Isaac Stern's inspiration

Posted: Sep 28, 2001 12:00 AM
Life goes on in the post-9-11 world. So, alas, does death. This weekend, world-renowned violinist Isaac Stern left us after 81 blessed years. He died of heart failure. What a huge, roaring heart it was. As we continue to mourn and tremble and rage in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America, we can draw inspiration from the legacy of Isaac Stern. He wasn't just a virtuoso musician who touched millions of souls with his talent and passion. He wasn't just a cultural champion who spread the joy of music on "Sesame Street" and saved New York City's Carnegie Hall from destruction. He wasn't just a ubiquitous mentor who nurtured generations of musicians including violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman, conductor Zubin Mehta, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Isaac Stern was more. He was an all-American symbol of artistic freedom and political courage. Born in the Ukraine, reared in San Francisco after his parents fled during the Russian Revolution in 1921, and settled in Manhattan during the twilight of his career, Stern fearlessly -- and cheerfully -- defied barbarian forces with every breath and every stroke. In 1951, he became the first American violinist to tour the Soviet Union -- where he publicly challenged Nikita Khrushchev in a debate about open artistic exchanges between the Soviet Union and the West. He later refused to tour again until artistic freedom was restored to the Communist regime. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel was wracked by terrorist attacks from Arab neighbors on all fronts, Stern gave a moving performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Leonard Bernstein. He played atop Jerusalem's Mount Scopus immediately after soldiers had recaptured it. Stern returned to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to perform in hospitals for wounded patients. In 1979, Stern visited China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution -- under which Chinese musicians were thrown in jail or executed for listening to, and performing, Western classical music. A documentary of the tour sanctioned by Stern (titled "From Mao to Mozart") exposed the world to the sad story of Tan Shuzhen, a violinmaker imprisoned for over a year for the crime of crafting Western instruments. Even if you're no fan of classical music, you may remember the most indelible image of Stern from a decade ago. It's an image that has profound relevance for Americans today: A dapper old gentleman, dressed in formal concert clothes, standing alone on stage. Violin tucked comfortably under his chin. Bow in his right hand. And gas mask completely covering his face. The venue was the Jerusalem Theater in Israel. The date was February 23, 1991. The Persian Gulf War was underway. Stern had flown from the United States to show support for the Jewish state under siege. He donned the gas mask at a rehearsal, during which he was photographed. Newspapers around the globe published the picture after what happened later that day. In the middle of Stern's performance of Mozart's 3rd violin concerto, a jarring note sounded. It was the wail of air-raid sirens signaling a missile alert. The audience had been prepped before the concert to expect an attack from Iraq. Though they feared for their lives in anticipation of a Scud missile explosion, the music-lovers -- dressed in fine evening wear -- remained in their seats and put on their gas masks. Stern stood in place and waited for calm. He did not put on a gas mask as he had during rehearsal. Instead, breathing free, he launched into a performance of the haunting Sarabande from Bach's D minor Partita No. 2 for solo violin. "When you believe in something," Stern once told CNN's Larry King, "you can move mountains." And thwart monsters. Stern's lifelong example of eternal optimism and determined civility in the face of evil should inspire us all. We cannot let our enemies conquer us and cow us into fearful submission. Embrace life. Promote freedom. Celebrate beauty. And resolve -- bravely, stubbornly and cheerfully -- to play on.