Kansas City Symphony Celebrates the Centenary of Isaac Stern

“He Believed That Music Could Change the World”

Isaac Stern at his 60th birthday concert at Lincoln Center in 1980

His gravestone simply reads, “Isaac Stern, Fiddler.” Born July 21, 1920, he became one of the most celebrated musicians of his lifetime. This year, institutions around the world — including the Kansas City Symphony — honor his contributions.

“He was one of the supreme players, one of the great violinists of the 20th century,” said Michael Stern, music director for the Kansas City Symphony, and Isaac’s son. “More than any musician that I’ve ever heard, he managed to speak through the instrument . . . you had this idea that somebody was speaking directly to you.”

“That alone does not make him unique,” he continued. “What makes him unique, or at least exceptional, was his absolutely unflagging, tireless advocacy — certainly for young people — for the role of the arts in their lives. But also the urgent and essential need to have the arts at the center of everything in life.”

Isaac was famous for many things: award-winning violinist, helped form the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Council on the Arts, advocated for arts in schools, mentored generations of musicians, some of whom appear with the Kansas City Symphony in 2020.

Heck, he’s THE FIDDLER for the soundtrack for the 1971 “Fiddler on the Roof.”

One of his best-known achievements was the preservation of New York City’s Carnegie Hall, slated for demolition in 1960. Isaac and his wife, Vera, were integral to the success of the campaign, which started 10 days before Michael was born. “What amazes me is that he was 20 years younger when he started that than I am today,” Michael reminisced.

The Symphony’s Jan. 17–19 Stern celebration concert will include Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto performed by Nancy Zhou. (Kansas City Symphony)

(Isaac was involved with Carnegie Hall until his death in 2001, and the Hall dedicated its entire 2019/2020 season in his honor.)

Or maybe his greatest legacy is his own children. Though they grew up in New York City, Central Park West, Michael and his siblings (brother David is also a conductor; sister Shira is a rabbi) avoided the veneer of nepotism. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet, and I didn’t want any misconception,” Michael said.

Nowadays, they acknowledge Isaac’s role as both musician and advocate, developing a non-profit organization “Isaac Stern @ 100” to promote that legacy. “The idea was the best way to honor him was . . . to do acts of service (in his name), really meaningful acts for the arts and for music in the world.”

“If we need anything in 2019/2020, we need champions, we need advocates, we need spokespeople for good and for the power of the arts in the world and the essential importance of the arts in every educational institution in the world, especially for the youngest kids. He was relentless about that.”

Pianist Emanuel Ax performs Beethoven Jan. 31 – Feb. 2 as part of the Kansas City Symphony’s celebration of Isaac Stern. (Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Guest Artists pay Homage to Isaac Stern

The official international kick off was a special all-Beethoven concert in Helzberg Hall featuring guest artists Yo-Yo Ma, Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax Dec. 16 (Beethoven’s 249th birthday), to raise funds for the Annette Bloch NextGen Venture Fund.

Throughout 2020, KC Symphony brings in artists with a special attachment to Isaac for events woven in with the symphony’s simultaneous celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.

Nancy Zhou, winner of the 2018 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, performs with conductor Peter Oundjian in January in her Kansas City debut (this year’s competition in Shanghai also commemorates Isaac’s 100th, involving both David and Michael). Ax returns in January for performances with the orchestra and a free Happy Hour chamber music concert, as will both Midori and Vadim Gluzman in April.

The Symphony is also holding screenings of films that feature Isaac, along with conversations with some of the guest artists. In February, violinist Pinchas Zukerman joins Michael Stern for a screening of American Masters’ “Isaac Stern: Life’s Virtuoso” and then performs with the orchestra. Cellist Jian Wang was 10 years old when he performed for Isaac during the Stern family’s 1979 trip to China, documented in the Oscar Award-winning film “From Mao to Mozart,” and he joins the orchestra in May. In June, Augustin Hadelich is in town to perform Henri Dutilleux’ violin concerto “The Tree of Dreams” (which Isaac commissioned and premiered) and to discuss the 1946 film “Humoresque.”

“Nothing would, I think, have pleased him more than to know these things are being done specifically . . . to effect change with music being a force for good,” said Michael. “Because he is my dad, there is this intense feeling of satisfaction, of knowing that I’m honoring what I think is his real legacy: If nothing else, he believed that music could change the world.”


Jan. 17 – 19: “Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto” with conductor Peter Oundjian and violinist Nancy Zhou

Jan. 30: Chamber Music with Emanuel Ax

Jan. 31 – Feb. 2: “Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ax performs Beethoven,” conducted by Michael Stern, Emanuel Ax, piano

Feb. 6: At The Movies: American Masters’ “Life’s Virtuoso”

Feb. 7 – 9: “Zukerman plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto,” conducted by Michael Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, violin
April 1: Chamber Music with Midori

April 3 – 5: “Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Midori plays Dvorak,” conducted by Michael Stern

April 17 – 19: “Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth,” conducted by Michael Stern, Vadim Gluzman, violin

April 20: Chamber Music with Vadim Gluzman

May 27: At The Movies: “From Mao to Mozart — Isaac Stern in China”

May 29 – 31: Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” conducted by Michael Stern, Wang Jian, cellist

June 3: At The Movies: “Humoresque”

June 5 – 7: “Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Tree of Dreams,” conducted by Michael Stern, Augustin Hadelich, violin

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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