Pioneering Record Company Director Teresa Sterne Dies

Teresa Sterne, a pioneer in the production of classical music recordings and a visionary marketer of classical and ethnomusicological recordings, died December 10, 2000 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gerhrig's disease). She was 73.

Ms. Sterne was best known for directing Nonesuch Records from 1965 through 1979. During her tenure there, she took a tiny budget label and grew it into one of the most diverse and exciting companies in the record business.

Ms. Sterne championed musical genres neglected by the major American labels. Under her direction, Nonesuch released many recordings of contemporary American composers, and even commissioned major pieces by composers such as George Crumb, Elliott Carter, Morton Subotnick, and Charles Wuorinen.

The label also released important recordings of under-represented repertory by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and other European 20th Century composers.

Sterne, a piano prodigy who abandoned public performance as an adult, had a keen ear and the courage to champion unknown performers, many of whom came to prominence through their Nonesuch recordings. Pianist Paul Jacobs, mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, and pianist Gilbert Kalish are among the best-known on a long list that also includes Jan Morris and William Bolcom, who recorded a popular series of American and Victorian vernacular songs, and Joshua Rifkin, whose recordings of the piano rags of Scott Joplin rescued the composer from obscurity, sparking a ragtime mania that continues to simmer even today.

Ms. Sterne was an early advocate of original instrument performances of Early, Renaissance, and Baroque music and placed the label at the forefront of that movement when she commissioned Joshua Rifkin's controversial one-voice-per-part performance of Bach's B-minor Mass.

She also created a separate label within the Nonesuch umbrella for recordings of music from the world's indigenous cultures, the Nonesuch Explorer Series. The Explorer releases of music from Polynesia, Bali, India, Mexico, Peru, and from all over Africa were groundbreaking, and exposed American audiences to such exotic fare as the Ketjak (monkey) dance, Gamelan music, and the beautiful and intricate African thumb piano (mbira).

Ms. Sterne was involved in every aspect of record production, from choosing the repertory down to approving the cover art. By packaging Nonesuch recordings in brightly colored covers festooned with original artwork, she created an identity for the label that appealed to the young, who were also attracted to the budget label's prices. After Time magazine reported that college students had begun using Nonesuch record jackets to decorate their apartments, the label briefly included "flats" of the cover art in their packaging.

In late 1979, Ms. Sterne was dismissed from the label, which, like its parent company Elektra, had been acquired by Warner Communications. Joe Smith, head of Warner's Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch division said, "We can't make records that sell only outside the Russian Tea Room." A strange taunt, considering that most people standing outside the Russian Tea Room would be waiting to get into Carnegie Hall next door—natural customers for a classical music label. A letter protesting her dismissal, drafted by ten Pulitzer Prize-winning composers ranging from Copland to Carter, was sent to the Warner Communications' vice president, but to no avail.

In what was widely seen as a conciliatory move, Robert Hurwitz, current director of the Nonesuch label and a long time Sterne admirer, authorized the release of Teresa Sterne: A Portrait (Nonesuch 79619-2) this fall. The two-CD retrospective combines one disc of Sterne herself playing Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and David Broekman with a second disc sampling from Sterne's favorite recordings from her years with the label.

Ms. Sterne is survived by the millions of music lovers who came of age with Nonesuch Records.

Wes Phillips' writings on audio and recordings can be found at OnHiFi.com.

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