How Do You Keep The Music Playing?
By Stephen CrittendenNovember 23, 2012
All The Way Through Evening is a quietly luminous documentary film by young Australian documentary-maker Rohan Spong exploring the music of a group of New York composers who died of AIDS, mostly in the early 1990s, and the musicians and friends who are devoted to keeping their musical legacy alive.
At the centre of the film is pianist and concert producer Mimi Stern-Wolfe, who lives in an apartment in New York’s East Village crowded with books and manuscripts and videotapes of past concerts.
The grand piano in her living room has a “Support your local musician” sticker on the side, and the company she runs, Downtown Music Productions, is devoted to producing affordable classical concerts for the community of lower Manhattan. “Her ethos is that if you want to hear Schubert you shouldn’t have to go to the Lincoln Centre and pay $80,” Spong says. She says she has spent her life “finagling and hustling” to get her concerts staged, and adds “It’s a hell of a way to live, I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.”
Of uncertain age (I am warned that this can be a tricky subject and decide not to ask, but she tells me she has childhood memories of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt), Stern-Wolfe was educated at New York’s High School of Music and Art, Queen’s College, and the New England Conservatory, before studying in Paris under the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Stern-Wolfe has also been shaped by the civil rights movement. Early in the film there’s a wonderful photo of her with long hair and sunglasses at an anti-war rally in the 1960s, holding a placard reading “Brahms, not bombs”. She doesn’t only do concerts about AIDS, but much of the music she puts on has a strong social theme.
Spong first met Stern-Wolfe in 2009 while he was in New York promoting his first documentary, T is for Teacher, about transgender schoolteachers, and researching music for another film about the Holocaust. They struck up a friendship and she suggested he might be interested in making his next documentary about the annual concerts she has produced, since 1990, for World AIDS Day. The Benson concerts are named after her singer friend Eric Benson, who died in 1988, aged 42.
Almost every day as she walks along 2nd Avenue, Stern-Wolfe still pauses and looks up at his apartment where so many parties were held and so much music was performed. “It was a very happy period in a way, musically for me, because I had not really known anybody that was into that kind of music. And all of a sudden I was invited to all these parties and was playing some of these art songs and stuff, and it was a wonderful time of my life. It didn’t last as long as I would have liked it to,” she says.
The music and music-making featured in All the Way Through Evening are of the highest quality. Over the years Stern-Wolfe has performed and indeed commissioned works by dozens of composers who have either died of AIDS or are living with HIV, but the film concentrates on the music of four of them: Chris DeBlasio (d. 1993 aged 34), Robert Chesley (d. 1990 aged 47), Kevin Oldham (d. 1993 aged 32) and Robert Savage (d. 1993 aged 42).
The film’s title, All the Way Through Evening, comes from a song cycle of poems by Perry Brass set to music by his friend, composer Chris DeBlasio. One of those poems, “Walt Whitman in 1989” imagines America’s great gay poet, who nursed the dying soldiers during the American Civil War, come down to the AIDS wards to tend to another generation of dying young men:
Walt Whitman has come down today to the hospital room,
He rocks back and forth in the crisis.
He says it’s good we haven’t lost our closeness,
And cries as each one is taken.
He has written many lines about these years,
The disfigurement of young men
And the wars of hard tongues and closed minds…
It makes for a song of almost unbearable intensity. “I do these concerts for years and years because I knew the people that we lost,” Stern-Wolfe says. “And I cared for them and wanted to preserve the memory of their lives and their music and their efforts and their talents.
“I wanted their legacy not to be forgotten by the current generation, who is into so many other things now.”
In fact this film is about a community that is still in mourning. It explores the connection between what it means to be a servant of art — to love Schubert and Brahms and devote your life to keeping the Great Tradition alive — and what it means to grieve for departed friends whose legacy will only be preserved as long as they are remembered by those who loved them.
“That’s a good way of putting it,” Stern-Wolfe chuckles, “It’s all about communing with the dead.”
“I’m a queer man,” Spong says. “If I had been born 20 years earlier and lived in a neighbourhood like Mimi’s, this story would have directly affected me. And I would have wanted my friends to keep my memory alive.”
All The Way Through Evening already has won the audience choice award at the Birmingham Shout film festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and the special jury prize at the NYC Downtown Film Festival. It also has been screened at the Dublin Film Festival. On 30 November there will be a special screening at New York’s Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
In Australia the film opens in limited release on 29 November in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.