Pianist-conductor-teacher-impresariat Mimi Stern-Wolfe
Mimi Stern-Wolfe, unsung musical heroine
By Michael Clive
Few cultural clichés are more durable or romantic than the musician making sacrifices for art. The movies show him shivering in a Parisian garret with soot-rimmed skylights. But in real life, the setting is a cramped two-bedroom on the Lower East Side stacked with cartons of files, recordings and annotated scores. And the musician is a woman pianist-conductor-teacher-impresariat Mimi Stern-Wolfe who has been making beautiful music happen Downtown for more than 30 years.
Music & Satire: Notes from the Underground is a timely example of her work. This latest concert from Stern-Wolfes Downtown Music Productions comes to St. Marks in the Bowery this Sunday, June 18, with fascinating musical rarities including Music for a Farce by Paul Bowles and a piano film score by Erik Satie. As usual, Stern-Wolfe programmed, did the publicity, and will take the piano parts. Its tempting to call her tireless, but shes tired; she just doesnt let it stop her. Through good years and bad, she keeps going despite the low pay and lack of recognition. Only the music is rich. Its a hell of a way to live, she says. I wouldnt recommend it to anybody.
If Stern-Wolfe is so good, why isnt she famous? One reason is loyalty to the Downtown community. Its almost a silly little revenge thing, she says. I didnt want to go to the Upper West Side every time I went to a concert, so I made a vow to bring the music down here. If Id lived Uptown, life wouldve been very different. Perhaps Id have a job with City Opera. Something like that.
Instead, her life has been filled with what she ruefully calls 26-hour workdays as she seeks the gigs and grants for Downtown Music Productions. In some years Ive had a part-time development director, or even a full-timer and a little staff to share the load, always working out of this apartment. Right now, its just me. Look around, she says with the seasoned conductors inclusive yet pointed gesture that indicates tutti everything. What you see is proposals, files, all the things the nonprofit world is full of with people like me looking for money constantly. Its what I call finagling and hustling. Its what kept us going all these years. Ive got boxes of music, but not furniture.
A graduate of the old High School of Music and Art, Stern-Wolfe went to Queens College, where New Yorkers with less than Ivy-League budgets could find top-flight academics. The music department remains one of the schools special strengths, and Stern-Wolfe became the college orchestras solo pianist. Later on she took the conservatory route, completing a masters in classical studies at the hallowed New England Conservatory of Music. But not before a musical pilgrimage to Paris for instruction with the 20th centurys most celebrated pedagogue of piano, theory, analysis and composition, Nadia Boulanger.
The list of Americans who apprenticed themselves to the sisters Boulanger in their famously rigorous two-woman atelier includes the most famous American composers of their day. Copland, Bernstein, Thomson and Gershwin all had fabled associations with Nadia, who despite her benevolently tyrannical belief in a right way of hearing and playing music nurtured the uniquely individual voice within each student. Whether or not Boulanger strengthened her students commitment to community music and social causes, Stern-Wolfe was early in adopting 1960s-style progressivism. And she hasnt wavered since.
When I came back from Paris in 1963, she ways, I already knew I wanted to bring classical music to community audiences. I just wasnt sure how. But I felt it was a way to give back. That was more important to me than the idea of playing at Lincoln Center, where you have to be 20 years old and win a contest to get a foothold.
In the competitive, ego-driven world of classical music stardom, this kind of attitude is eccentric or downright subversive, but it has informed Stern-Wolfes entire career in teaching and production, which ranges from childrens music to very sophisticated adult fare. Teaching childrens opera over on Third Street, that was wonderful. We took the music and staging into public schools. Thats how I developed the Childrens Downtown Musical Theatre. That was back in 1977. In 1979, her Downtown Chamber and Opera Productions became Downtown Music Productions as we know it today.
Over the years, Stern-Wolfes productions have hewed to compelling social themes: annual AIDS concerts, War and Pieces on the consequences of war, Musecology on environmental issues, Holocaust remembrances. In the hands of a lesser programmer or musical director, the resulting concerts could smack of musical tourism or dilettantism. But these kinds of themes have always been among composers highest concerns, and under Stern-Wolfes musical direction the concerts are beautifully anthologized and played across a wide range of styles.
Indeed, it was this consistently high quality of execution that first alerted me to one of Stern-Wolfes strangest eccentricities the apparent lack of a performers ego. From what Ive heard so far, I told her, theres nothing you cant play. Anyone else might have justifiably gloated a bit or mentioned other critical accolades. And shes got them to mention. Instead, she shrugged. Im a classically trained pianist, she said. With that kind of education, you should be able to play anything. If youre any good.
East Village residents in fact, all of lower Manhattan should be gratified that Stern-Wolfe is very good indeed.
Music & Satire: Notes from the Underground is at St. Marks in the Bowery, Tenth Street at Second Avenue, this Sunday, June 18th at 3 pm. A contribution of $10 to $15 is suggested. For further information, contact downtownmusicproductions.org or 212-477-1594.