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Remembering Paul Wolfe — Sarasota's Music Man

Paul Wolfe, co-founder of the Sarasota Music Festival, died Tuesday at age 90.

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  • | 3:25 p.m. September 16, 2016
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At a recent lunch, Joseph McKenna’s conversation with his waitress turned to the Sarasota Orchestra, and eventually, Paul Wolfe and the Youth Orchestra. 

She told him how years ago, her son went through the program and how much of an impact it — and Wolfe, then its conductor — had on him.

“She told me it was the best investment she’s ever made for her son,” says McKenna, president and CEO of the orchestra.

It’s not the first time he’s heard that. In fact, he says, it happens all the time. But that doesn’t come as a surprise.

“Paul’s ability to work with local kids — and get them excited about music — shaped and changed the lives of so many people in this community,” he says. “He had the same passion for working with them as he did for working with emerging artists on verge of a professional career. That’s something rare.”

Wolfe died Tuesday, Sept. 13, at age 90. He is survived by his wife, Doris, as well as his two daughters.

The impact he had on Sarasota’s music community — and the countless lives he touched through his work as conductor of the Youth Orchestra, artistic director and conductor of the Sarasota Orchestra and as co-founder of the internationally acclaimed Sarasota Music Festival — is immeasurable.

“The contributions he made in Sarasota’s musical and cultural community are so profound and far-reaching,” says McKenna. “He touched countless lives over the decades and helped shape an organization that’s become one of the finest regional orchestras in the country.”

Jay Hunsberger, principal tuba player in the Orchestra, says Wolfe’s love for music — and for the Sarasota Orchestra — was apparent, even after he had retired.

“It’s hard for me to remember a Sunday afternoon orchestra performance when he wasn’t backstage, greeting the musicians and the conductors,” says Hunsberger. “Even when he was no longer at the helm, his passion for the orchestra and its programs was as strong as ever.”

He also credits Wolfe for his tenacity and drive to make the Sarasota Orchestra one of the best in the country.

“He really was the driving force behind the orchestra,” he says. “First and foremost, he was a chamber musician — a violinist — and he remained committed to chamber music and its value. It’s much more challenging to play, and requires more sensitivity and flexibility from the musicians. Even to this day, we’re unique among orchestras in our commitment to chamber music.”

Wolfe’s own musical career started at a young age, learning piano and violin and performing his debut recital at age 12. He attended the High School of Music and Art, Queens College, the Juilliard School and Columbia University, where he received an Accounting Certificate and a Master of Music Degree. By 15 he was conducting with the WNYC Radio Orchestra, and in college, he played in the first violin section of the New York Symphony under Leopold Stokowski.

In 1961, the Sarasota Orchestra (then the Florida West Coast Symphony) hired Wolfe as its artistic director and conductor, a position he held until 1996, when he became the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate.

Wolfe also conducted the youth orchestra from 1961 to 2002 and for 35 years was violinist with the Florida String Quartet, one of the four chamber ensembles he established during his tenure. 

He co-founded the Sarasota Music Festival in 1965, which has grown to be one of the most highly regarded classical music events in the country. Each June, nearly 500 pre-professional college-aged students from the world’s best music programs apply for just 60 available slots for the opportunity to study under 40 guest faculty masters.

But the impact he’s had on Sarasota’s music community goes beyond his accomplishments alone. For him, the most enjoyable aspect of the festival was seeing its power to educate and elevate the next generation of musicians.

“That’s a big part of his legacy,” says Lauren Hersh, who went through the Youth Orchestra program under Wolfe’s direction. “What he did for the youth and education programs as well as the Music Festival will always be felt. It was so exciting to be in high school and work under someone like him. He always made you feel so respected and professional.”

McKenna puts it another way.

“I think it’s safe to say,” he says, “that Paul was — and always will be — Sarasota’s music man."


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