Sterne, Teresa

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1927-03-29
Death 2000-12-10

Biographical notes:

Teresa Sterne, a pioneering producer of classical music, was director of Nonesuch Records from 1965-1979. Sterne was born in Brooklyn on March 29, 1927. Her mother was a cellist, but gave up her career to nurture and teach her daughter. Sterne's father, a violinist, deserted the family when she was 14. Her paternal uncle, Robert Sterne, was a professional violinist and became an important mentor.

Sterne was educated at home by private tutors. She lived with her mother and aunt in what she described as ''a kind of aristocratic poverty." In 1939, when she was 12, Sterne 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. She also made several recordings, including renditions of Bach's Italian Concerto, concertos by Rachmaninov and Mozart, and a sonata by David Broekman.

Sterne felt that she lacked the confidence and sophistication to pursue a professional career as a pianist. She attended modeling school and secretarial courses, and eventually worked in the offices of manager Sol Hurok, where she helped with the career development of young artists. She also held a series of administrative jobs, including the position of assistant to the director of Vanguard Records, before being hired by Nonesuch.

Sterne served as the director of Nonesuch Records from 1965 through 1979. When she was invited to take charge of the label, Nonesuch 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. Using her close ties with composers and performers, Sterne turned the small budget label into one of the most adventurous companies in the recording business. Nonesuch releases helped raise the profile of music neglected by the major labels, particularly contemporary music and American vernacular music. Sterne commissioned works by American composers such as George Crumb, Elliott Carter, Morton Subotnick, Charles Wuorinen and Donald Martino. She also issued important recordings of lesser-known works by Schoenberg, Busoni, Stravinsky and others. Sterne was in the forefront of the early instrument movement in Baroque and Renaissance repertory. Under her leadership, Nonesuch, through it's "Explorer" series, introduced music from Bali, India, Peru and other countries to a wider audience. Sterne was involved in all aspects of the records she released, from the packaging to the liner notes.

Sterne nurtured relationships with performers, including pianist Paul Jacobs, mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. Although, many of the artists she brought to Nonesuch were first recognized for their work in contemporary music, she encouraged them to record past works that interested them, including Jacobs's well received recording of the Debussy etudes and Kalish's survey of the Haydn piano sonatas. Mezzo-soprano Joan Morris and her husband and professional partner, composer and pianist William Bolcom, made popular Nonesuch recordings of vernacular American songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sterne also sparked a nationwide craze for ragtime with a series of Scott Joplin piano works played by Joshua Rifkin.

In late 1979 Sterne was fired 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. Sterne argued that the losses were a result of Warner's poor marketing and distribution efforts. A letter condemning her dismissal, written by 10 Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, including Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland, was sent to the vice president of Warner Communications and widely circulated in the press, but had no effect.

In her later years Sterne suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). Teresa Sterne died at her home in Manhattan on December 10, 2000.

Sources: New York Times Obituary, Copyright New York Times Company, Dec 12, 2000

Weber, Jerome F: “Nonesuch”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 15 September 2003), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

From the guide to the Teresa Sterne Papers, 1913-1979, (The New York Public Library. Music Division.)

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  • Composers--20th century

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