski. Tartini. Novácek. Glazunov. Szymanowski. An enormous program. A friend of mine said later, "Isaac, what were you trying to do, play the whole violin repertoire in one concert?"
I have no clear memory of the audience. I probably did then what I've always done: play the violin and, once in a while, cast a glance at the audience. Once it becomes fixed in my mind that there are live people out there, I can close my eyes and just play, because I know the audience is there and listening. I've always had to have a vision of faces around me when I play.
After the concert, people started coming backstage. My mother. Friends. Later, we went out and ate. There was an excellent restaurant around the corner from the hall, a German sauerkraut, sauerbraten, and beer restaurant. I needed to eat.
The reviews started coming in the next day. That was a time when you were reviewed immediately after a performance. I went out early the next morning and bought the papers and read the reviews with my mother in our apartment. We were so bitterly disappointed. I was the Great White Hope of San Francisco's music world. Everything had come so easily to me until then; I'd been so lauded for my playing and had simply taken it for granted that Town Hall would be a continuation of my successes. Instead, as I kept reminding myself on the upper deck of that bus riding up and down Manhattan, I was being patted on the head by some of New York's most eminent critics and told that I hadn't yet crossed the "Great Divide" into the lofty realm of the artist; that my playing was "erratic"; that I ought to go back to San Francisco, to the "land of violinistic prodigies, movie 'yes-men' and sunshine," and practice some more. Each of the three New York radio symphony orchestras had offered me the position of concertmaster that meant money for the family instead of a continued struggle for income, security instead of uncertainty, stability instead of a life of never-ending travel. And if I went back to San Francisco, spent another year or two practicing and practicing, and then returned to Town Hall, how could I be certain that I would succeed even then?
Back and forth on that Manhattan bus, my head and heart churning, while my frantic mother kept telephoning to find someone who might know where I was. I recall finally saying to myself, "What the hell." I had invested so much of my life in music, I couldn't quit now. I would keep trying. I would give the career another year, another two years. I would go back to San Francisco and practice, practice, practice, and play. And I would return to Town Hall for a second chance.