Socially conscious concert presenter Mimi Stern-Wolfe dies aged 84
Mimi Stern-Wolfe, a pianist and conductor specializing in social or political justice-themed music programs, including an annual concert featuring the music of composers lost to AIDS, died on June 21 at a center care center in Manhattan. She was 84 years old.
Her daughter, Laura Wolfe, said the cause was complications from a series of strokes.
In the late 1970s, Ms. Stern-Wolfe, a staple of the Lower East Side of Manhattan for most of her adult life, founded Downtown Music Productions, which has since presented a wide range of programming, including shows by and for children. , eclectic shows from the Downtown Chamber and Opera Players, and concerts featuring works by women, Holocaust music and more. Ms. Stern-Wolfe has performed and directed numerous performances, often leading from the piano bench.
In 1990, moved by the death of her friend Eric Benson, an AIDS-claimed tenor in 1988, Ms Stern-Wolfe started the Benson AIDS Series, concerts held almost every year since then for, according to the terms of the website of his organization, “to promote the work of gifted composers and musicians who fight HIV / AIDS and to preserve the creative legacy of those who have already died.”
In the early years, when the disease still challenged treatment, the concerts were emotionally charged; the audience included people who were visibly sick, emaciated and crying as the music was played. She later saw concerts more as a way to keep music alive and to pass on the trauma of those early years of the epidemic to a younger generation.
Rohan Spong, a documentary filmmaker, captured the preparation for the 2010 concert in “All the Way Through Evening”, a film released in 2012.
“Mimi felt with passion that the community at large remembered the talented music composers affected by HIV / AIDS in the early years of the pandemic,” Mr. Spong said via email, “many of whom were shot dead in at a young age and which she had personally known. “
“As she has done for so many other problems”, he added, “she knew how to synthesize her humanist values with her love of music and her dedication to her community”. The music she presented, he said, “seemed to traverse space and time, communicating the beauty of these men’s lives and the tragedy of their deaths with an immediacy that was felt by the audience. more than two decades later “.
Miriam Stern was born on May 27, 1937 in Brooklyn. Her father, Bernard, was a pharmacist and her mother, Emma, a housewife. She grew up in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens and the Rockaways. Her parents were both immigrants – her mother, she says, was from Chernobyl, Soviet Ukraine – and they had a living home, which had an effect on young Mimi.
“They weren’t activists; they were sympathizers, ”she said in a 2015 interview with the nonprofit Labor Arts, which named her recipient of the Clara Lemlich Award for Social Activism that year. “They were sympathizers of Jewish immigrants and had friends who were both Zionists and Communists, and they all used to come to birthday parties and the like, and argue. A lot. And I remember being a little fascinated by it when I was a kid.
At 6, she took piano lessons. She graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in 1954, received a Bachelor of Music from Queens College in 1958, and received a Masters of Music and Piano Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1961. She has lived and studied in Paris for a while before settling in the Lower East Side.
She had two passions, as she said: classical music and “my political inclinations”. But she found that they rarely overlapped; people who were passionate about causes close to his heart usually had little interest in classical music.
“What I wanted to do with my music was find a way to synthesize my political ideas and my music,” she said.
This is how she organized concerts like “War and Pieces”, featuring music highlighting the consequences of war. She has presented concerts dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and Harriet Tubman. After the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, she organized a concert of protest songs.
Other programs were more fanciful, such as a 1987 concert called “Notes From the Underground: Music as Satire”. And then there was “A Toast to the Steins”, with music by Jule Styne and Leonard Bernstein and a poem by Gertrude Stein set to music.
Mrs. Stern-Wolfe’s marriage to Robert Wolfe in 1961 ended in divorce. In addition to her daughter, singer-songwriter and child of this marriage, she is survived by her 30-year-old partner, the poet Ilsa Gilbert, and a grandson.
Although Ms. Stern-Wolfe has performed in many venues, most of her productions have been staged on the Lower East Side or surrounding neighborhoods, by choice. She wanted to make classical music and other forms accessible to the people who were her neighbors.
“I didn’t want to go to the Upper West Side every time I went to a concert,” she said in an interview in 2006, “so I made a vow to bring the music here. . If I had lived in the city, life would have been very different. Maybe I would have a job with City Opera.