For fans and admirers of Isaac Stern, one of the 20th century’s most renowned violinists, the music that first comes to mind is likely his masterful performances of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Dutilleux. As a soloist and chamber player, he mesmerized audiences and listeners with his deeply moving interpretations.
But for Vadim Gluzman, one of this century’s most acclaimed and sought-after violinists, it’s Stern’s opening on the soundtrack of the 1970 Hollywood film, “Fiddler on the Roof” that struck the deepest personal chord.
Gluzman first heard the recording in the early 1980s when he was a young teen in Ukraine, his homeland. Even in the Soviet Union, he was familiar with Stern’s classical recordings. But as a young kid of 11 or 12, listening to Stern’s cadenza in “Fiddler” made a lasting impression.
“That first note jolted like lightning,” he recalled.
On Thursday, July 23 at 8 p.m., Gluzman will be featured in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s virtual gala in honor of the 100th anniversary of Stern’s birth. Stern died in September, 2001, at the age of 81.
Stern made his debut with the BSO in January 1948, and at Tanglewood the following summer. It was the beginning of an enduring relationship with the orchestra that spanned the next half century.
The BSO was forced to cancel its live performances at Tanglewood this summer due to Covid-19, but is offering a virtual season of concerts, special events, and talks.
The star-studded Stern tribute, which will be available free on the BSO website, bso.org, (registration required), also includes violinist Midori and others.
Stern’s three children – sons David and Michael are conductors and his daughter, Shira, a rabbi – are expected to participate in the program, which will include musical performances recorded for the occasion and archival clips of their father.
It was an unimaginable moment of serendipity and good fortune that Gluzman will never forget when he charmed Stern by playing from the “Fiddler” score in Israel, only a few weeks after Gluzman’s family emigrated there.
It was in the fall of 1990. Gluzman heard that Stern –who also was born in Ukraine – was holding auditions at the Jerusalem Music Centre, which Stern founded in 1973, the year Gluzman was born.
Full of youthful innocence, Gluzman presented himself to the receptionist, explaining in Russian that he hoped to play for Mr. Stern. It was not possible, the appointments had been booked a year in advance, he was told.
As if on cue, Stern walked into the center’s entry at that very moment, noticed Gluzman, and asked what he wanted.
“‘Ok, go warm up. I will have five minutes for you,’” Gluzman recalled him saying.
Thirty years later, the opening from “Fiddler” is the only specific piece Gluzman recalls playing that day.
Those promised five minutes turned into a two-hour meeting and Gluzman emerged with a new violin, a scholarship to continue his studies, and most notably, an inspiring mentor.
“If not for those two hours, I don’t think I’d be talking with you today,” Gluzman told the Journal in a phone conversation from his home in Chicago.
It’s a story that is emblematic of Stern’s passion for education, his mentoring of players including Yo Yo Ma, Pinchas Zukerman, and Itzhak Perlman, and for personally expanding opportunities for young musicians, notably in Israel. He first performed in the newly established Jewish homeland in 1949. He went on to serve as chairman of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.
Of all the concerts Gluzman has had to sit out due to the pandemic, “This is one of the biggest disappointments,” he said of the July 23 Stern tribute.
“Isaac was an important figure in my life. To have the opportunity to celebrate his legacy in the way it was planned, I was very much looking forward to it,” he said.
Instead, his tribute to Stern and a performance with his wife, pianist Angela Yoffe, was prerecorded at a Chicago studio.
Isaac Stern was born on July 21, 1920, in the Polish town of Kremenets, now in Ukraine. His family immigrated to the U.S. in 1923 and settled in San Francisco. As a child, he studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and by the time he was 15, he had his debut with the San Francisco Symphony.
The multi-Grammy award winning fiddler was also known for leading the effort to save Carnegie Hall from demolition and as a beloved cultural ambassador, including his historic tour of China in 1979, featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.” In 1992, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H.W. Bush.
From his very first meeting with Stern, Gluzman said he most cherished Stern’s musical inspiration. “What I really yearned, what I wanted from him is his musical wisdom,” Gluzman said.
“His playing spoke to you. I am at a loss for words. You felt there was a higher message.”