Photo by Bill Reeder Stern elicited smiles with his assessment of the violin. Seated next to Goodrich was world-famous pianist Leon Fleisher.
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Photo by Bill Reeder A moment before Isaac Stern began playing, Goodrich wondered if he would perform "Flight of the Bumble Bee."
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Guest column: Isaac Stern played my father's violin
- Article by: JERRY GOODRICH
- Special to the Star Tribune
- May 16, 2012 - 12:18 PM
Isaac Stern was one of the most accomplished and celebrated classical violinists of the 20th Century.
He was also credited with saving Carnegie Hall, a storied building that was scheduled for destruction to make room for a garish office complex. Stern led a rescue effort that culminated in the purchase and restoration of the building by New York City. Its majestic, 2,800-seat auditorium is named after Stern.
Is it any wonder, then, that I am extremely proud that Isaac Stern played my father's violin, a Stradivarius copy made in Campo Pedrona, Italy, 100 years ago?
When my dad died at age 87, I found his violin in the attic of the house in which my mom and he had lived their final years. It had been subjected to the humidity, heat and bitter cold of Wisconsin weather, and it was in dismal condition.
I cherished the memories of my father playing the instrument, and had admired its beautiful wood grain. So I took it to the highly respected Potter Violin Company in Maryland for a consultation.
While holding the loose parts together, Dalton Potter lifted the violin carefully from its ancient, metal-strapped case and commented, "This is a pretty good fiddle. It should be restored." I gave him the green light, and two months later I claimed the once-again beautiful instrument.
Coincidentally, a day later, I was asked by the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C., to provide complimentary flights for Isaac Stern and his wife, Linda, from New York to D.C. and back. Stern had agreed to perform with five Levine students at the school's annual fundraising gala. I was with US Airways at the time, and made the arrangements.
I wondered if Isaac Stern would return the favor by playing my father's violin. The Levine School inquired on my behalf, and he agreed.
It was early afternoon on that spring day in 1997 when I entered the darkened performance hall of the Almas Temple in our nation's capital. Isaac Stern and the teenage musicians were on stage practicing the number they would perform at the gala that evening. Stern was playing his favorite violin: a $3 million, 270-year-old Ysaÿe Guarnerius.
The house lights were brought up when the rehearsal ended, and I was invited to the stage to join several Levine staff members who were talking with Stern. Levine's president made the introductions, and I handed the violin in its new case to the great master.
Stern: [opening the case] Let's see what we have here. I suppose you want me to play it so you can get some pictures?
Jerry: I would much appreciate it, Mr. Stern.
S: Any rosin on this bow?
J: I don't think so. It's just been re-haired.
S: [while tuning the violin] No matter.
Would the legendary violinist play something spectacular, perhaps the popular "Flight of the Bumble Bee?" Not quite. As the bow passed over the violin's strings, the instrument resounded throughout the hall with the familiar strains of "Happy birthday to you." Renowned pianist Leon Fleischer sat at a 9-foot Steinway and accompanied Stern. Laughter filled the stage.
Our conversation resumed:
J: Mr. Stern, here's a photo of my father playing his violin in the early 1950s.
S: [studying the photograph] We must teach him how to hold the bow.
J: [looking to the heavens] I'm afraid it's too late for that, Mr. Stern. [More laughter]
J: I hope that my grandson [then 5] will want to play this violin when he is big enough. Do you have any words of advice?
S: Yes, I do. This should not be forced or done for social reasons. Your grandson should go to bed at night listening to fine Baroque music and wake up in the morning the same way. If you introduce him to great music in that manner, he will embrace the classics and enjoy playing them on the violin.
I could no longer hold back the question that I was dying to ask.
J: Mr. Stern, what do you think of my father's violin?
S: Well, let's not discuss that. [Still more laughter.]
I accepted Isaac Stern's comment in good humor because, after all, his violin was at least 150 times more valuable than my father's. In defense of dad's violin, however, it has since been judged to be an outstanding, concert-quality instrument by several experts, to include the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony.
My grandson was too small for a full-size violin in 1997, so I established a Levine School scholarship that gave use of the instrument to talented Levine students. As each of them entered college, the violin passed on to another gifted student.
An Armenian boy has had it for the past four years. For a real treat, click on www.startribune.com/a1271 to see and hear him perform with it. His father, a distinguished painter in oils, narrates the video.
The Armenian youngster enters college in the fall, and the violin will go to yet another student, most likely a Russian boy who has already performed twice in Carnegie Hall.
Here are two "what ifs" that have my heart racing: What if the Russian boy were invited to again perform in Carnegie Hall, the building that Isaac Stern saved? And what if he performed with my father's violin, the violin that Isaac Stern played?
Jerry Goodrich is a Prior Lake resident.
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