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Stern bio

Nineteen-year-old Isaac Stern first appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 11 and 12, 1940. Frederick Stock conducted an all-Sibelius program, and Stern was soloist in the Violin Concerto.

According to the Chicago Daily News, “Dr. Frederick Stock had been invited to conduct the Sibelius concert with the Helsingfors Orchestra [arranged when Stock visited Sibelius in Finland the previous summer] as a special feature of the Olympic Games.* But Finland has had to abandon peacetime pursuits and now Isaac can thank the Russian regime for both his American citizenship and the chance to play the Sibelius D minor concerto with one of the world’s great orchestras.”

“True to the topsy-turvy condition of the world we live in, while the Finns are playing havoc with the Russians, at home a Russian-born violinist, young Isaac Stern, was the sensation of Mr. Stock’s memorable Sibelius concert at Orchestra Hall last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Journal of Commerce. “[Stern] has a commanding and comprehensive technique, a bold and beautiful tone never blatant and he has an urgent intensity of projection that seems to start in his firmly planted heels and flow like fire into the hands that make his music. . . . Stock’s accompaniment was brilliant in the perceptive richness that makes so many soloists prefer him to any other conductor.”

Isaac Stern and music director designate Daniel Barenboim after the Centennial Gala concert on October 6, 1990

Isaac Stern and music director designate Daniel Barenboim after the Centennial Gala concert on October 6, 1990 (Jim Steere photo)

Over the course of the next fifty-two years, Stern was one of the Orchestra’s most frequent guests at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, and at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, performing under six music directors (Stock, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim) and a variety of guest conductors, including Fritz Busch, Andrew Davis, Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer, Josef Krips, Pierre Monteux, Eugene Ormandy, Seiji Ozawa, and Leonard Slatkin. In 1986, Stern and Yo-Yo Ma recorded Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello with Claudio Abbado for CBS.

*On July 16, 1938, a year after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, it was announced that the 1940 Summer Olympics would not be held in Tokyo, as originally scheduled. The International Olympic Committee then awarded the games to Helsinki, the runner-up city in the original bidding process. However, following the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, the Olympic Games were indefinitely suspended and did not resume until 1948.

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Chicago Sun-Times - July 12, 1953

“In 1953, I made my first visits to the United States. Interestingly enough, given the turn my career eventually took, my North American debut was originally scheduled to take place at the Ravinia Festival . . . with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But my U.S. visa application was turned down. The American consul in Frankfurt kindly explained that my visa had been denied because I was listed as belonging to the Soviet Friendship Association, a Communist organization. I couldn’t understand how this could be, as I had never belonged to any political group.

“Fortunately, I knew a Dr. Müller, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and he telephoned the police in Munich to authorize them to show me the document. This document turned out to be a list, prepared by this Communist organization, of prominent non-Communists in cultural life who were to have propaganda material sent to them. With that information in hand, I went back to Frankfurt and explained to the American consul that the list they had seized was not a list of members of the Communist party, but merely a mailing list of people in cultural life. . . . Indeed, in the late 1940s, representatives of the U.S. military government in Bavaria had informed me that if I wanted to maintain my position in Munich, I would have to give up my Hungarian citizenship; by then, Hungary had become a Soviet satellite state. I was not sad about renouncing my original nationality, but being stateless for the next few years presented endless bureaucratic complications. In the end, the West German government kindly offered me German citizenship, which I gratefully accepted, and I remained a German national for nearly twenty years.

“Eventually, I got my U.S. visa, but it came so late that I had to cancel my Ravinia engagement. However, my American debut took place . . . when I conducted the San Francisco Opera.”*

The advance program advertisement in the Ravinia Festival program book during the first week of July 1953

The program that would have been Solti's U.S. debut on July 14, 1953

Programs for that week’s concerts were revised. Otto Klemperer, who had conducted the previous week, stayed over for the July 14 and 16 concerts (ironically, according to the advertisement: “one critic, after Solti’s appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic, called him ‘a young Klemperer'”). Pierre Monteux, scheduled for the following week, arrived early to lead the July 18 and 19 performances.

*Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.

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