Back in the ’70s, Paul Wolfe drove a station wagon. It could fit a handful of students and a double bass in the back hatch. Back then, Sarasota Music Festival had more than 100 students who stayed in different hotels along Tamiami Trail. For three weeks every June, he’d pick each of them up in the morning and take them to their classes.
“I made a lot of trips,” he says with a chuckle.
In 1965, Sarasota Music Festival’s first year, there weren’t any students; it consisted of seasoned musicians performing in the summer. Now, the festival is completely student-oriented.
Sarasota Music Festival is known as a teaching festival. The most prestigious pre-professional music students in the country audition to participate. They then come to Sarasota for three weeks to study under and perform alongside well-established and well-known faculty. Each week, they perform community concerts. This year, the festival celebrates its 50th anniversary June 2 through June 21.
Wolfe, 88, who founded the festival and directed it until 2006, has been involved with the Sarasota Music Festival longer than many couples have been married. And, like a couple that has been together for 50 years, he has plenty of memories.
Prior to 1965, summers in Sarasota were devoid of classical music — or any arts programming, for that matter. Wolfe, then director of the Florida West Coast Symphony (later known as the Sarasota Orchestra), had an idea. The orchestra hosted several successful chamber concerts at The Ringling’s Historic Asolo Theater throughout the season — so many that he even had soundboards constructed specifically for these concerts. So, he thought why not extend the concerts into the summer?
But The Ringling wasn’t interested in having summer concerts. Wolfe then took the idea to New College of Florida. New College was happy to host, but couldn’t help fund the concerts. That’s when Lota Mundy, a violinist in his orchestra and patron of the arts, said she’d pay for the festival.
The first year, there was one week of five concerts by a group of people high up in the chamber-music world. They were renowned musicians, such as oboist Robert Bloom, who played in the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski; violist Walter Trampler of the Straub Quartet and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; and cellist Bernard Greenhouse of Beaux Arts Trio.
By the second year, students began requesting master classes with the prestigious faculty. By the third year, the organizers extended the festival to three weeks, included 40 students who played community concerts and hosted faculty concerts.
In those days, Wolfe did everything — beyond touting students, he swept the floors and set up music stands. His better half, Doris, hosted the parties the organization held after every Saturday evening concert.
“I had to do all the work you usually pay for when we had a festival in the beginning years,” Wolfe says, “I couldn’t have done it without my wife, Doris Wolfe.”
Wolfe continued directing the festival even after his retirement from directing the orchestra in 1996. He directed the festival for 10 more years and eventually handed the baton to pianist Robert Levin. Levin had been directly involved with the festival for 29 years as a faculty member. Wolfe as director emeritus works closely with Levin in the planning process.
But it hasn’t all been grueling hard work; Wolfe has silly memories, too. Once, in the late ’60s, when the festival was still held at New College, they had a concert in the dining room. In the middle of the concert, a mouse started running up and down the stage.
“We had quite a time getting the mouse off stage!” Wolfe says with a laugh.
Another great memory happened more recently. In 2012, when Tropical Storm Debby hit Sarasota — she took out Sarasota Opera House’s power, too. But the soloists and musicians continued playing as if the lights were on. It was an incredible experience for the audience, because it’s unusual for orchestral musicians to play from memory.
“That was something absolutely phenomenal,” Wolfe says.
Another quality of the Sarasota Music Festival that never ceases to amaze Wolfe is the students’ caliber of talent. They get better each year.
“You don’t think it’s possible, but it happens,” he says.
Many of the students play on the same level as much of the faculty. The difference is that the faculty has experience playing in an ensemble, or what Wolfe calls “a perfect democracy” — an important lesson for students in music, and in life.
“In the space of one measure you can be a soloist, an accompanist or harmony player, and I think this discipline is reflected in other subjects,” he says. “I think the one who’s most successful knows which roles to play.”
Wolfe receives great satisfaction by seeing how the students who have studied with the Sarasota Music Festival go on and achieve important positions as professional musicians. Some who started as students have even returned as faculty.
Robert Vernon started as a student at the festival. He attended Juilliard and came to play in the festival for a few days to supplement the string section (he was that good).
Wolfe is like a proud father, who is content watching his progeny flourish. And, like many fathers, he harbors a wish for his child — to give him a grandchild.
“We haven’t had any children of the students (who became faculty) yet, but hopefully that will happen soon,” Wolfe says.
For the 35 years Paul Wolfe directed the Sarasota Orchestra, he took a vacation from playing bridge. But, since retirement in 1996, the 88-year-old is back to playing once a week. He also conducts an orchestra of mandolins, and still plays string quartets (he plays violin, harpsichord, viola and piano). Since retirement, he hasn’t missed one of the orchestra’s Masterworks concerts. He even lives across from Holley Hall on the other side of U.S. 41.
IF YOU GO
Sarasota Music Festival
When: Runs from June 2 through June 21. Artist Showcases June 5, 12 and 19 ($20 to $25); Friday Festivals June 6, 13 and 20 ($25 to $40); Saturday Symphonies June 7, 14 and 21 ($29 to $55); Student Recitals June 8, 15 and 20 ($5).
Where: Artist Showcases and Student Recitals take place at Holley Hall, 709 N. Tamiami Trail. Friday Festivals and Saturday Symphonies will be held at Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
Info: Call 953-3434 or visit sarasotaorchestra.org.