Mimi Sterne-Wolfe heats up St. Marks

By Michael Clive

How was your weekend? If it wasn’t as good as mine, that may be because you didn’t attend Downtown Music Productions’ [DMP] “Feedback” concert at St. Marks in the Bowery church on Sunday. This entry in DMP’s East Village Concert Series explored jazz and pop influences on contemporary music by composers ranging from the early 20th-century master Maurice Ravel to versatile jazz.man Marty Ehrlich.

With the exception of Leon Botstein, I know of no one who rivals Mimi Stern-Wolfe in presenting concerts that excitingly engage the mind as well as the ear. The DMP’s brand of concertgoing doesn’t come with plush seats or an uptown address. But it transformed St. Marks into a rarefied music club that anyone could join for a $10 donation at the door. With apologies to all those who savor the intimacy of these gatherings, more people should know about them.

As always the performances were at a minimum fluent and spirited, and often rose to a higher level. They started with “Holiday for Four” by Ray Green, a longtime East Village resident whose career-long involvement with dance was evident in all three movements for viola (Lori Berkowitz) clarinet (David Hopkins), bassoon (Gili Sharett) and piano (Stern-Wolfe). As the buoyant quartet percolated along, it provided a travelogue of American landscape and of the musical world Green shared with Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.

If the players didn’t yet sound fully warmed up, the energy level and interpretive commitment rose as Stern-Wolfe was joined by violinist Marilyn Dubow for the blues movement of Ravel’s sonata for violin and piano. Isolating this movement emphasized the devilish, strenuous mix of French elegance, bluesy insouciance and classical precision that both players provided.

Irwin Schulhoff, whose “Hot Sonata” for saxophone and piano came next, inhabited the musical world of Kurt Weill – European cabaret of the 1920s and ’30s informed by classical tradition. But though Schulhoff died in a Nazi concentration camp, his work more fully integrates American sources than that of Weill, who escaped prewar Germany and composed for Broadway. The sonata’s fluid writing for saxophone was beautifully handled by Ehrlich.

The audience favorite of the afternoon was “Café Music” by Midwesterner Paul Schoenfield, played by the Downtown Chamber Trio: Rieko Kawabata (violin), Daniel Barrett (cello), and Stern-Wolfe on piano. In his formal and outright classical development of jazzy and bluesy subjects, Schoenfield suggests Gershwin, but with an exuberant technical mastery that is distinctively his own. Listeners cheered both the composition and the energized playing.

For a final number, they were treated to some of the real thing: jazz compositions played by Marty Ehrlich’s jazz trio, including Mark Helias on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. The knowing crowd especially loved “Like I Said,” and so did I.

DMP’s March 25 concert will be “The Poet of Bleecker Street,” various composers’ settings of poetry by Ilsa Gilbert. For information, call (212) 477-1594 or go to www.downtownmusicproductions.org.