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Violinist Isaac Stern Dead at 81

Russian-born American violinist Isaac Stern has died of heart failure in New York, Saturday at age 81. He was known as the "Dean of American violinists."

Throughout most of his illustrious career, Isaac Stern was recognized as a virtuoso of the violin, an international cultural ambassador, and a promoter of the arts.

For more than half a century, this small, rotund, bedimpled artist energetically and faithfully pursued musical excellence. He also inspired students and hypnotized audiences throughout the world with live concerts and recordings.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Stern immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was one. The budding artist's big break came in 1939, when he impressed music critics in a concert appearance in New York. Stern was then 19 years old.

Within five years, a New York music critic was praising the young artist with these words, "Isaac Stern is no exhibitionist; in fact, he seems unconscious of his own remarkable virtuosity. He takes his place among the great violinists because he is overwhelmingly concerned about one thing: The music he performs."

During World War II, Stern played for thousands of American soldiers. For many of them, it was their first exposure to classical music. Yet every troop audience received the musician with respect and adulation. Stern was the first American to perform in concert in the then-Soviet Union after World War II. He also performed in South America, Europe and Israel.

When New York City's venerable Carnegie Hall was to be demolished for a 44-story office building in 1960, Stern led the effort to save the venerable concert venue. He later became president of Carnegie Hall Corporation, and held the post for more than three decades. Stern also was a founding member of the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 1979, Stern, by then a veritable American ambassador of good will, visited China to teach classical Western music and violin to eager Chinese musicians. His tour was filmed and became an Academy Award-winning documentary titled From Mao To Mozart. Stern made guest appearances with almost every major orchestra, played at virtually every festival of note, and became one of the most-recorded musicians in history.

Stern was known for his prodigious energy, normally playing in over 150 concerts every year. He loved to play music by all kinds of composers - from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms to Sibelius, Barber and Bartok. Stern found the works of Mozart to be among the most challenging. He said, "Mozart is particularly difficult. I think only two kinds of people can play Mozart - either very young people who don't know anything at all and completely innocent or very, very sophisticated people who've learned how to be simple."

By 1984, Stern had learned to pace himself. He restricted his appearances to 60 concerts a year, leaving time for him to pursue his other interests such as lecturing, helping his protegees, promoting the arts in the United States, playing chamber music, and, of course, recording.

1984 was also the year Isaac Stern received the Kennedy Center Honors Award for his contributions to American culture through the performing arts. He expressed his thoughts on the part that music played in his life and said, "Every one of the things that I do is connected with music-making with a passion for music-making and my belief that through music, life is better for every person, particularly for children. For me, education and the arts is the basis of any civilized society."

Isaac Stern was one of the most honored musicians in the world. Through both his life and his recordings, he has left aspiring musicians and music lovers a legacy of talent, dedication, perseverance, and, most of all, music.

Survivors include his third wife, the former Linda Reynolds, whom he married in 1996; one daughter, Shira, a rabbi; and two son, David and Michael, both music conductors.