Isaac Stern, one of the last great violinists of his generation, died Saturday of heart failure at a New York hospital. He was 81.
Stern was a mentor to generations of classical musicians who followed him, including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Yo-Yo Ma.
He oversaw the resurgence of Carnegie Hall for more than four decades as its president, working to improve its productions and programs even as his heart disease worsened this year.
“It’s such a major loss to the musical world because he was larger than life,” said pianist Joseph Kalichstein, who performed with Stern in May in Japan in one of the violinist’s last concerts.
Stern commanded a rich tone and steady rhythm from his 18th century Guarneri. With his dynamo energy and fluid bow strokes, he was equally at home with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the convulsions of 20th century composers. He was one of the most recorded classical musicians in history, making well over 100 recordings.
A supporter of Israel as well as a tireless concertizer, teacher and raconteur, Stern played well over 175 performances by the late 1990s at Carnegie Hall.
In the late 1950s, as the city was planning Lincoln Center, a developer proposed razing Carnegie Hall and building an office tower. Stern rallied the opposition, eventually securing legislation that enabled the city to acquire the building.
Stern was born in 1920 in Ukraine. His parents brought him to America when he was 10 months old, settling in San Francisco. They started him on the piano at age 6. Two years later, after hearing a friend’s violin playing, he picked up the fiddle.
He studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and with Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony and a violinist of the Russian school of playing.
At 16, Stern attracted his first national attention, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a concert broadcast on national radio.
Seven years later, on Jan. 8, 1943, he made his Carnegie Hall debut, performing with pianist Alexander Zakin, who became his longtime accompanist.
He later played in countless places around the world: Iceland, Greenland and the South Pacific for Allied troops during WWII; Moscow after Stalin’s death; Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus immediately after Israeli soldiers recaptured it in 1967; China after Washington restored full diplomatic relations in 1979. One country in which he refused to perform was Germany, which he boycotted for years because of the Holocaust.
During the 1991 Gulf War, a concert in Jerusalem was interrupted by a siren warning of an Iraqi Scud missile attack. After the audience put on gas masks, Stern returned to the stage and played the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin.
Through the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, Stern helped finance the studies of many Israeli performers, including Perlman and Zukerman.
At his peak, Stern performed more than 200 concerts a year.
He also played in the movies “Humoresque,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and on TV’s “Sesame Street.” The Oscar-winning documentary “From Mozart to Mao” chronicled Stern’s performance and tutoring in China in 1979 after the Cultural Revolution.
Stern ended his boycott of Germany in 1999 for a nine-day teaching seminar. He still didn’t perform, but said he felt it was time to see how young German musicians were absorbing their musical heritage.
“I have a responsibility to pass on to the next generation what I learned from my teachers,” Stern said.
Survivors include his wife, Linda Reynolds Stern, whom he married in 1996; three children from a previous marriage, daughter Shira, a rabbi, and sons Michael and David, both conductors; and five grandchildren.