The Strad: Violinist Isaac Stern in China

The Strad
Excerpts from Violinist Isaac Stern in China

Captured in the 1979 Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart, Isaac Stern had a transformative effect on China's classical music scene - more than he ever knew. Today his legacy lives on with the launching of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition. Nancy Pellegrini talks to son David Stern and some of the film's stars about the 'Stern effect.'

The year was 1979. Emerging from decades of isolation and political turmoil, China had just opened its door to the West, and legendary violinist Isaac Stern was hoping to peek inside. The result was the Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart, which chronicles Stern's visit to music conservatoires in Beijing and Shanghai. This brilliant, touching film gave Westerners an insight into life behind the Bamboo Curtain, while igniting Chinese careers and changing music in China forever. The Stern family has continued its association with the country, but it is China that will never forget. August 2016 was the start of the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (SISIVC), which organisers hope will help to inspire and motivate a new generation of musicians.

Isaac Stern had long used his musicianship to build bridges and foster talent, touring the Soviet Union in 1951, helping save New York’s Carnegie Hall from destruction, and mentoring a host of promising young players including Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman. While some claimed his extra-musical efforts were hampering his own skills, music and humanity were, to him, simply extensions of each other. China opening up to the West was his next logical frontier.

However, when even US diplomat and close friend Henry Kissinger couldn't help him gain entrance, Stern had a strategically casual dinner with China's foreign minister, and an evening conversation became an official invitation. The film was also a product of family friends, but the Sterns insisted it be about China, not them. 'Even when I see it today, that's what impresses me; it was so unpretentious,' says David Stern, whose clear admiration for his father still resonates. 'It wasn't a grand master delivering the word. My father had lived a life that very few people can live, and all he wanted to do was share it.'

Wang is certain that Stern brought about a seismic change in China's music scene. 'He showed us, he told us, he demanded from us that music was all about expressing yourself,' he says. 'The content is more important than the presentation - and in those days in China, presentation was everything.' China had talented teachers, he recalls, but the general trend was to study the form and imitate the West. 'We did not have the confidence nor the tradition to say that music is only a tool to express yourself,' he recalls. 'Isaac Stern said "I don't care how you play, but you have to say something."'

Maybe even more than music, Stern was known for mentorship, which is why the family eventually allowed his name to be attached to Shanghai's newest competition. But they had concerns. 'This was not an easy birth because my father principally believed that music is not a competition,' says David Stern. In fact, Isaac had avoided the competition circuit and nurtured talent so that others could do the same. But times have changed. 'An Isaac Stern of today would not have the influence he did then; the music world was smaller, moved slower, had more patience,' he says. 'Today it is increasingly difficult for young musicians to get their chance.'

Launched by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) to discover talent and honour Stern's legacy in China, the SISIVC has been designed with Stern in mind. This means that, although virtuosity is rewarded, musicianship and development will come first. David Stern himself insisted on a chamber music round, and organisers will introduce the most promising candidates to top music agencies. The jurors' scores and comments will be released to the public, so that candidates can receive further feedback. And the SSO and principal sponsor China Pacific Insurance's musical outreach programme 'The Rhythm of Life' will allow competition laureates to give concerts with the orchestra at venues across the country. 'The programme is entrusting young musicians with enriching the life and culture of urban centres around the country,' says SO president and SISIVC executive president Fedina Zhou, 'fulfilling its core philosophy of bringing music to the ears of many, and turning "soloists" into "musicians".'

Tsu, who serves with Stern as jury co-chair, feels that Shanghai - and indeed China - is due for an international competition of this scope, and is already excited about the contestants' high level. Wang feels there is no better homage to Stern. 'He cultivated and propelled so many new careers; some of the greatest performers alive are performing because of him. There are only one or two in the history of music like that. We need to keep his legacy alive.' Li also sees overwhelming positives, and points out that when it comes to music in China, SSO music director Long Yu has the Midas touch. 'Everything he organises blossoms so much,' he says. 'With anyone else I would be sceptical, but with him I have confidence that this will be great.' He also says that while many competition winners disappear after a handful of concerts,' Yu's myriad orchestra connections will be a boon for the winners. 'This will build a concrete career for these young soloists.'

But the most important factor is to keep Isaac Stern's legacy, and the From Mao to Mozart spirits alive. 'My father was one of the few who managed to elevate everyone around him,' says David Stern, 'whether it was a conversation in a restaurant or playing a violin concerto.' And this will indeed be a family affair. The violinist's daughter Shira will be presenting the Isaac Stern Award, granted to the person in any field, from any country, who best uses music to improve society. His son, conductor Michael Stern, will conduct the orchestra for the final round, before working with Yo-Yo Ma on a 2017 youth festival in Guangzhou. David Stern has been conducting in China several times a year since 1999, when he led his father and other film alumni (including Wang and Tsu) in a 20th-anniversary From Mao to Mozart concert. Today he runs an annual Baroque festival in Shanghai and teaches vocal masterclasses. He repeatedly insists he is not following in his father's footsteps, saying, 'I just believe in it and I love doing it.'

But perhaps the best takeaway is Isaac Stern's address at the end of the film: 'If you do not think that music can say more than words, that there can be no life without music; if you do not believe these things, then don't be a musician.' Says David Stern of his father's advice. 'It's the strongest defence of arts I've ever heard.' Words to live by indeed.