MY FIRST 79 YEARS

By Isaac Stern with Chaim Potok

Knopf. 317 pp. $27.50

By Terry Teachout, the music critic for Commentary and a contributor to Time magazine.

As recently as a quarter-century ago, Isaac Stern was one of this country's half-dozen best-known classical musicians, famous not only for his vibrant, fat-toned violin playing but also for having helped save Carnegie Hall from the wrecker's ball. But while Stern is still very much around--he played at the New York Philharmonic's opening-night concert last year--younger virtuosos have long since nudged him out of the limelight. Nor is posterity treating him well: His name rarely appears on the lists of great violinists of the century drawn up by music critics with long memories, and even his best recordings, of which there are more than a few, are increasingly forgotten.

No doubt Stern had this in mind when he decided to write his memoirs, though "My First 79 Years" is more than just a catalogue of remembered triumphs. It is also the story of one of the first classical instrumentalists trained in America to win international acclaim, and as such it constitutes a significant chapter in the history of high culture in America. In 1937, the year Stern made his New York debut, classical music was a luxury item that well-heeled Americans preferred to import; our best orchestras were run and staffed by foreigners, just as our opera houses and concert halls were dominated by European artists and administrators.

All that has long since changed. To be sure, most of our orchestras continue to be led by foreign-born conductors, but American singers and instrumentalists are now the envy of the world, a development for which Isaac Stern deserves no small amount of credit. Stern knows this, and one of the best parts of his book, not surprisingly, is his description of his first European tour. Though he took the continent by storm in 1948, the praise he received had an unmistakable note of condescension, even paternalism.

"As an example," he writes, "one reviewer said that despite my being an American, I had the musical soul of a European. The critics found it difficult to conceive that an American could have any real musical (that is, European) culture. They had no understanding of the extent to which musical standards had developed in America. Indeed, most of the orchestras I heard abroad couldn't begin to compare with the ten leading orchestras in the United States. . . . The people in the concert hall were saying, 'Well, go ahead. Show us. We who really know music will judge.' "

Would that more of "My First 79 Years" was as forthright as this. Stern's virtues do not include introspection--he is tight-lipped and evasive about all personal matters, including the breakups of his first and second marriages and his difficult relationship with his daughter Shira, who enraged her determinedly secular father by becoming a rabbi--and his prose is infested with cliches.

Presumably ghostwriter Chaim Potok is partly to blame for the latter problem, but cliches are often the outward sign of a narrow sensibility, and surely it says something about Stern that he has nothing memorable to say about any of the legendary musicians he has known. Fritz Kreisler was "a very special man" who "radiated Viennese gemutlichkeit"; Pablo Casals was "a living legend, a man of profound principles and yet extraordinary kindness"; David Oistrakh possessed "an absolutely natural humanity." All true, and all dull. One expects better of a celebrity in his anecdotage.

The most interesting revelation to be found in "My First 79 Years" is unintentional. It is no secret that Stern's technique began to falter at a comparatively early stage in his career (he hasn't played really well since the mid-'70s), and for all the seeming smugness with which he writes of his glory days, there are a few moments when the veil slips and self-doubt peeps through. "The conductor George Szell once told me," he recalls, "that if I hadn't spent so much time doing other things and had just practiced more, I could have been the greatest violinist in the world."

Though it wasn't quite that simple--Stern implies elsewhere in "My First 79 Years" that the inadequacies of his early training were to blame for the difficulties that beset him in later years--Szell was on to something. Despite his insistence that he was a better artist for having lived the life of a bon vivant, the fact remains that those who heard Isaac Stern only during the second half of his career can have no notion of what a vital artist he was in his prime. Fortunately, he recorded amply and well in the '50s and '60s, and such nonpareil performances as the splendidly soaring Tchaikovsky Concerto he made with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1958 will do far more to keep his memory green than this pedestrian, unnecessary book.