The year 2020 is a momentous one in classical music, with orchestras worldwide observing the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven.
For Michael Stern, 2020 represents a nice, round number to mark two other occasions. It’s his 15th year as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, and it’s the centennial year for his renowned violinist father, Isaac Stern.
To celebrate all of the above, Stern is bringing three of his nearest and dearest musical friends to perform with the Kansas City Symphony in a special evening of music called “Beethoven for the Generations” on Monday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, and violinist Pamela Frank will perform Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 2 in E flat, and they will then join the orchestra for his Triple Concerto in C major.
Stern tells IN Kansas City that he has never traded in on the family name, and he’s right. Read his bio on any concert program and there’s no mention of his famous father. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized how right it was to remember his dad, not only for his fiddle playing, but because of his activism and outreach, and what he did for young people in terms of engaging them on the principle that music should be a part of everyone’s education.
“Then I realized, if we’re going to do it, why would I not do it with the closest musical family that I have? Which is, of course, the Kansas City Symphony. The stars kind of aligned,” Stern says. “We built the whole season around colleagues and friends and mentees of his coming as guests, repertoire that was specific to him and Beethoven. All of those strands of the season come together in this concert, which happens to be on Beethoven’s actual birthday. It was too good to pass up. And then, the three soloists who are coming to play the Beethoven Triple were incredibly close to him. Three of the greatest players and interpreters of Beethoven anywhere. So how fun is that? How lucky am I to do the Beethoven Triple with Pam Frank, Emanuel Ax, and Yo-Yo Ma?”
The connections are multilayered: Isaac Stern mentored Frank and was good friends with her father, the pianist Claude Frank. The younger Stern and Frank were also at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia around the same time. Michael Stern first met Ax through Ma and encouraged his dad to get to know the talented pianist—“Next thing you know, they’re playing trio concerts together,” Stern says.
The Ax-Ma-Isaac Stern trio would go on to make recordings, adding violist Jaime Laredo to also record quartets by such composers as Schumann, Mozart, and yes, Beethoven. In a delightful piece of symmetry, Isaac Stern played the very same trio with Ma, Ax, and the London Symphony Orchestra for his 70th birthday that’s being performed here.
The Ma connection is the deepest of all, with the 8-year-old prodigy playing cello for the Sterns at their house after the Ma family emigrated from Paris. After listening for 15 minutes, Isaac Stern would immediately call his trio partner at the time, cellist Leonard Rose, who taught at Juilliard. “Lenny, you’re gonna take this kid,” Isaac Stern told him. And Rose did.
“Yo-Yo has been in my life since that time,” Michael Stern says. “I’ve known him arguably longer than I’ve known any other friend of mine with whom I’m still friendly. Fifty-six years.
“It’s a pretty perfect trio. I can’t imagine a more loving, powerhouse cast of characters for this extraordinary concert. And they’re incredibly generous to come and do this.”
The program for “Beethoven for the Generations” also includes the powerful Egmont Overture to complement the other works. And Stern is looking forward to every bit of it. “Making great music with great people is always something special,” he says. “But when they’re also such close personal friends, and you have such an easy understanding with them, that’s just another level of enjoyment on top of the artistry. It doesn’t get better than that.”