Isaac Stern brings his wisdom to Chapin

The three student musicians watched violinist Isaac Stern attentively, taking in the emphasis of every word that he said, every movement of his hands.

“What is the character of this piece?” Stern asked the trio. “Expansive,” responded violinist Anaar Desai-Stephens ’03. The other two students nodded in agreement. Stern addressed the pianist, Austin Duncan ’02. “Watch and listen and feel it in your hand,” he said. “Think of it in a noble, open, singing way.” Stern sat back in his chair and peered attentively at Duncan as he took a breath and played the first few strands of the Brahms Trio. “Very good!” Stern exclaimed, and the audience broke into supportive applause.

Yesterday afternoon, over 100 people from the College and the Williamstown community, musicians and music fans alike, filed into Chapin Hall to watch a master class and participate in a conversation with the violin master.

Mary A. and William Wirt Warren Professor of Music Douglas Moore introduced Stern. “There is one word to describe Mr. Stern’s relationship with music: passionate,” he said. “Isaac Stern’s passion about music, which has the power to nurture and change, is an inspiration to us all.”

The master class featured violinist Desai-Stephens ’03, cellist Jennifer Lee ’02 and pianist Duncan ’02, who together performed the lyrical first movement of the Trio in B major, op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. The piece, according to Stern, is “lovely, warm, very B major. It’s a happy key. [Brahms] chose B major to establish a character.”

After the three student musicians finished playing the piece with three swelling chords, Stern popped up from his seat: “Bravo! Feel better now?”

Stern used the hour-long master class to lead the three student musicians to a different level of understanding, both of the piece and of Brahms’ intentions, by way of a musical Socratic dialogue.

“What do you hear in the piece?” He questioned. “I have to hear something that you want to tell me in the piece.”

Desai-Stephens stated that when she heard Lee’s entrance she saw “a meadow of buttercups,” and felt like she was at her summer home. Lee also felt that the piece “invoked a sense of nature, a memory of a time, an experience out in nature alone with one’s self.”

Duncan had a different understanding of the piece. “It begins as very innocent and then gets very chaotic and it ends up nicely even though it was chaotic for a time,” he said.

Stern emphasized the importance of thinking beyond “the little black dots” and interpreting what happens inside the music between the notes.

“You have to listen to it and figure it out yourself,” he said. “You need to think about it all the time until it becomes a habit and you can do it without thinking.”

In the Brahms Trio, the piano is the first instrument to play, with the cello and violin entering one by one, layering the different timbres on top of one another and swelling through a big crescendo.

Stern used the structure of the piece as the structure of his coaching, working with each instrumentalist individually from their entrance into the piece, and eventually bringing the three of them together to experiment with what they had learned.

“Part of what is your responsibility as musicians is that you have to translate all of these ideas into music of the story you told me,” he summed up.

After an ovation for the three musicians, Stern engaged in a conversation with the audience facilitated by Francis Vincent, Jr. ’60.

Vincent gave the first question, asking Stern about his education.

“I haven’t been to school since I was seven years old,” said Stern, who was privately tutored so that he could spend more time on music. “Because of my being involved in music, I was thrown into contact with older people from a very early age.”

Growing up in San Francisco, Stern frequented the San Francisco Symphony and Opera Company during his childhood, learning from and interacting with “giants of the music world.” He commented, “I learned from the passion of every great musician on stage. A musician wants everyone to join in his or her ecstasy.”

Stern said that out of his many musical teaching experiences, he enjoys coaching chamber music the most. “The thing is to teach young people how to think [about the music]. If I leave them an idea at the end it will be that there is so much to read in the music.”

Audience members proceeded to ask questions of Stern.

One man asked Stern if he appreciated any composers differently now than earlier in his career. “I’ve learned to appreciate [composers’ talents] more with time,” Stern said. “They give the raison d’être for the creation of the creative impulse of music.”

A student asked Stern what one should listen for in music and how one would learn how to listen in such a way. Stern responded to the question by discussing his relationship with the Budapest String Quartet. By listening to them, he said, he learned techniques about playing, listening and teaching. “The lesson that they taught me has kept with me all these years: teach others how to teach themselves.”

Another audience member asked Stern about the interaction between the performer and the audience. “There is a trinity of the composer, the musician and the audience,” Stern said. “A performer needs an audience. My goal is to have you come to me.” To do this, he said that a performer must believe and have the audience believe that “what is on stage is the most important thing happening at the time.”

Another student asked Stern about whether the role of classical music has changed in society. “Classical music has seen many changes in its 450 year old history,” Stern said. “The basic health and necessity of classical music is still there and will always be there.”

Stern was also asked about how he balanced the emotional and technical aspects of music in his performance. “The emotional-intellectual part is most important,” he said. “The technical part is taken for granted as second nature…Playing is more about how to think, show ideas and color. The technical should be at the service of the ideas. You don’t use music to play the violin; you use the violin to play music.”

Stern started playing the violin at age eight and made his formal recital debut in 1936 at age 13, playing the Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony. His career has spanned 60 years of performance worldwide.

Stern’s master class and discussion was a part of the Mt. Hope Distinguished Visitors Series supported by Vincent and Herbert Allen ’62.