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Violinist Isaac Stern dies at 81

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Famed violinist Isaac Stern died Saturday. He was 81.

"Stern did pass away today," said Maria Dolce, an administrator at New York Hospital - Cornell Medical Center.

During more than half a century as a professional musician, Stern appeared on concert stages around the world and served as a mentor to many young musicians.

Born in Kreminiecz, Ukraine in 1920, he came to the United States at 10 months of age after his parents fled the Russian Revolution in 1921.

Raised in San Francisco, he began playing the violin at the age of eight and made his recital debut at 13.

His orchestral debut came three years later, in 1936, with a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony.

At 22, he debuted at Carnegie Hall.

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, he toured the United States and Europe to great acclaim.

In addition to winning praise for his interpretations of symphony standards, Stern was a champion of contemporary music, and recorded new works for violin by contemporary composers.

Following the Six Day War in 1967, Stern performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on top of Mount Scopus with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, a concert documented in the film "A Journey to Jerusalem."

He had an impact on cinema and television, too. The film "From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China" won the 1981 Academy Award for best full-length documentary and received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival.

Stern performed in the movie soundtrack for "Fiddler on the Roof."

He was also featured in the American television broadcast of "Carnegie Hall: The Grand Reopening" which won a 1987 Emmy Award and the Carnegie Hall Centennial Gala Concert in May 1991.

For 40 years, Stern was president of Carnegie Hall, and led the effort to save it from demolition in 1960 and to restore it in 1986.

Stern's recent recordings include the complete Brahms Piano Quartets with Emanuel Ax, Jaime Laredo and Yo-Yo Ma, which won the 1991 Gramaphone Award for "Best Chamber Recording of the Year."

Stern was a founding member of the National Endowment for the Arts, and was chairman of the board of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation and chairman and founder of the Jerusalem Music Centre.

He was the first recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for "a life dedicated to music and devoted to humanity."

In 1984, President Reagan presented him with the Kennedy Center Honors Award at the White House, and Musical America named him musician of the year in 1986.

The American Symphony Orchestra League honored him in 1987 with the Gold Baton, its highest award.

That year, he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Israel's Wolf Prize for service to humanity, and the National Music Council's American Eagle Award. In May 1990 Stern was awarded the Commandeur de la legion d'honneur by order of the President of the French Republic, François Mitterrand.

In 1991, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President George Bush, who also awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1992.

In 1997, Stern was given Japan's highest award, The Order of the Rising Sun.

He also held honorary degrees from a number of institutions, including Bucknell University, Columbia University, the Curtis Institute of Music, Harvard University, Hebrew University (Jerusalem), the University of Illinois, Johns Hopkins University, The Julliard School, New York University, Oxford University, the University of Tel Aviv and Yale University.

He had six children and five grandchildren.

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