Teresa Sterne, 73, Pioneer in Making Classical Records, Dies


Tracey Sterne
Tracey Sterne
Photo by Gene Maggio

The record producer Teresa Sterne died on December 10th at her Manhattan home. Ms. Sterne had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 73.

A pioneer of classical recording, one of her most notable successes was with the small budget label Nonesuch, which she ran from 1965 through 1979. Ms. Sterne turned a small budget label into one of the most adventurous companies in the recording business. When she was invited to take charge of Nonesuch, the label was a subsidiary of the pop-oriented and profitable Elektra Records. Nonesuch’s business had consisted mostly of acquiring the rights to existing recordings of Baroque music by European ensembles and reissuing them at budget prices in the United States.

Ms. Sterne, called Tracey by her friends and colleagues, brought a vision to the job born of her long experience in music. She had been a piano prodigy, and though she gave up public performance as an adult, she maintained close ties with the composers and performers of her day.

At Nonesuch she brought attention to areas of music neglected by the major labels, particularly contemporary music and American vernacular music. She championed American composers like George Crumb, Elliott Carter, and Donald Martino. She commissioned Morton Subotnick for his well-known Silver Apples of the Moon in 1967, marking the first time an original large-scale composition had been created specifically for the disc medium, and Charles Wuorninen for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Time Encomium. She also issued important recordings of lesser-known works by Schoenberg, Busoni, Stravinsky and other major figures.

“The Nonesuch commission was the start of my recognition as a composer,” Subotnick commented. “It was an exciting moment for everybody.” Sterne was not involved in the composition of the piece – he had complete freedom, even over the title – but she was responsible for “getting the record off the ground.” She was also responsible for Subotnick’s second commission from Nonesuch, for The Wild Bull, the following year. “She was a very exacting person,” Subotnick remembers. “I think that she made all the artistic decisions (at Nonesuch). Her choices were pretty uncompromising. She knew what she thought were important things to do, and she did them.”

She nurtured relationships with several excellent performers not widely known at the time. Many of the artists she discovered were first recognized for their work in contemporary music. Ms. Sterne encouraged them to record past works that interested them as well.

Pianist Gilbert Kalish first met Sterne when he was playing with the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in the late 1960s. “It was typical of her that she doing things that nobody else was doing. She was giving unknown artists and music a chance to be heard. She had a fierce belief in the things that she cared about, and strong opinions about who did what well.” Kalish described her work at Nonesuch as “fanatic. When she was on a project, everything had to be focused on that project. She tended to every detail, the artwork, the liner notes, the editing. She attended every session. In that way, she could be difficult, because she was very demanding of your time and energy.”

“She believed in people,” Kalish remembered. After the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble recordings, Sterne asked the mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani to record some Wolf songs with Kalish. “Jan was known only as a new music person,” Kalish explained. “For a young American artist to do great German repertoire was considered outrageous.” Sterne then approached Kalish about doing some solo recording. She asked him what he would like to record, and Kalish decided to commit the entire repertoire of Haydn piano sonatas to disc.

Sterne also took an interest in the playing of Paul Jacobs, who made the now-legendary recording of the Debussy Etudes for Nonesuch, and she “discovered” William Bolcom and Joan Morris, who made some popular Nonesuch recordings of vernacular American songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And Ms. Sterne sparked a nationwide craze for ragtime with a series of Scott Joplin piano works played by Joshua Rifkin. She was also in the forefront of the early instrument movement in Baroque and Renaissance repertory. And under her leadership, Nonesuch’s Explorer series introduced music from Bali, India, Peru and other countries to a wider audience.

But in late 1979 she was dismissed from Nonesuch. Early in her tenure the record label had been acquired by Warner Communications, and by the mid-1970s, it was grouped under a parent company, Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch, headed by Joe Smith. Warner officials asserted that Nonesuch was losing money. Ms. Sterne argued that the losses were mostly caused by the parent company’s poor marketing and distribution.

“Tracey was always striving for her image of what was important and valuable,” Kalish reminisced. “She wasn’t afraid to do things that weren’t particularly commercial. She was also unafraid to tell anyone that they were bad, that they were inefficient. And she wasn’t particularly diplomatic, because she couldn’t understand not being committed to the product 100 percent. [The record company executives] got tired of that.”

A letter condemning her dismissal, written by 10 Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, including Mr. Carter and Aaron Copland, was sent to the vice president of Warner Communications and widely circulated in the press, to no avail.

Norma Hurlburt, Executive Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, also attests to Ms Sterne’s “intensity, her unyielding support of things she believed in, her utter lack of ambivalence about anything.” Hurlburt first became friends with Sterne in the early 1970s. “Curiously, Tracey seemed unaware of the impact she made. On a more personal level, I knew her as a deeply generous person, despite her very modest means, and someone who was tremendously loyal.”

Ms. Sterne never anticipated becoming a record producer. She was born in Brooklyn on March 29, 1927. Her mother was a cellist who gave up her career to nurture her musical daughter. Ms. Sterne’s father, a violinist, deserted the family when she was 14. Her paternal uncle, Robert Sterne, a professional violinist, became an important mentor.

From the age of 10, she was educated at home by private tutors. In 1939, when she was 12, she made her professional debut as a pianist playing Grieg‘s piano concerto with the NBC Symphony Orchestra at Madison Square Garden. The next year she played Tchaikovsky‘s piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium, winning cheers from the audience and glowing reviews from critics. Her career as a prodigy flourished.

But after such a rarefied and isolated upbringing, Ms. Sterne felt that she lacked the pragmatism and confidence to pursue a professional career. Wanting experience in the real world, she became a secretary, soon winding up in the offices of the powerful manager Sol Hurok, where she nurtured the careers of other young artists. A series of administrative jobs, including assistant to the director at Vanguard Records, led to her hiring by Nonesuch.

Ms. Sterne, who never married, leaves no immediate survivors. After her dismissal from Nonesuch, the company went through many changes. Earlier this year, Robert Hurwitz, its director since 1984 and a great admirer of Ms. Sterne, issued a two-disc recording in tribute to her, containing highlights from favorite albums she had produced and live recordings of performances she gave in her early years as a piano prodigy. Kalish applauded Hurwitz for initiating the project, calling it a “beautiful, magnanimous gesture.”