For Isaac Stern, 60, the Music World Throws a May-to-December Birthday Bash

UPDATED 09/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

Quite possibly, they are the world's greatest violinists—Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. Without question, they are the greatest of friends. But the trio has rarely performed together. Now a national audience will have a chance to hear them make magnificent music. On September 24 the three will appear on a PBS Live from Lincoln Center program celebrating Stern's 60th birthday. Isaac has been getting a lot of mileage out of that occasion. Though he actually marked it on July 21, he's booked for seven months of birthday concerts. By the time the festivities conclude in December in Los Angeles, Stern will have played 60 dates in four countries.

To publicize the New York gala, Perlman, 35, and Zukerman, 32, serenaded their friend with Happy Birthday in the styles of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky. Of course, more serious material will be on the program in which Zubin Mehta will direct the New York Philharmonic. The three fiddlers will perform—solo, in duets and as a trio—Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi and Brahms.

Their rehearsals were awash with affection. Stern, long a champion of the Israeli-born Perlman and Zukerman, gushed, "The way you make music, the way you teach others, the way you set examples as men, is the greatest present you can give me."

One of the world's highest-paid musicians (at upwards of $10,000 a performance), Stern is listened to offstage as well. By parlaying his artistry into political influence, he saved Manhattan's Carnegie Hall from demolition in 1960. He pioneered American musical exchanges with China and Russia (he was born the son of an artist in the Ukraine). Stern's cultural power brokering has earned him the title of Godfather, and his extended musical family has been called the "Kosher Nostra." Irritated by charges of ethnic favoritism, Stern points to protégés like Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Swedish-Japanese violinist Joseph Swensen and Taiwanese violinist Cho Liang Lin.

Nonetheless, Stern clearly serves as patriarch to Israeli musicians. He arranged a music scholarship for Zukerman to come to America, and assisted Perlman, who had arrived in the U.S. at 13 to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. In gratitude, Tel Aviv threw the biggest party yet for Stern. The Israel Philharmonic treated him to a saucer-shaped cake out of which popped a curvy violinist, Lena Bondarenko, playing Bach's Third Partita.

Stern celebrated his actual birthday in Jerusalem with second wife Vera and their children, Shira, 24, a rabbinical student, Michael, 20, a Harvard history major, and David, 17, a prep-school senior. "That day," says Stern, "was the quietest of the year." Still, presents piled up and messages poured in from Isaac's friends. (Over the years they have included Dinah Shore, Beverly Sills, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Connors—tennis buff Stern once played him a locker room solo.) Cakes arrived hourly. But the maestro is paying a price for his endless birthday. "Chocolate cake used to be my favorite," he mourns, "until I got 15 of them."

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