She was a world-class violinist who became homeless. Now her instrument is getting a new life, and a new concerto, in Greeley
Unless you are a musician, many who hear a violin seldom consider the history of the instrument, the life it lived, and the story it tells. Dylan Fixmer is a musician and the composer in residence for the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra. When he came into contact with this particular violin, he did wonder about the story it held. The story he discovered moved him deeply and inspired his new violin concerto.
Years ago, the violin came into a music store in Boulder where Fixmer was working, without any documentation — and in distress.
“It was in such condition that nobody really kind of paid attention to it. There [were] years of rosin caked on the top of it, and some seams were split and it hadn't been re-strung in a long time,” Fixmer said. “And my manager who was working at the time just kind of said, ‘Well, this is an unnamed violin and we'll put it on consignment.’ And something strangely was alluring about that instrument. And I found myself going to it and just playing it in the morning when I would open up for work.”
Fixmer knew he couldn’t let this instrument slip through his fingers, so he bought it. Over the next few years, he was often drawn to play it, and finally, he noticed a small compartment concealed in the case.
“I’m surprised I didn't see [it] before, but picked up the compartment and underneath, were hundreds of strings just circled and old, old strings that were just put underneath the violin,” he said.
Inside, he also found a business card, a receipt and an invitation to the Colorado Festival Orchestra picnic.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ But more importantly, I found a few pieces of information that allowed me to eventually track who the violin belonged to before me.”
In Fort Collins, a program keeps the music alive by placing pianos around and asking people to play (and paint) them
Fixmer learned that this special violin had belonged to Terri Sternberg, a world-class violinist who played under Leonard Bernstein, and for many years was first chair of the San Francisco Ballet. Later in life, Sternberg lost everything — including her home in Longmont — and was forced to sell her violin.
“And so those three bits of information started doing some, some digging and found. Um, sadly, the very first thing I found was an obituary from 2013, which was Terri's, and that finding — going through that story then — and finding all of the bits and pieces of Terri's life, was really a shock to me because … I had no idea what I was expecting to find, but I was not expecting to find a story like this, about a person.”
How could he have expected to find this story? We don't think of someone that has the privilege of education and access to the arts as being susceptible to becoming unhoused.
“It can happen to anyone,” Fixmer said. “And, what struck me most about Terri's story was not only that she, after a great career as a violinist, became homeless, but then while she was homeless and living in Boulder, she was an advocate for the homeless population in Boulder.”
Not only did Sternberg’s story inspire Fixmer to compose a new concerto, but for the world premiere, it is being played on Sternberg’s own violin, by Fixmer’s wife, Sarah Off-Fixmer.
“I remember my first interaction with it, you know, he handed it to me and he said, ‘Play on this and tell me what you think,’” Off-Fixmer said. “I know this is gonna sound a little dramatic. But I think that there will be violinist musicians and people who will identify with this: It was an immediate, immediate, noticeable connection. And not just for me with the violin, but rather … like you were communing with or engaging with a living being.”
Off-Fixmer said old instruments, like Sternberg’s, often feel like they have their own existence.
“Because when you're playing an instrument, you are putting a totally different kind of unfettered … genuine, very deeply human energy into that thing, because it's the way you're trying to express things. You can't necessarily express it in words and actions.”
Sternberg wrote about her experiences and her time on the street for The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. She fought as an activist for others experiencing homelessness. That legacy inspired Dylan Fixmer to compose this new violin concerto.
“I wanted to make it a concerto for violin because I wanted the soloist to express Terri's feelings. I wanted her heroic journey, her pain and her triumph to be portrayed by the soloist. And since Terri herself was a violinist. I wanted that voice to be her voice,” Fixmer said. “And I wanted her words to be the thing, the impetus behind the melodies and, and the things that I was using in the piece.”
Fixmer said his hope is to realize Sternberg’s vision, “which was to destigmatize homelessness as a self-imposed condition by people who can't achieve. And instead, look at it as a societal sickness that people — without empathy — suffer and that we can solve homelessness.”
For the world premiere of Fixmer’s violin concerto, UNC Symphony Orchestra — side-by-side with the Greeley Philharmonic — and several local agencies are partnering to continue Sternberg’s work of awareness and advocacy.
Nancy J. Wiehagen is the executive director Greeley Family House, one of the agencies partnering for the event.
“The biggest thing about homelessness is a constant education and awareness. And this particular concert really brings home the fact that anyone can experience homelessness,” Wiehagen said. “You can be the most successful person in the world and still have that happen to you.
“And it is not who you are, but something you experience. And I believe this concert's going to bring that awareness.”
The Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra presents A Musical Odyssey with UNC Symphony Orchestra Sept. 24 and 25 on the UNC campus.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!