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Early one October morning in 1937 I boarded a double-decker bus at 72nd Street in Manhattan and disappeared. I was seventeen years old. For the next six hours, no one knew where I was: not my mother, whom I had left at our apartment without informing her that I was going out, nor our friends. The bus traveled up and down the length of Manhattan, from Washington Square to Washington Heights and back again, and I rode and rode, entirely unaware of what I was doing.
I sat on the top deck, gazing out at the streets but not taking in what my eyes were seeing. I had to face a critical moment in my life, and I needed to be alone. My head was filled with the reviews of my debut performance at Town Hall on the evening of October 10. The reviews, I thought, were disastrous.
One critic, writing that I had "sailed into Tartini's 'Devil's Trill' Sonata with the greatest aplomb, revealing a big, beautiful tone of the G string and a pleasant one on the others," added a tart comment about my "generally erratic understanding of the structure and the musical content of the ancient and honorable composition." About my playing of the Glazunov Concerto in G Minor, that same critic wrote that "the work brought no new elements from the violinist's equipment to the surface" and alluded to "a few technical smears."
Another critic began his review with these condescending words: "From that far away land of violinistic prodigies, movie 'yes-men' and sunshine, California, there comes yet another violinist"; and then went on to mention, as if in passing, that I had "definite possibilities." A third wrote, "His tone is good, especially in the lower part of the scale," but added, concerning my technique, "it can scarcely be called transcendent."
I remember yet another critic mentioning that violinists seemed to be "as prevalent in California as oranges," and while conceding that "his talent is indubitable," nevertheless concluded that "one was not wholly convinced that he has actually traversed the Great Divide that separates the promising player from the artist."
I had hoped that my Town Hall debut would be the moment of breakthrough for me, the beginning of a career as a solo concert violinist. Instead, the New York critics were telling me to go home and practice some more, to learn how to ride the horse better. And, riding that bus, I was asking myself repeatedly: Should I keep on trying to become a concert violinist, or should I take one of the many jobs I had been offered by symphony orchestras in New York for more money than I had ever dreamed of making, money that would have meant security for my family?
The hours went by. I didn't know it at the time, but there was a huge panic developing over my disappearance. My mother was telephoning friends to find out where I was. She called the concert manager's office and was beginning to consider calling the police.
In the meantime, I was riding back and forth, trying to decide. My mind was churning. I sat there, letting it churn.
I had come for that Town Hall performance from San Francisco, where I grew up and still lived with my parents and my younger sister, Eva. My father, Solomon -- a dour man, then in his mid-forties -- was born in Kiev. There are pictures of him as a dashing young man with a goatee, wearing high boots and an open silk shirt and holding an easel and a paintbrush. He came from the upper-middle class, as did my mother, Clara, who was seven years younger than he. Her birthplace was Kreminiecz, a town on the Russian-Polish border. My parents told me that they and their families, who had been there for at least a generation or two, always considered the town Russian. And during the week of my birth, my mother had received a scholarship to study singing at the conservatory in St. Petersburg, which was then headed by the famous composer Alexander Glazunov. In order to study in St. Petersburg at that time, she'd had to wear a yellow star, a rule for Jews living outside what was called the Pale. During the turbulent years of 1918-1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Kreminiecz changed hands about every two weeks. I was born there on July 21, 1920. It was the Polish two-week period.
In the midst of the Russian Civil War and shortly after the failed Bolshevik invasion of Poland, my father obtained a Polish passport and a visa to the United States. The passport showed his profession to be artist-painter, and his domicile Kreminiecz. After months of travel through Siberia and across the Pacific, we arrived in San Francisco, where my mother's older brother had settled some years before. I was ten months old.
My parents' language was Russian; neither spoke English. They knew a little Yiddish, but it was not a language we used in the house. It's a very expressive language, with many untranslatable phrases, and my parents would use it only to heighten or color certain comments. There was no hint, in anything my parents said, of their having lived anything remotely resembling a traditional Jewish life in Kreminiecz.
I doubt that my father ever had a bar mitzvah, and he felt no inclination to insist that I should, so I didn't. The traditional Jewish home -- challah every Friday night, candles, prayers -- did not exist for us. Religion played no part in my family's life.
Politics, yes -- we were refugees from Russia. My parents were well educated, and naturally liberal. I was impressed then, and still am, by the truth that you can take a Russian out of Russia but you can never take Russia out of a Russian. My parents had nothing to do with Soviet life or the Communist cause. There were long political discussions between them and with other Russian émigrés; they were part of a large group of people to whom everything Russian was familiar and necessary.
My father wasn't trained in a profession. As an artist of sorts, he knew a little bit about paints, so he became a house painter and was quite ill in later life with lead poisoning. He loved stewed prunes and hot chocolate, and he drank coffee; no, he drank sugar with a touch of coffee in it. A normal breakfast for him consisted of eggs, sausage, hotcakes, cheeses -- which might have contributed to the ulcers he developed. During the Depression years, he started going from house to house, selling MJB coffee. Occasionally during the worst times of the Depression, when we didn't have enough money for food, we received the day's version of food stamps: boxes of cans without labels, whose contents we never knew until we opened them.
We moved a number of times during our early years in San Francisco. The two houses I remember best were the Buchanan Street house and the one at 383 29th Avenue. The house on Buchanan Street had a long series of steps that went up to the front door; it was situated on one of those typically steep San Francisco hills that always scare anyone who has never lived in a city like that. The 29th Avenue house, pale yellow or dirty white, was located in the Sunset district, about five blocks from the bay, and two or three miles from the Pacific Ocean and the beach, where there was a seal house and seal rocks and an enormous building, Fleischaker Pool, that had three or four pools, some with salt water and some heated -- quite an exciting structure and for many years a great meeting place. Nearby was the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the 1915 World's Fair.
That was the normal topography of my life. As a child, I would go with my parents and sister, and with cousins and uncles and aunts, for Sunday picnics in Golden Gate Park, one of the largest and most beautiful urban parks in the country, and I remember all our drives through it. There was the area for buffalo, and the large aquarium, and a Japanese teahouse and garden with its little bridges, and Kezar Stadium, home of the San Francisco Seals, the double-A farm team of the New York Yankees, where Joe DiMaggio and Dom DiMaggio played and were trained by the famous batting coach Lefty O'doul. I saw my first football games in that stadium. The city was also the cultural center of California, for everything except movies. There were theaters, the Geary and the Curran, and the Opera House and the Veterans Auditorium, a huge public library, and beautiful stores. In those days, no lady went downtown without wearing a hat and white gloves. There were few high-rise buildings. To this day, I remember the sound of the foghorn and the rich sea scent of the fog as it rolled into the Bay Area from the Pacific. There were only ferries then to take you across the bay to Oakland and the trains, and to Marin County. The ferries left from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, the dock area, where all the ships came in and were loaded and unloaded. In Chinatown, the largest in the world outside China, the street signs were all in Chinese; the district had its own telephone central, in Chinese. The Fillmore area, thick with drugs and rock music during the sixties, was the Jewish shopping district when I lived in San Francisco. There were stores where you bought herring and pickles and lox and rye bread. Fillmore and Divisadero Streets were like the Lower East Side in New York. That was the world I grew up in.
I remember that my mother sometimes sang and my father played the piano. When I was six, I started piano lessons, shortly before my sister, Eva, was born. At that time, we were living on a street about three blocks from the northern side of Golden Gate Park. Across the street from us lived a family named Koblick, with whom my parents were friendly. They had a son named Nathan. When I was eight years old, Nathan was already playing the violin.
I've often said that I didn't return home from a concert one day and plead for a violin. Nor did I begin, at the age of five or six, to pick out melodies on the piano. None of that; nothing so mysterious, so romantic. My friend Nathan Koblick was playing the violin; therefore I wanted to play the violin. I can't recall what Nathan looked like as a child. The adult Nathan was tall, gaunt, with a long nose and a pained, sardonic expression on his face. He was, for a time, an insurance salesman and, later, a good tutti violinist with the San Francisco Symphony.
I don't remember how I acquired my first violin; probably my family got it for me. It was a little fiddle. I had one teacher for a while, then another, and another. Those teachers -- none of them particularly effective -- found that I was progressing beyond their capacity to teach me, at a faster pace than they could handle. I insisted on continuing with the violin, not because I thought I was musical but because Nathan Koblick was still playing. My parents must have turned to some friends for advice. Suddenly, for a reason not clear to me, I was enrolled in the Sunday school of San Francisco's prominent Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. I proved to be a very apt student, learning to read Hebrew in a short time and becoming the best Hebrew reader in my class. That I understood not a single word of what I was reading was another matter.
The cantor at the temple was a man named Reuben Rinder. He was a very good cantor of the old school, and he loved music. One day there was some occasion when I played the violin in the temple. Cantor Rinder chanced to hear me and suddenly realized he was hearing talent. He knew my family had no money for lessons; there was hardly any money then for us to live on. And so he spoke about me to a certain maiden lady.
I can only conjecture about all the connections that were taking place, none of which I understood at the time. Temple Emanu-El was founded in 1850 by German Jews. The building where I attended Sunday school had been built in 1925 by people of wealth and influence, people who knew music and the arts, who were supporters of the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of those supporters was a woman named Lutie D. Goldstein.
She was a little pigeon of a lady. High-heeled, but sensible high heels, not spike heels. Long skirt, white gloves, little black hat, sometimes with a veil; an elfin face, always with a ready smile. She had no family except for a sister. They were the only children of a man who had made a large fortune in produce, in central California. The two sisters lived not in a house but, I seem to remember, in the Mark Hopkins Hotel. I do remember that Lutie Goldstein rode around in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac. Such high class! She was among the group of people to whom the conservatory, the symphony, and the opera always went for support. Cantor Rinder suggested that I play for her. And she adopted me, financially and personally, if not legally. It was she who brought me to the attention of the conservatory and for many years supported me in my musical studies.
The heads of the conservatory at that time were Lilian Hodgehead and Ada Clement, two women who were determined to encourage culture and musical education in San Francisco. The conservatory was then situated in a ramshackle building on California Street, but it did have a faculty. The first decent music teacher I had was a man named Robert Pollak. There is a photograph of Mr. Pollak and his class, with me in there and my friend Miriam Solovieff, who now lives in Paris. She was six; I was eight. We remain friends to this day. I have another photograph of Mr. Pollak, this one of him alone, dated 1930, on which these words appear above his signature: "To my beloved pupil Isaac Stern -- May he watch every day over the treasure nature has given him."
After Robert Pollak, my teacher was Nathan Abas. By then I was the concertmaster of the conservatory orchestra. The criterion for the choice of a concertmaster was talent: who played best and could lead a group of players. I remember playing with Ernst Bloch, the famous Swiss composer, who was head of the school at the time and conducted the orchestra. One of the pieces he conducted, with me as concertmaster, was his Concerto Grosso. I wore short pants, and when I sat, my feet didn't reach the floor.
Music was a natural part of my parents' life, not an acquired social function. They would scrape together money to go to concerts; they owned a crank-up Victrola, with one of those arms that came down and had a bamboo stylus at the end that wore out after half-a-dozen plays. There were recordings by Stokowski and Toscanini in the house. It became quickly apparent to the people at the conservatory that I was an exceptional talent, and as soon as my parents realized it, there was suddenly pressure on me to study. They desperately wanted me to be a musician, a good musician. Of course, they cared about the element of success that came with being an accomplished performer, but that was not the driving force for them. What they wanted most was that my abilities be realized. My father took a great interest in my work, and my mother even more so. She was home all the time, and she kept me to the practicing grind when my tendency was to be elsewhere.
One day when I was ten years old, I suddenly discovered that I could do things on my own with the violin, things no one had taught me -- move the bow in certain new ways; feel my fingers on the strings; bring forth shades of sound. I do not believe in moments that come out of nowhere. As I see it, what happens is an accumulation of experiences that blossom into a sudden sense of self and the ability to actually do something on one's own. These moments differ from child to child; they depend so much on what the child has been exposed to. In my case, suddenly one day I became my own master. I wanted to play; I wanted to learn how to play better. I wanted to do it because I was beginning to revel in my own abilities. That was when things changed for me; when I began to discover what I could already do and to sense the possibilities of how much more I might be able to do. Never again did I need to be urged to practice.
At about that time, someone on the San Francisco Board of Education suddenly woke up and asked why I wasn't attending public school. I had been taken out of school by my parents at the age of eight because they had decided my time would be better spent practicing the violin than going to school. From time to time, I had what might laughingly be called tutors; they helped me read certain things, taught me the rudiments of mathematics. I was receiving no formal schooling, and the Board of Education decided I should be tested to find out how backward I was. They gave me the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, which was supposed to measure what the mental acuity of a child was at a given age. I took it for age ten, and it turned out that I had the capacity of a sixteen-year-old. The Board of Education told me that I was all right on my own, I should go on doing what I was doing, but I wonder about how much I missed by never having gone to high school and college. All my life I have learned from talking with people, from arguing, and from listening to others trying to convince me how wrong I was about some matter. I've made a profession of informal education.
Some months later, I gave my debut recital, in Sorosis Hall on Sutter Street. On the printed invitation, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music announced that "Isaac Stern, 10 year old student of Nathan Abas, would give a violin recital, with Miss Dora Blaney at the piano," on Tuesday, April 28, 1931. The music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle was present at the concert. In the review the following day, there was a comment about "a boy violinist of exceptional talent" and his excellent technical control of the instrument.
Around that time, I went to hear the pianist Ruth Slenczynska. Her father was there, and, informed that I was a young, promising violinist, he turned to me and said, "Show me your hands." Dutifully, I put out my hands. He took one look and said, "No good, you'll never be a fiddle player."
There is a picture of me, taken one year later, when I was eleven. I'm holding a violin. The picture, which appeared in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, carried below it a statement that "Isaac Stern, talented 11 year old violinist, pupil of Nathan Abas, will give a recital at the Community Playhouse next Thursday night." At that recital, I played Tartini's G Minor Sonata, Bloch's Abodah, Schubert's Ave Maria, the slow movement of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, Wieniawski's Scherzo-Tarantelle, and other pieces. The music critic of the Chronicle, Alexander Fried, wrote that the violin recital "proved that he belongs to the higher order of precocious talents," and singled out my playing of a Tartini sonata, where, he commented, "his musical insight, nurtured by a distinctive schooling, was especially apparent." That was the very same Tartini piece I played six years later in my Town Hall debut -- to considerably less praise from the New York critic Samuel Chotzinoff.
It was Lutie Goldstein who backed the idea of sending me to New York to study with Louis Persinger; she paid for the trip, the rented apartment, and the lessons. Louis Persinger had been Yehudi Menuhin's teacher in San Francisco and had since moved to New York, where he was one of that city's leading music professors. Someone had come up with the idea of having me play for him. I was almost thirteen; studying with Persinger seemed the next logical step for me. A letter went out to him, recommending that he take me as his student, and he replied affirmatively. My parents were informed; there were discussions; my parents, in turn, informed me. I was to travel to New York with my mother; we would live there for six months; I would study with Louis Persinger; my father and sister would remain.