Isaac Stern, one of the greatest violin virtuosos of the 20th century and the man who saved New York's famed Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball, died Saturday of complications from heart surgery. He was 81.

The legendary Stern, who once described himself as "just a fiddle player," made more than 100 classical recordings (many of which were deemed definitive versions) in a career spanning more than six decades.

He played more concerts with the New York Philharmonic than any other violinist in history. He also played Carnegie Hall 170 times and was instrumental in saving the concert venue from demolition in the 1950s, when developers wanted to replace it with a skyscraper.

While the famed violinist may have been short in stature (his diminuitive frame measured 5-feet, 6-inches), his sparkling wit and gregarious manner made him a larger-than-life presence and helped raise millions on behalf of classical music organizations and other charities.

Most of all, however, Stern was a titan of the stage.

Born in Kreminiecz, Russia, on July 21, 1920, Stern's family fled the Russian Revolution to the United States when he was only a year old and settled in San Francisco. After taking up the violin at age 8, the budding maestro gave his first recital playing a Brahms Violin Concerto at age 16 alongside the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. A year later, he made his New York debut at Town Hall to mixed reviews.

In 1943, he made his Carnegie Hall debut. His performance drew raves and critics like composer Virgil Thomson heralded him as "one of the world's master fiddle players."

"I played defiantly, to demonstrate my skills, to show them all what I was capable of doing with the fiddle," Stern once recalled.

He kicked off his first-ever tour of Europe in 1948 at the Lucerne Festival and, in a bit of détente, returned to the Soviet Union for a performance there in 1956.

In the late 1950s, Stern rallied the classical musical world to save Carnegie Hall, beloved by musicians for its fabulous acoustics, when developers threatened to raze it and put up an office building. The venue was deemed expendable because New York was about to break ground on Lincoln Center.

Stern and his fellow musicians launched a campaign that successfully persuaded the city to buy the developer out for $5 million, thus preserving the renowned concert hall as a National Historic Landmark for future generations.

The master musician continued playing to audiences around the world, including giving a memorable concert atop Israel's Mt. Scopus after the Six Day War in 1967. Perhaps his finest hour came at a concert in Jerusalem during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. While warnings alarms sounded a possible Scud missile attack, prompting his audience to don gas masks, Stern continued performing a Bach solo--sans mask.

Stern, who helped establish the National Council of Arts and was a board chairman of the American-Israel cultural Foundation, had shunned playing in Germany his whole life because of the Holocaust. However in 1999, he finally paid the country a visit and met with younger German musicians in the role of a teacher rather than as a performer.

Stern also had an eye for new talent and mentored the likes of Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman.

"He had an incredible impact on impressionable young musicians...just to be able to listen to his accumulated wisdom on life," Ma told the Associated Press on Sunday. "He had such an incredible love for life...It's such a joy to remember the way he would make music, with such love, with such passion."

Stern is survived by a wife, Linda Reynolds Stern, whom he wed in 1996, three children from a previous marriage (two of whom are conductors) and five grandchildren.