Nowadays, Fewer Tears at Her AIDS Concerts

Mimi Stern-Wolfe  has been organizing AIDS concerts in New York almost every year since 1990. Michael Nagle for The New York Times Mimi Stern-Wolfe  has been organizing AIDS concerts in New York almost every year since 1990.

Mimi Stern-Wolfe organized her first AIDS concert in 1990, after the death of a friend, and with a few exceptions she has made it an annual event – a kind of musical counterpoint to the changing shape of the epidemic. At the first concert, at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, the audience was dotted with men emaciated by the then-untreatable virus; listeners wept during the performance or left in tears.

For this year’s concert, on Thursday at Judson Memorial Church, Ms. Stern-Wolfe expects a much less directly emotional connection.

“It really can’t be cathartic in the same way,” she said in her East Village apartment, which is filled with musical scores and where she has lived for about 40 years. “It was very moving, because everybody was affected by it at the time. It wasn’t just bringing up something from the back burner, which I’m sort of doing now.”

This year’s concert, with Ms. Stern-Wolfe accompanying singers on piano, will precede a screening of a documentary film about the concert series, “All the Way Through Evening,” made by a young Australian filmmaker named Rohan Spong.

As in recent years, she said, the concert will be less an exploration than a historical reminder, like the Oscar-nominated movie “How to Survive a Plague” or the exhibition “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years,” currently at the New-York Historical Society.

“Young people don’t know too much about that time,” Ms. Stern-Wolfe said. “But for those of us who are older, remembering the agony that people were going through, it was just horrific.”

As an artistic inspiration, AIDS has always been as much a political topic as a medical one; as history it feels embedded in a particular moment in New York, when the social order was fraying and the streets were full of possibility, benign and not. The early AIDS years were a time, as one interview subject says in “All the Way Through Evening,” of high art and low sex – of poetry and opera and gay bathhouses and public toilets.

“That combination of tragedy and giving birth to new things,” Ms. Stern-Wolfe said. “I hope that people will keep that memory alive. That’s what I want to do with this thing.”

Ms. Stern-Wolfe, who gave her age as between 70 and 80, has made a specialty of themed concerts, usually with a political edge. She has organized concerts of works by female composers, of civil rights music and of composers who died in the Holocaust. In her apartment was a photograph of her protesting the Vietnam War, carrying a sign that read “Brahms Not Bombs.”

When her friend Eric Benson, a tenor, died of AIDS complications in 1988, she began collecting works by composers who were affected by the virus, many of them her friends through Mr. Benson.

Later, after the arrival of effective antiretroviral drugs in 1996, it became harder to find new works related to AIDS, she said.

“I noticed the change over time. But I kept it going anyhow. And I always took the old-timers’ music, because there was lots of music that these guys wrote that was not even published, and friends of theirs knew about it.”

Ms. Stern-Wolfe has decided that her next series of concerts will be around the theme of breast cancer.

In the meantime, from her downtown apartment, she runs the nonprofit Downtown Music Productions, and recently organized a 22-piece concert for children and another concert by a 30-member senior chorus.

Her political enthusiasms have not always helped her raise money, she said.

“I’d go for funding and I’d notice how their eyes would start rolling in their heads,” she said,  “so then I would slow down and thank them for their time and leave.”

Ms. Stern-Wolfe said she was encouraged by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in 2011, and organized a concert of protest songs in support, including “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”

But in truth, she found the demonstrators’ methods bewildering, she said.

“I come out of an old left thing. There’s a structure in my meshugas. They were a little loose,” she said. “They got the right issues, but they wanted everybody to express what everybody felt, which is enormously democratic. I’m not sure I’m that democratic myself.”

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My First Wig

Dear Diary:

A few days after moving to Brooklyn, I receive a rather shocking bobbed haircut chopped several inches above my chin. I decide the only hope for this new cut is to cover it up, so I set off to an observant Jewish neighborhood riddled with wig shops.

I don’t remember the exact terms of the Jewish law surrounding wigs. I just notice that every Orthodox woman of a certain age has that perfectly coiffed “wiggy” look: stiff, heavy and perfect.

I arrive at a small, busy wig shop off 13th Avenue. The store is studded with blank white heads wigged in all the latest Eastern European styles. Delighted, I run my fingers through a silky russet one. “I love this,” I gush.

The store owner eyes me suspiciously, “You look very young,” she says. “Is this your first wig?”

“Oh yeah, um, I guess I’m a … wig virgin?” I say, dumbly.

“It’s her first wig!” the store owner shrieks to the rest of the store.

Soon, clusters of women circle around me. “Mazel tov!” “Baruch hashem!” “You must be so excited!” “Who is the lucky man?”

I then remember that Orthodox Jewish women don’t begin donning wigs until after they get hitched.

Embarrassed, I confess that I am not engaged, then run out of the store before any of the women have the chance to tell me they can change that.

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