From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1979)

How Isaac Stern influenced  East / West relations through the power of classical music

This is the cover of the DVD “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China” The DVD is available for purchase on
In June of 1979, American virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern visited China as a special guest of the China Foreign Minister Huang Hua of the People’s Republic of China. The three-week official tour was faithfully documented in a film by director Murray Lerner, winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (1981). For those who participated in one way or another in China at the time of the tour and those who watched the documentary, the late Isaac Stern (1920 – 2001) left an indelibly profound impact that transcended the singular craft of violin playing. As we enter the Year of the Tiger, forty-three years from the tour, we reflect on Mr Stern’s East / West interlude as an exemplar of how classical music can build cultural and diplomatic bridges in a unique and compelling way.
The importance of Stern’s visit to China  cannot be understated. The Chinese officials carefully considered how his western celebrity presence might influence its citizens, whose population was emerging from a long period of global isolation. At a government-to-government level, US President Richard M. Nixon had visited China on a diplomatic mission in 1972 in a conciliatory act to bring China into the fold of the international community. The official visit was widely viewed as a major diplomatic success. However, Stern’s visit to China also achieved so much in its own right as China’s awakening interest in Western music entered a golden age. In extending the official invitation, the Chinese weighed up the benefit and risks of allowing the venerated violinist to be filmed in the country with few controls in place. Ultimately, the prevailing view was that China ought to incorporate Western music into its broader, mainstream curriculum and from it forge a unique voice on the international stage for classical music.

Witnesses to the tour consistently comment on the joyous festival experience of each public outing. The halls were packed to the rafters with people soaking in every word of Stern with breathless enthusiasm. The audience would clap, laugh and react instantly to every Stern gesture, translated witticism and telling point.

The success of that visit (and others such a Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy ) to China has  inspired an efflux  of outstanding Chinese musicians, actors and artists onto the world stage. 

Other Chinese luminaries include Stern protégé, cellist Wang Jian, pianists Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, and many more Chinese personalities have contributed to the world of classical music.

But what was it like to be in Sterns’ presence and have his undivided attention during those three weeks? Isaac Stern’s gift to all students and music lovers, not just to Chinese, was his ability to communicate his profound commitment and understanding  of classical music at its most sublime level. He did not visit China with the attitude of prima donna western violinist. He came to share his love of music and gently suggest at the most delicate of moments how to “see” classical music in different and unexpected ways. Isaac Stern’s family accompanied him on tour, and his son, David, offers perhaps the best commentary on his father’s influence on that generation. “For our family, music was a kind of faith that shaped our whole way of thinking. My father went as a listener rather than a performer. He regarded his fellow Chinese musicians with equal respect as fellow professionals.” What Stern got at every concert hall, gymnasium, restaurant, and the public forum was a thunderous enthusiasm and a real hunger to absorb Stern’s boundless knowledge of western music, western philosophy, and his clever expositions on musical performance.

International cellist Wang Jian reflects on his 10-year old self being mentored by Stern

International cellist Wang Jian, who was only ten years old when Stern coached him, remarked at a recent Asia Society interview that “music is something that we create with your hands, but Mr Stern helped us to realise that music was also a window to our souls. Mr Stern did not just show us amazing feats of performance but, through his playing and teaching, allowed us to take our masks off and reveal our inner emotions.”

A ten year old Tiffany Hu singing at Stern’s behest.

Stern also coached a precocious young violinist Tiffany Hu whom he wrote in his memoirs Isaac Stern: My First 79 years (1999), presented a unique challenge. “To me, children are like open flowers – You have to treat them hands-on. When I asked her to stop playing and sing the music instead, I didn’t know if she could sing, nor did I think about her possible loss of face. I saw how shy she was and sensed her hesitation, but that lasted only a second or two. She sang the passage in a sweet, feeling voice, and then I asked to her play it that way. And the change was so obvious that the audience burst into applause. Had she been unwilling to sing, had she begun to cry – I would’ve hugged her and asked that she do something else. There was always a way to handle it. They were all so eager and willing, and you related to them as one human being to another rather than an international violinist to a little Chinese girl.” Tiffany Hu speaks fondly of Stern as a very caring person. “I visited him again in 1985 backstage after his concert in the US where, such was his phenomenal memory,  he instantly recognised me. I went on to play with him many times after that, and he was always keen to see my progress.”

Since then, China and the west have seen many fruitful musical exchanges, and many Chinese have taken up concertmaster positions with great orchestras.

David Stern

To end this retrospective, we quote from David Stern, who said, “Everyone I talk to in China appears to be well familiar with my father through his tour of China and the documentary made of it. I have been touched by so many Chinese people who said they were there. That is the profound impact my father had on the Chinese through their reverence and respect for the man.”

Isaac Stern

Awards and commendations

·      Sonning Award (1982; Denmark)

·      Wolf Prize

·      Kennedy Center Honors (1984)

·      Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with orchestra) (1962, 1963, 1965, 1982)

·      Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance (1971, 1992)

·      National Medal of Arts (1991)

·      Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992)

· Elected to the American Philosophical Society (1995) 

·      Polar Music Prize (2000; Sweden)

· Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur (1990)

· Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1991)

· Carnegie Hall Midtown Manhattan, New York: the main auditorium was named for Isaac Stern in 1997.

In 2012, a street in Tel Aviv was named for Stern. 

stern“You cannot force someone to think as you do or to feel as you do. But you can teach them to think a little better, to think a little more and to listen a little more critically. Listen to what they’re doing, not what they think they’re doing. (We need) to have more respect for the necessary lengthy internal and external collaboration between the performer and the composer.”

Isaac Stern

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