We look at a Ukranian genius down under

Written by Paul Cooke

On one occasion in 1954, at an inadequately heated Sydney Town Hall, Isaac Stern, playing a “great deal of Bach”, had to rush backstage between every movement to immerse his hands in hot water. Despite this and the fact that, at another concert, proceedings were temporarily halted by a chirping cricket, Mary Cleveland, wife of the US consul, felt that attending all eight of Stern’s Sydney concerts “was one of the great musical experiences” of her life.

Isaac Stern was born on 21 July 1920 in the small Ukrainian town of Kremenetz. While he was still an infant, his family fled the uncertainties of the Russian Revolution and moved to San Francisco where his mother had relatives. She, a professional singer, gave him his first musical lessons. Stern regarded Naoum Blinder as his only true teacher, learning from him not only the violin and about music in general but also about “attitude, ethical stance, and commitment”. He made an unofficial debut in 1936 playing Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 and his official debut the following year with Brahms’ Violin Concerto. His repertoire would extend from Vivaldi to Dutilleux, and he was renowned for playing each piece with impeccable technique and tone and in its “proper style”.

In 1947 Stern toured Australia. Although during the war years he had travelled to Iceland, Greenland and the South Pacific entertaining troops, this was his first ‘civilian’ tour outside North America. His name was new to many Australians because his recordings had not yet reached them, owing to wartime restrictions; they were more likely to have seen his hands and heard his playing in the recently released film Humoresque. It was the beginning of a long and affectionate association. Stern made frequent and often lengthy tours until the early 1970s. He visited not only capital cities but also regional centres such as Armidale, Broken Hill, Shepparton and Toowoomba; during his 1954 tour his itinerary encompassed 33 appearances during 13 weeks. He was praised by the Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer in 1947 for “his remarkable gifts – great strength and faultless attack in strongly accented passages and a masterly legato in sustained melody”, and in 1954 for his “all-round warmth and breadth of musicianship”.

In 1947, Stern had attended a performance by the Queensland State String Quartet, met the Australian violinist Ernest Llewellyn, and been impressed by the tonal qualities of his playing. On his subsequent tour they played Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He also facilitated Llewellyn’s visit to America on a Fulbright Scholarship: when Llewellyn founded the Canberra School of Music, he acknowledged Stern as its ‘father’ and the Juilliard School as providing its blueprint. On his last concert tour of Australia, Stern inspected the incomplete school and then, in 1985, visited Australia to participate in a benefit concert in tribute to Llewellyn, with the proceeds going to fund a scholarship.

Through Llewellyn, Stern met the violin maker A.E. Smith. He was one of those visiting musicians who would allow Smith to model instruments on the examples of such as Stradivari. Smith in return made a copy of a Joseph Guarneri violin for Stern in appreciation of his great artistry, his support of Llewellyn and “what it can mean to the musical advancement of this country”.