In 1961, Paul Wolfe took over an orchestra in a small town on Florida Gulf’s Coast. It was called the Florida West Coast Symphony, and it was a modest, community-based orchestra of volunteer musicians.
Thirty-five years later, Wolfe retired from his position as artistic director of the Sarasota Orchestra, a respected professional orchestra known both for quality musicianship and educational programs that attract some of the best young musicians in the world.
Wolfe hadn’t changed jobs. Wolfe himself had transformed his local amateur group into an orchestra with international impact.
Wolfe died Tuesday after a short illness. He was 90 years old.
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“The orchestra as we know it was his creation,” said Gordon Greenfield, the marketing manager of the Sarasota Orchestra and a longtime friend of Wolfe. “In many ways, he laid the foundation for Sarasota-Manatee becoming an arts community.”
Wolfe’s contribution to the orchestra didn’t end with his 1996 retirement as artistic director. Until 2002, he was the conductor of Sarasota Orchestra’s youth orchestra. He co-founded the Sarasota Music Festival, one of the most prestigious educational music festivals in the country, serving as its artistic director for 42 years. For 35 years, he was the first violinist with the Florida String Quartet, one of the four chamber ensembles he established and nurtured during his tenure as artistic director of the orchestra. Few orchestras in the world have such strong educational components, and that was Wolfe’s doing.
The was never any ego about him. It was always all about the music.
He was an outstanding musician, conductor and educator, according to the people who knew him best. But when they talk about him, the word that comes up most often is “humble.”
“The was never any ego about him,” said Chris Confessore. “It was always all about the music.”
Confessore was just a teenager when he first got to know Wolfe. Confessore was a young musician who joined the Youth Orchestra, and Wolfe, he said, “was the first actual symphony conductor I ever met.”
He maintained a close relationship with Wolfe through the decades. As his career progressed, Confessore became a student at the Sarasota Music Festival and later a teacher at that festival. He’s now a professional conductor who often performs with the Sarasota Orchestra as a guest conductor.
Wolfe’s impact on the orchestra is apparent in every concert to this day, Confessore said.
“Even though it’s a young orchestra, when you look at the orchestra, you’ll still see a lot of the people in leadership positions are people that Paul hired,” he said.
Most of those people wouldn’t have been here this long, he said, if Wolfe hadn’t built such a nurturing culture.
Wolfe’s passion for the Sarasota Music Festival never waned. Long after he had stepped down as artistic director, he never once missed a day of the festival, even this year, after he had turned 90 years old. Festival participants celebrated his birthday with a performance dedicated to him. Everyone who saw him at the festival marveled at his vitality.
“He was so vibrant,” said RoseAnne McCabe, the administrative director of the Sarasota Music Festival. “Even when he was 90. If you look at a picture of him, you can’t tell whether it’s a new picture or if it’s from 1987. He looked the same.”
He was diagnosed with cancer in July, but he didn’t talk about it a lot. So, many his friend were taken aback by his passing. He seemed as though he would be around forever.
“He was such a remarkable human being,” McCabe said.
He had a diligent approach to music that he also applied to larger things.
“He never gave up, he never settled,” McCabe said. “He was always about ‘How do I make this better? How do I make this music better? How do I make this orchestra better? How do I make this life better?’ You don’t meet very many people like that.”