Leonard Bernstein (composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and performer) and American violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) collaborated for decades, producing great musical moments in American orchestral and violin/piano history.
On September 12, 1954, Bernstein and Stern premiered Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) with the Israel Philharmonic at Teatro alla Scala in Venice.
Bernstein composed Serenade from the end of 1953 through August 1954 to fulfill two purposes: a commission by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and a promise to Stern for a composition that would showcase the virtuoso.
In a 1954 letter cabled to his wife, Felicia Bernstein, the night before the Serenade premiere in Venice, Bernstein said:
Isaac plays the Serenade like an angel. If it all goes well tomorrow it should be a knockout.
Stern became the “face” of Serenade, a composition now considered Bernstein’s greatest contribution to the violin repertoire.
More musical memories
Bartók: Violin Concerto
Stern said his best collaborative musical moment with Bernstein was in 1958, when Bernstein conducted him and the New York Philharmonic in a recording of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Berg’s Violin Concerto:
I learned [the Bartók Concerto] and played it from memory in 11 days, and I almost died from the effort. I think I practiced round the clock, literally. I slept two or three hours at a time when I couldn’t stand up any more, right into the performance …
And that was an incandescent time when both his vision of it and mine were so alike, and so on, and we both had control of the physical patterns so that the imagery could be invented as we went along. Some astonishing things came out — neither of us planned it, it simply was.
Mozart: Violin Sonatas
On August 29, 1964, Bernstein and Stern performed at a concert in Westport, Connecticut to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The committee was raising money to support the Mississippi Summer Project which, with help of the NAACP and the National Council of Churches, fought to maintain Freedom Schools and to promote voter registration among African Americans in Mississippi. (In 1962, only 5.3% of African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi.)
Bernstein and Stern opened the concert with two Mozart Sonatas: B-flat (K 378) and E minor (K 304).
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
On July 9, 1967, Bernstein conducted Stern and the Israel Philharmonic in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. The program included Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 and Israel’s national anthem. The concert, described by then Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek as “the cultural opening of the united city of Jerusalem,” was held at the Mount Scopus Amphitheater, just a few weeks after the Six-Day War.
Bernstein and Stern performed the 3rd movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on September 25, 1969, at the The White House State Dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Bach: Double Violin Concerto
On May 18, 1976, Bernstein and a stellar cast of collaborators performed “the Concert of the Century” at Carnegie Hall.
Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic recorded JS Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with Stern and Yehudi Menuhin as soloists.
Michael Stern and David Stern Remember Bernstein
In a poem for Isaac’s 60th birthday, Bernstein wrote a tribute to Stern’s dedication to family and mentoring, describing the familial and musical protégés as “branches” of the tree of “Isaac the Prince”. Two of Isaac’s “branches” are familial and musical: his sons. Both share deep respect and appreciation for Bernstein:
Michael Stern, conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, describes Bernstein as one of his heroes in an interview prior to conducting Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” Suite with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2016.
More Bernstein at 100
Listen to Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern:
About this content
Portions of this content appear courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.