Through Music and Composers Who Created It, a New Film Tells the Story of the AIDS Crisis
by Chip Alfred
It began with a chance meeting between two of the most unlikely collaborators. When eccentric seventy-something New York pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe met exuberant twenty-something Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong, their futures were about to change. After Stern-Wolfe worked on the music for one of Spong’s films, the director was captivated by her and a concert series she’d been producing every year for the last two decades. Since World AIDS Day 1990, Stern-Wolfe and a small ensemble have presented the Benson AIDS Concert Series, honoring the memory of her best friend and fellow musician, Eric Benson, who died in 1988. Spong knew she was the perfect subject for his next project as she shared stories about Benson and the musical soirées he hosted. “It was [a time] full of life, full of hope and full of wonderful music,” she reflects. All the Way Through Evening, with a score by Robert Savage, who died of AIDS in 1993, memorializes three New York composers, featuring their music and interviews with friends and loved ones. Chronicling the planning and performance of the twentieth anniversary concert, Spong was granted virtually unlimited access to Stern-Wolfe, often filming in the tight quarters of her East Village apartment, cluttered with stacks of videotapes, audio cassettes and concert memorabilia.
“You can’t help being swept up in her story,” Spong says. “Mimi’s a brilliant musician and she’s unsung. No one’s bothered to stop and commemorate the fact that she’s presenting the music of men who died of HIV/AIDS.” Kevin Oldham is one of the composers profiled in Evening. His friend and fellow musician Karen Kushner remembers him as funny, irreverent, and incredibly talented. “When he told me he was HIV-positive, I remember being shocked and scared and asking what we could do,” she recalls, barely getting the words out through her tears. Kushner compares her friend to Schubert, who died at about the same age. “What would have happened if these two wonderfully gifted composers had lived?” According to Oldham’s partner Stephen Rotondaro, Kevin composed music from childhood, but after he was diagnosed he became more driven to write new songs. In the final verse of one of the motion picture’s most heartrending pieces, “Not Even if I Try,” with words and music by Oldham, the composer expresses longing for a lost love and trying to keep a connection between life and death.
“I search the stars
I watch the clouds look down to me
My thoughts are clear
My heart is aching
You’re oh so far away
I close my eyes and hold my pillow
And say a prayer for you
I won’t forget. I can’t forget
Not even if I try.”
Unlike Oldham, when Chris DeBlasio learned his HIV status, he decided to give up composing altogether to become an activist. He asked his friend, lyrical poet Perry Brass, “What good is music in the face of AIDS?” Brass replied emphatically, “It’s everything. You are the only person who can write your music.” Brass sent DeBlasio poem after poem, hoping something would motivate him to tap into the power of his unique talent once again. “Music reaches into the absolute soul of people and connects them so that the barriers between people are dropped,” says Brass. Much to his surprise, just before his forty-third birthday, Brass received from DeBlasio a cycle of five songs based on his poetry, called All the Way Through Evening. “This is the best birthday present I will ever get,” said Brass, overwhelmed with emotion. “Walt Whitman in 1989,” the stirring closing song, places the nineteenth-century poet in a modern day hospital as young men are falling victim to AIDS. Spong says hearing the song and making this film opened his eyes to a time and place he admitted knowing very little about. “I discovered that it wasn’t just a story about Mimi and these few composers. There was this huge scale of people. I don’t think I understood the numbers of people who were lost to HIV/AIDS until I finished all the interviews.”
Another artist highlighted in Evening is Robert Chesley, who composed music primarily to poetry text. The beauty of his delicate artistry is evident in his poignant rendition of “Autumn” by Walter de la Mare.
“There is a wind where the rose was;
Cold rain where sweet grass was;
And clouds like sheep
Stream o’er the steep
Grey skies where the lark was.
Nought gold where your hair was;
Nought warm where your hand was;
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.
Sad winds where your voice was;
Tears, tears where my heart was;
And ever with me,
Child, ever with me,
Silence where hope was.”
Starting out at as a theater critic, Chesley soon realized he could write as well as the playwrights he was reviewing. A keen observer of human behavior, he became a prolific playwright and composer. When KS ravaged his body, “he made the decision that all the things that had made his life worthwhile were beyond his reach now,” his sister Joan Engelhaupt discloses. In 1990, Chesley stopped eating and drinking, ending his own suffering.
“The evening of life,” as Chesley experienced and Stern-Wolfe describes, is a recurring theme in the movie, but Evening isn’t about mourning. It’s about celebrating the art of music, revering extraordinary musicians and remembering them for all time. It’s a touching tribute to another era and the body of work it inspired. At the core of the documentary is Stern-Wolfe, a fiercely passionate woman who refuses to let the world forget these precious lives lost. “In a way Mimi’s a keyhole to this period of time,” explains Spong. “She’s a great documentary character.” We feel her pain as she points out the apartment where her friend Eric lived. We see her face light up as she puts all the pieces of the concert puzzle together. We hear her voice raise an octave whenever she’s on the phone with one of the singers. “Putting together a concert is like walking up a mountain and then you come to the top and then it’s over,” she says. “The way I do it you see another small mountain far away and you start climbing that one.” The inevitable question is how long can she continue climbing that mountain; and if she stops, will someone be there to take the reigns? Showcasing Stern-Wolfe’s concert series stunningly performed by world-class vocalists Gilles Denizot and Marshall Coid, Evening was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 NYC Downtown Feature Film Fest. With a busy schedule of independent screenings and film festival bookings, Spong hopes Evening will move beyond queer film festivals, reach more mainstream events and eventually air on cable, where it can have a greater impact and “really do some good.”
“It made me understand that these songs now belong to the world,” Brass declares. “These young men died at the height of their creativity. It’s important that we realize there is a legacy and that there are people who are trying to keep that legacy alive.”
Visit allthewaythroughevening.com for the latest information about the film. Sudden Sunsets, a collection of musical highlights from the Benson AIDS Series, is available on iTunes.
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.