"There has been nothing like this since the jubilee year of Queen Victoria," Abe Fortas said from the stage of the Kennedy Center at the intermission of last night's concert.
Fortas, a member of the Center's board of directors, was speaking to Isaac Stern as a longtime friend of the great violinist, whose 60th birthday he said "was 78 days ago, but it is an event that is being celebrated for an entire year." Then, in token of many friendships, and "to help you save time and steps, we present this vehicle, a Byzantine buggy for the king of violinists. It comes equipped with telephone and fiddle, for both of which it has a place.
"But," Fortas cautioned, "the passenger in the vehicle must be returned. The passenger is only on temporary loan."
And onto the stage was driven a glorious white and red and gold golf cart, painted with bits and pieces of fiddles and ready to roll on any fairway. cRiding in the seat next to the driver was Rosalynn Carter, who stepped from the cart, embraced Stern, and then Said, "On behalf of the president and 220 million Americans, I want to thank you for what you have done for music."
There are indeed far too many things Isaac Stern has helped bring to pass in the 44 years he has been playing with the orchestras of the world to speak of at this time. Last night's concert will do very well as an example of the special brand of music-making that is a hallmark of a Stern concert.
First of all, there was the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, a rare event at any time. With that magistral command that is his in uinque measure. Ormandy led the orchestra in a reading of Beethoven's Eight Symphony that had spaciousness, wit, and elegance. The orchestra rose to his challenging leadership in its finest manner.
Stern then came on stage with Ormandy, who has conducted for him longer than any orchestral director alive, for the first of the evening's two concertos. There was some extraordinary byplay in the friendliest vein before the two great men settled into the music. First of all, Ormandy's baton was not on the podium. It was brought in at once. Then as Stern tuned his violin, put on his glasses and looked at the music stand in front of him, a rather bemused look crossed his face. After a moment, he turned to concertmaster Maran Kojian who got up, left the stage, and returned -- with the score of the Barber concerto which had not been on the soloist's stand.
Never mind. When these two great colleagues began the music, the evening took on a rapture, a radiance that Barber created in one of his finest works. The opening chord, with the prominent piano part, was a hint of what was coming. The slow movement was filled with ecstasy as Stern moved down to the G string of his Guarnerius, filling the hall with unearthly beauty.
That violin, an extension of Stern himself, has been his voice for decades.
There were times during the Barber and the Tchailkovsky concerto that followed when it seemed impossible that Stern had ever played more beautifully. In addition, the Tchaikovsky had all the brilliant fire, the sweep and power of a truly great reading.
Reduced in size for both concertos, the orchestra played handsomely under Ormandy's direction, as if anticipating the concerts for which he will return later this season. Throughout the evening, Ormandy's presence gave the concert its singular meaning, providing Stern with a partnership of long standing as well as impeccable support.