In memory of Vera Stern
I cannot remember how many times I heard Michael say these words to his mother, moments before we walked together onto the stage to perform another piano concerto. Whether it was in Memphis, or Kansas City, Newark or Colorado Springs, he was always on the phone with his Mom when the stage manager knocked on the dressing room door asking him to come. “Go to sleep Mom, I will call you later”. When I heard Michael say this for the last time at Ms. Stern’s memorial service last month I broke into tears, as I do now. Can I hear it just one more time? Please?
What can I say about a person who could show me reason in places that others saw chaos, and who gave me the feeling of a warm home at a place that others considered a jungle. Ms. Stern, as I often addressed her, made New York City feel like the warmest place whenever I came to perform. She also made me focus, in the sometimes confusing life of music on what is important.
The first time I met Ms. Stern was in 1991, when I played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after winning a competition. At the reception following the concert she stood on top of a sofa with bare feet addressing the people, the conductor and myself standing on either side. A few months ago I came across pictures from that event and enthusiastically told Ms. Stern about them. She remembered where it was, the sofa she stood on top of, what she said, and the purple dress she wore!
It took eight more years till we met again, and started what was to become an unforgettable friendship. I came to New York to play a recital and was offered to practice at her beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park. My manager told me some time after the concert that Ms. Stern noted that I could come again to practice on her piano because “I did not break any string”. Needless to say that was the end of me practicing any Prokofiev or something above "mezzo-forte" on that piano…
Slowly and with much caution she opened herself to me in ways that made me shiver each time all over again.
Ms. Stern enjoyed getting to know people. She loved helping people. To help was a life’s mission, an ultimate pursuit worth any sacrifice. Helping, also meant being there. To miss a concert of someone she cared for was inconceivable - if there were 50 stairs to climb she would fly; if there was 3 feet of snow on the ground she would slide with elegance. Not showing up was not an option. One of my vivid memories was playing at the People Symphony Concerts when it was below zero degrees outside following a snow storm, which resulted in dangerous icy conditions. She was not only there, but also brought along others! I think her presence at the concerts made people play better. It made the audience experience more than usual. She knew that, and therefore it was not an option that she will miss a concert.
But it was not just the concerts. Ms. Stern cared for everything, and wanted to help in all sorts of ways. I remember once she cut a newspaper article for me and kept it for months till we met. It was about the importance of spending time with family. I guess she did not feel I understood that enough. Sharing was her way of caring. I did change after reading the article, and it gave her great pleasure. Over the years I received many more articles...
What always brought tears to her eyes was her family - reading in the newspaper about Michael or David, seeing an old video of Mr. Stern, getting a picture from a grandson or granddaughter - this would immediately bring tears in a most humble and inspiring way. She was so preoccupied with giving to others, her family gave it back to her. It was extraordinary to witness some of that.
And so, I learned over the years that orange was her favorite color, and each time I visited I would bring orange roses, tulips or lilies. That color belongs to her. Even though she had a great sense of authority and will-power, greater than I have ever seen, it was always special to see her child-like reaction when seeing a good chocolate, or getting some blueberries.
A couple of years ago when she was at the hospital for two weeks I came to visit and saw a piano in the dining hall. Within minutes we gathered around the piano and I played for her a private concert. Ms. Stern was a magnet, and so within seconds people came for this private little soiree. I remember playing a Schubert Impromptu among other things. Two days after she past away I had a recital in New York City and dedicated the encore to her memory - it was a Schubert Impromptu.
The day before she died I came to practice at her apartment. It had been some time since I have been to New York. She was not conscience, but I was assured that she knew I was coming and had the piano especially tuned the week before. I want to believe that she waited for me to come just one more day to practice.
Ms. Stern, I miss you!
with lots of love
Alon, your writing is so sensitive and touching... Hannah
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