My Life with Isaac Stern by Aaron Rosand
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Max Adler (a wealthy benefactor) introduced me to Isaac in 1946 in his Chicago home and played a recorded live performance of Tchaikovsky concerto that I had done with the Louisville Symphony. He seemed impressed but couldn’t resist making critical comments. We kept in touch, and I visited him in Hollywood later that year after a concert that I played in Tulare, CA. He was doing the musical background for the movie “Humoresque” that was a big break for his career. Heifetz was the first call, but he asked for $150,000.00. Isaac got the chance for $7,500.
I was introduced to Franz Waxman, who wrote the musical score for the movie, in Isaac’s rented home (formerly the home of Marilyn Davies). Waxman heard me perform soon afterwards and proposed a plan to record four Russian concertos; Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Khachaturian, and Khrennikov, with the Leningrad Philharmonic that he was going to conduct the following year. His idea was for an American violinist to be the first to record with a Russian orchestra after the war, perhaps a good will gesture. When Isaac learned of this, he informed Sol Hurok who immediately scuttled the plan on the grounds that he was presenting the orchestra on tour and that he would cancel the tour if they did not use one of his artists.
In 1950, I secretly married Eileen Flissler. She was a brilliant pianist and can be heard in our early recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms complete. On occasion, we visited and performed in Stern’s New York apartment where he had frequent musical gatherings. Isaac was very envious of our relationship and informed Max Adler of our marriage. Adler who had (other) ideas for me and his granddaughter promptly cut his support. I had to give up the violin that he had loaned to Rembert Wurlitzer, a New York violin dealer. Wurlitzer was very kind to me for the next six years in letting me use great violins that kept me going.
In 1951, Issac married Vera Lindenblit, who came to America to promote Israeli bonds. He used this connection to his advantage in making contact with the wealthy Jewish community, many of whom were sitting on the boards of major orchestras and in Hollywood.
Several years went by when I did not see or contact him. In 1956, needing a violin that I could call my voice, I ventured to buy the ex-Kochanski Guarnerius. It was considered one of the best violins in existence. I was too proud and unsuccessful as a fundraiser and set my mind to do it by myself. In order to get bank credit, I needed a steady salary, and I accepted a position for the CBS Broadcasting Network that guaranteed a weekly paycheck and gave me free time to continue my concert career. Shumsky, Ricci, Spivakovsky, Mischakoff did the same for other networks. My first bank call was to the Chase Manhattan bank where I personally knew the vice president Frederic R. Mann from my students days at the Curtis Institute. He was dating a harp player who happened to be the best friend of my first wife. We shared many interesting evenings together. This, by the way, is the Frederic R Mann of the FRM Auditorium in Tel Aviv Israel.
His immediate response to my call was “Sure Aaron I will call you back in an hour.” He called me back in a rage using unprintable language saying that “Isaac wants that violin and I am not going to help you.” And so, I began to understand the real Godfather in support of Israeli Artists.
In 1957, a surprise call from Isaac inquiring if I had read an article in the NY Times the previous day, concerning the first Tchaikovsky competition to be held in Moscow in 1958. The article mentioned that any American artist who could pass the first stage would have expenses paid by the Rusian government. Isaac said that there was a committee meeting, and it was decided that I would be the logical candidate to be sent to the competition. Isaac had already organized a music advisory board that consisted of John Majeski of Musical America, William Schuman Director of the Juilliard School and other prominent musical figures. I told Isaac that I was over age in 1958. The age limit was 30 and I would be 31. “No concern” was his reply.
“We will fix your passport. We know that you are working for CBS and we’ll pay your salary for three months if you just stay at home and practice with Eileen prior to the competition date. I’ll coach you during that time.” I thanked him for the offer but turned it down, not
wanting to hurt my career if I did not win a first prize. I recollect that the majority of judges were Russian, and I did not think the competition would be fair.
The Ford Foundation Grant in 1959; according to two eyewitnesses at a meeting to give grants to American artists, my name was high on the list. When my name came up Isaac Stern who by this time was a master spokesperson and sitting on many boards, announced that I had gone commercial in working for CBS and not worthy of an award. The witnesses were Marks Levine director of National Concert and Artist Corporation and John Majeski who related the incident to me and were shocked, because they considered Isaac to be my friend. I lost the opportunity to premiere an American composer concerto (to be determined) with several major orchestras.
In 1960, my New York premiere of Samuel Barber’s concerto with the NY Philharmonic – Leonard Bernstein had chosen me to be one of the first soloists of his tenure as conductor of the NY Philharmonic. Being an American he thought it fitting that I do the Barber, which was relatively unknown at the time. He planned to record it with me five to six weeks after the concert. A fuming Isaac Stern was waiting in the wings when we walked off stage after the first performance. He never shook my hand, grabbed Bernstein and took him to his dressingroom. I walked out alone for the bows and from then on Bernstein attitude towards me changed. Isaac hurriedly learned the concerto and recorded it five weeks later for Columbia Records. The entire orchestra knew about this and spread the word “earn with Stern” as Isaac always went overtime in sessions that he paid for. Isaac did his own editing and splicing to correct his intonation. The Beethoven for example had close to 400 splices a fact well known in the recording business.
Leonard Bernstein apologized to me 25 years later over several glasses of Scotch. We participated in a Curtis Institute Anniversary concert in 1986. He told me that Isaac had threatened to cancel his five concerto recordings with the NY Philharmonic if he recorded the Barber concerto with me. In 1961, my career began to move forward with major orchestral engagements and conductors such as Vladimir Golshman, Izler Solomon,Blomstedt, Walter Hendl, etc. Peculiarly, at gatherings after concerts, conductors and board members always mentioned that Isaac Stern had called that day to send regards. Isaac knew my exact schedule and in his own clever way tried to poison my success by saying that I had become commercial. His faint praise was very damaging with many noted conductors.
Around this time I came to know Henryk Szeryng, and through my good friend Sheldon Gold, who was working for Sol Hurok, I was able to salvage his career in America. Hurok was going to drop him from his roster, undoubtedly through the instigation of Issac Stern, and I was able to convince Sheldon that Szeryng was one of the great players of our time. Sheldon Gold kept him going and Szeryng repaid me by introducing me to his manager Maurice Dandelot, one of the premier impresarios in Europe. It was a prophecy fulfilled as Nathan Milstein seven to eight years earlier had told me to go to Europe to be appreciated. In his words, “You are too good violinist but you are American and will not be recognized here. Go to Vienna and you will be king in ten years.”
1962-1975 I had a very busy concert career in Europe. During this period I had another call from Columbia Records. Two of the producers, Tom Frost, and Lou (?) decided that I should do a virtuoso disc that would be called “The Relentless Virtuoso”. Once again, Isaac interfered and promoted Pinchas Zukerman who was just beginning his career in America. The project was abandoned and the only disc I ever made for Columbia was in an album of black composers which I recorded< with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1975. It is a very difficult technical work similar to Wieniawski’s F Sharp Minor Concerto that both Stern and Zukerman would not attempt to play.
I rarely encountered Isaac for a number of years. In the early 80s I was on tour in Korea and went to an embarrassing performance in Seoul of Isaac playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with the orchestra. Seeing him backstage really surprised him, and he was full of excuses and
apologetic for his poor performance. There were several large gatherings where we crossed paths and he was unfriendly. Then one day, years later, out of the blue he called me in a tone of voice that I had never heard from him, to say that he had never done anything to hurt me and that I had hurt myself. It was a lengthy call, very unlike him, in an attempt to atone for all the harm he had perpetrated over the years.
I have never disclosed what I am writing to you. It would only have sounded like sour grapes and bitterness. But as you asked for my history with Isaac Stern I feel it necessary to speak the truth and clear my conscience.
Isaac was a powerful player, and a superb musician with a beautiful tone. He did not have a virtuoso technique but whatever he did was convincing in bull like fashion. He was extremely smart, ruthless, very articulate, political, a genius at fundraising (Carnegie Hall is an example) and generous when he benefitted from it. I am not convinced that he used his own money on behalf of talents he believed in. He was power hungry and always wanted to remain in control. I offended him early on when I refused his offers to coach me.
(c) Aaron Rosand / www.slippedisc.com
My Life with Isaac Stern by Aaron Rosand
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