Jonathan Sternberg, 98, of Chestnut Hill, a conductor, musical director, and professor of music who was known for his work with symphonic orchestras in the United States, Europe, and China, died May 8 of heart failure at Chestnut Hill Hospital.
Over a long and distinguished career, Maestro Sternberg collaborated with a range of artists in concert and opera, including Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Henryk Szeryng, Paul Badura-Skoda, Alfred Brendel, Annie Fischer, Maurice Gendron, Philippe Entremont, Byron Janis, Teresa Stich-Randall, Lisa Della Casa, Hilde Gueden, George London, and Paul Schoeffler.
Born July 27, 1919, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Louis and Henriette (Glickman) Sternberg, immigrants from Austria and Russia, he studied violin and viola at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School) in New York from 1929 to 1931. After graduating from Brooklyn’s historic James Madison High School, he continued his musical and academic education at the Manhattan School of Music and New York University, receiving his B.A. from NYU in 1939.
During his undergraduate years, Maestro Sternberg was active as a New York critic for the Musical Leader of Chicago, attending performances and rehearsals of major orchestras on an almost daily basis. He continued studying musicology at New York University’s Graduate School, taking private lessons with Leon Barzin, and participating in master classes with Pierre Monteux.
Maestro Sternberg began his professional career on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941, conducting the National Youth Administration Orchestra of New York in Aaron Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture.” He enlisted and served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946. At the end of World War II, while in Shanghai with the Army, he directed the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in a series of performances.
After returning briefly to the United States, he moved to Vienna, making his conducting debut there with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1947. In addition to multiple performances and recordings with the leading orchestras in Vienna, he toured extensively as a guest conductor in Europe, North America, and Asia. He worked closely with notable Haydn scholar, H.C. Robbins Landon, in establishing the Haydn Society, for which Sternberg made a series of pioneering recordings, including Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” and Mozart’s “Posthorn’ Serenade,” along with several Haydn symphonies.
Maestro Sternberg presented modern American music to European audiences who, up to that time, had had little exposure to such repertory. With the RIAS orchestra in Berlin, he conducted the first European performances of a wide range of American scores, including, Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” Menotti’s “Violin Concerto” and Charles Ives’ “Second Symphony.” With other orchestras, he conducted the first European performances of works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, and Benjamin Lees. He was also responsible for a number of world premières, including Ned Rorem’s “First Symphony” and Lászlo Lajtha’s “Sixth Symphony”
Maestro Sternberg held longer term engagements with the Halifax Symphony Orchestra (1957-1958), the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp (1963-1966), the Harkness Ballet of New York (1966-1968), and the Atlanta Opera Company (1968-1969).
Outstanding among Maestro Sternberg’s guest engagements were the first European tour of the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg, several all-Beethoven concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, as well as appearances with L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris, and the orchestras of Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Basel, Brussels, and Monte-Carlo.
Later in his career, Maestro Sternberg divided his time between conducting and teaching. He took a visiting professorship of conducting at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, from 1969 to 1971. He joined the faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he taught conducting and led the university orchestra from 1971 to 1989. With the Temple orchestra, he conducted a number of world premières, including, “Music for Chamber Orchestra” by David Diamond , “A Lincoln Address” and “Night Dances” by Vincent Persichetti, and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s “Ricercari notturni for three saxophones and orchestra.”
After retiring as a full-time professor, he remained active on the lecture circuit presenting subjects such as, “Do Conductors Matter?” He also continued teaching privately and served as musical and artistic director of the Bach Festival of Philadelphia. He also was a frequent juror in conducting competitions.
Maestro Sternberg served on the board of the Conductors Guild, and in 2009 received the Guild’s Award for Lifetime Service in recognition of long-standing service to the art and profession of conducting.
In 2014, his biography was published by Tricorn Books.
He is survived by a sister, Anita; a brother, Robert; a daughter, Tanya Pushkine; a son, Peter Sternberg: and two grandchildren. Maestro Sternberg’s wife, the English-German painter Ursula Sternberg-Hertz, died in 2000.
A private memorial service will be held in Philadelphia. – WF