As a Jewish woman, researching the story behind her new music has put Mimi Stillman in touch not only with her own identity, but with those she’s choosing to honor in their personal pursuit of freedom. That’s why she’s calling her new CD, which is being released Oct. 30, Freedom.
For Mimi Stillman, a child prodigy on the flute who’s been performing and teaching music since she was 8 years old, freedom has its own meaning.
As the artistic/executive director of Dolce Suono Ensemble, the chamber music group she founded in 2005, she’s free to experiment, commissioning new works on a regular basis. On the flute itself, she displays a different kind of freedom, enabling her to maintain an exceptional skill level, largely because she not only practices extensively but also keeps herself in top physical shape.
And as a Jewish woman, researching the story behind her new music has put her in touch not only with her own identity, but with those she’s choosing to honor in their personal pursuit of freedom.
That’s why she’s calling her new CD, which is being released Oct. 30, Freedom.
“It’s so inspiring to deal with the profound concept of freedom through my music,’’ said the 33-year-old Stillman, who’ll be performing at a Nov. 1 concert with Dolce Suono at the Stedman Gallery at Rutgers-Camden, following a tour of the current “Visions of Place” Israeli art exhibit. “Freedom combines commissioning five pieces and one major discovery.
“All three of the composers featured are Jewish. Jewish issues run throughout.”
The composers, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Richard Danielpour and David Finko tell their personal stories through their music. “Weinberg was a Polish Jew who managed to flee to the Soviet Union but lost most of his family during the Holocaust,” explained Stillman, who got hold of a lost Weinberg work that hasn’t been performed in public since 1947. “He ended up establishing himself as a good composer and was good friends with Dimitri Shostakovich.
“He fell into obscurity until recently. This piece has languished in St. Petersburg archives since shortly after its premiere in 1947. I’m not sure why this piece was lost to the world, but I’m honored to give it its U.S. premiere.”
She feels just as privileged to play the two commissioned works. Finko, like Weinberg, survived Nazi and Soviet persecution, before coming to America in 1979. Danielpour, an American of Iranian descent, pays homage to his heritage with a piece he wrote following the 2009 shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan during the Green Movement protests.
For this piece, rather than the standard flute, she plays alto flute, which produces a deeper, mellower tone to reflect the Persian influence. “He’s American,” said Stillman, who’ll be accompanied by her longtime pianist, Charles Ambramovic, Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Yumi Kendall and soprano Lucy Shelton at the Rutgers-Camden concert. “His family dates back to the Babylonian captivity in Iran.
“So this is the first time he was turning to these roots in his own compositions. The way the movements progress in the piece, it’s lamentation, desecration, benediction — really a profound emotional journey.”
Stillman knows such journeys, since she’s been on one since the late renowned flutist Julius Baker discovered her and became her mentor. “He was in his late 70s and I was 11 when I first met him,” recalled Stillman, who started on the recorder before turning to the flute. “Out of the blue, he had me perform at a public demonstration he was giving for Yamaha.
“I’d been taken to concerts since I was little. My brother, Alex, played clarinet in a youth orchestra and I’m from a family of wind players.”
She’s also from a family of historians—both of her parents then being professors at Harvard—who never thought twice about giving that up in order to give their daughter the best chance to succeed. “At that point, she’d been playing and had devoted herself to the flute,” recalled Ronni Gordon, chairman of Dolce Suono’s board of directors, who also happens to be Mimi’s mother. “It all happened very quickly.
“By October, he’d come back to Boston and said he’d do a duet with Mimi. By December, we were driving her down to his house in Brewster, N.Y., for lessons.
“He said he wanted her to audition at Curtis. When she was accepted, David [Mimi’s father] and I were able to pick up and move. How could we say no to this opportunity for Mimi?”
As long as she stays healthy, there’s no reason Stillman can’t perform at a high level for decades. “Being a good flutist [and for those wondering it’s definitely flutist — not flautist] requires physical effort as well as emotional,” said Stillman, whose Dolce Suono performances usually include other Curtis grads. “Musicians call themselves ‘athletes of the small muscles.’
“We liken it to Olympic training. As a wind player, breathing air is the most important part. There are exercises I do on the flute and away from the flute to develop lung capacity and breath support.”
A busy schedule entailing solo performances, Dolce Suono performances, teaching and putting together the CD, certainly satisfies Stillman’s creative instincts. But while no one will ever confuse musicians with ballplayers or movie stars when it comes to cashing a paycheck, there are other intrinsic rewards.
“I think the operative word is ‘passion,’ ” said her mother, Ronni, who’s published numerous foreign language textbooks. ‘The passion she has for what she does… the passion I have for what I do.”
“I draw a lot of inspiration from the way music touches others,” Mimi explained. “As an artist playing for audiences all over the world of all ages, to see how it can transform lives is very exciting.
“That’s another reason why I’m privileged to release Freedom. We’re Americans of several generations all coming from Eastern Europe. So this is definitely a Jewish artist reflecting on my roots.
“It’s a testament to the universal need to be free.”
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