Max Stern takes on all musical comers

Stern has traveled a long and winding musical, cultural and personal path since crossing the Pond.

Max Stern: Out of the Whirlwind (photo credit: Courtesy)
Max Stern: Out of the Whirlwind
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We – olim – all come here with our baggage. When we make aliyah, depending on our age at relocation, we bring with us the experiences, sights and sounds we accrue in our country of birth. Over the years our base culture continues to inform the way we grow but, to a greater or lesser degree, that becomes colored by the artistic and sociopolitical vibes in our adopted country.
Max Stern is a classic example of the congenital-acquired confluence. Stern, who turned 73 this week, and hails from Valley Stream, a small town 25 km. east of New York City, primarily came here, in 1976, to play music. Over 40 years on he has accumulated a rich expansive vein of compositions that have now found their way onto his new Retrospective album, which was due to officially see the light of day this week, at a release event at the Jerusalem Music Centre. Naturally the launch did not happen but the CD is now available on the Internet.
Stern has traveled a long and winding musical, cultural and personal path since crossing the Pond. “One of the reasons I came here was to play in the Jerusalem Symphony [Orchestra],” he notes. “I’d played with the conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony in Brooklyn, Lukas Foss. They needed a bass player in Israel and they invited me to come to Israel. They thought I was going to stay for a year or two, and it became longer, much longer,” Stern laughs.
Stern started out on his musical path, almost unwittingly, as a member of his local synagogue choir. “I never intended to study music as a child,” he says. Initially, he did not get much in the way of encouragement in that direction at home, but his story is a familiar one of parental guidance toward more sheltered income waters. “My parents wanted me to be, you know, a doctor or a lawyer,” Stern recalls. “But, after a while, they got used to it.”
The youngster started out on tuba at school, progressing six months later to the double bass. By the time he was in junior high school he knew music was going to be his pathway through life. After valuable tutelage stints with the likes of celebrated bass educator Frederick Zimmerman, who taught at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, Stern began to write his own scores – he is a largely self-taught composer – and mixed his classical endeavor with performances of more popular, commercial music at places like feted New York venue Radio City Music Hall.
That eclectic approach stood Stern in good stead after he moved here and, just one year after making aliyah, he found himself playing alongside now world-renowned klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman, for then-president Ephraim Katzir.
All things considered, it went pretty well for the new oleh. Much of that was down to his ability to go with the flow, and to seize professional opportunities as they arose. “I got involved in a number of things that I had already been studying. I had been interested in Jewish music and ethnic music.”
He began sharing his knowledge of, and love for, sonic musical creative enterprise – across a wide range of cultural vistas – with budding musicians, and their less musically inclined peers. When he was offered a berth with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva, he was only too happy to move south and work with Israel Prize laureate conductor Mendi Rodan. He also quickly moved into teaching, taking on a post at the local Bnei Akiva yeshiva.
The latter was quite a challenge, with most of the students devoid of any musical training, but Stern was clearly up to the task. It also changed his professional life and, over time, paved the way to his richly sequined evolving compositional oeuvre, which feeds off his Orthodox Jewish roots, referencing biblical sources and Middle Eastern textures. “I started to compose for the yeshiva band because they didn’t have any music with Jewish content.”
Little did he know at the time, but that was to be the start of something big for Stern. “I eventually wrote a whole series of music that was later published, called the ‘Youth Band Series,’” he says. True to his open receptive mindset, which took in Ashkenazi material, Israeli folk music, works tailored to Jewish holidays, Bedouin song and much more. The Bedouin-inspired side to his work was subsequently enhanced when he and his wife moved to Yeroham. Their house was situated at the edge of the new neighborhood, from where Stern could see and hear Bedouin shepherds passing by with their flocks.
His bold decision to work with novice instrumentalists eventually paid off, big time. “The rabbi at the yeshiva wanted me to show him what the kids in the band could do, because they wanted to have a concert, but they weren’t that advanced,” Stern laughs. “So I took a piece called Perek Shira (Chapter of Song) in which all the animals and nature sing to God,” he says referencing a Hebrew text first mentioned in the 10th century. The amateur yeshiva players were asked to make the sounds of various animals.
Over time, Perek Shira blossomed into a much fuller piece and has been performed by professional orchestras around the world, including in Japan, where it won a prize.
Retrospective showcases Stern’s all-encompassing musical-cultural ethos, with works such as Bedouin Impressions, the adventurous Balaam and the Ass, Hannah’s Song of Praise and the stirring Prophecy for the End of Days. The latter was the result of another venture with non-professionals, this time with students at Ariel University. “This was a major project,” Stern observes. He takes justifiable pride from helping to open up the world of music for youngsters who otherwise would probably have missed out on the rich spiritual rewards offered by the world of instrumental and vocal pursuit.
He has always been willing to tread where other musical angels have feared to venture. “I have taught university students nobody else would take. They audition them and they take the best of them. But just to take anything that comes along, and conjure them into an ensemble that becomes an artistic work is very very unusual. It is the greatest achievement that I was able to do.”