Germantown Performing Arts Centre executive director Albert Pertalion isn't very eloquent -- not as a rule but at this moment. His long, thick pauses are interrupted by stammered sentence fragments -- false starts, each and every one. But the question was not entirely fair. He might as well have been asked to describe a color to Helen Keller. How does one, after all, go about describing any music, let alone that of master violinist Isaac Stern? How can anyone begin the task of cataloging the many particulars that have set this confirmed genius so far ahead of the classical rat pack? He wasn't showy or loud. He was never particularly busy or notably minimal. After many attempts to capture Stern's music with words, Pertalion admits defeat and abandons the chase.
"You think about a line of silver," he says of Stern's playing. "Or of gold, weaving in and out. It's perfection. Just perfection." Toward the end, Pertalion's throat closes and he chokes out the last "perfection" with the kind of teary ardor usually seen in Elvis fans at candlelight vigil. And it stands to reason. Like Elvis, the one-of-a-kind Stern has, once and for all, left the building. The virtuoso player who was originally scheduled to play GPAC on Saturday, December 15th, passed away last September. For Pertalion, the loss strikes close to home and not just because of the cancellation of an assured sold-out performance. Michael Stern, the principal conductor for IRIS, the resident chamber orchestra Pertalion founded at GPAC just over two years ago, is Isaac's son.
"Michael still won't talk about his father," Pertalion says of the promising violist turned consummate conductor scheduled to discuss his father's legacy when the Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China is shown at GPAC on Saturday, December 15th.
"Michael's a classy individual," Pertalion says, speculating that the younger Stern's commentary will be upbeat and anecdotal. "He won't trot out a lot of sentimentalism for the public."
In addition to the documentary, GPAC will unveil some never-before-seen 16-mm clips of Stern, from his son's private collection, as well as classic television footage, including an episode of The Jack Benny Show. Benny, whose own fiddling was much better than he ever let on, was apparently quite the fan. All of this is merely a warm-up for Sunday's matinee performance, when three giants of contemporary classical music, Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Jamie Laredo (violin), and Emanuel Ax (piano), team up to pay tribute to the great violinist with a performance of Beethoven's "Triple Concerto."
"This is as much firepower as you can amass on one stage," Pertalion says of the three noted musicians. "Isaac Stern took a great interest in helping younger players, and there is such a coterie of people he got started. At some point in their career, Stern touched each of the players, and they are all extremely glad to [play this tribute]."
The musicians are so glad, in fact, that they are donating their fee.
"It's the only way we could do this," Pertalion says, noting that Yo-Yo Ma can command more for a single performance than an average person will make in a year.
According to Pertalion, the Beethoven concerto was a natural choice for the trio. "We knew we would do Beethoven," he says, "since it's Beethoven's birthday." The work, which features a "piano trio" (cello, violin, and piano), is a blend of romantic harmonies and baroque precision perfectly suited to showcase the talents of Ma, Laredo, and Ax.
"Michael [Stern] recently gave me a boxed set of his father's recordings," Pertalion says. "And I've listened to his 'Triple' many times now. It's just perfect." Ah, that word again.
Isaac Stern's career spanned six decades and during that time he amassed a legion of fans and garnered a wealth of critical praise and numerous awards. His successful campaign to save Carnegie Hall from certain destruction led to a great deal of political clout in the music world, and he used much of that clout to assist aspiring musicians. Though he was born in Russia, the self-described "fiddle player" is widely considered to be the first American violin virtuoso. When asked to comment on Stern's passing for Time, Emanuel Ax wrote something to the effect of "The doctors say he died of heart failure. I never saw his heart fail once." When Ax, Ma, and Laredo take to the GPAC stage on Sunday they will attempt to capture a bit of Stern's unfailing heart and describe with sound what Albert Pertalion was unable to pin down with words: something close to perfection.