She was a world-class violinist who became homeless. Now his instrument has a new life, and a new concerto, at Greeley


Fixmer learned that this special violin had belonged to Terri Sternberg, a world-class violinist who performed under Leonard Bernstein, and for many years served as the first president of the San Francisco Ballet. Later in life, Sternberg lost everything – including her home in Longmont – and was forced to sell her violin.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
While tracking down the origin story of a violin he once purchased, musician Dylan Off opened a compartment in the case that contained the instrument and found these strings, along with sales receipts and repairs that led him to seek out a woman named Terri Sternberg. She turned out to be a world-class violinist who had mental health issues, fell into homelessness, and passed away several years ago. A book about homelessness in Denver, with an entry she wrote herself, sits on a stand in her Greeley studio.
20220915 GREELEY PHILHARMONIC VIOLINHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra composer-in-residence Dylan Fixmer, left, and his wife, University of Northern Colorado violin assistant professor Sarah Off, at their Greeley home on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Dylan wrote a concerto for the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra inspired by the story of a violin he once bought, and later discovered belonged to Terri Sternberg, a world-class violinist who fell into homelessness. Her work, in which she is the star violinist, will premiere on September 24.

“And so those three pieces of information started to make some, some to dig and find. Um, unfortunately, the very first thing I found was an obituary from 2013, which was Terri’s, and that discovery – going through that story then – and finding all the pieces of Terri’s life, was really a shock to me because… I had no idea what I expected to find, but I didn’t expect to find a story like this, about a person.

How could he have hoped to find this story? We do not consider someone who has the privilege of education and access to the arts to be likely to find themselves homeless.

“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 while she was homeless and living in Boulder, she stood up for the homeless population of Boulder.”

Not only did Sternberg’s story inspire Fixmer to compose a new concerto, but for the world premiere it is performed on Sternberg’s own violin, by Fixmer’s wife, Sarah Off-Fixmer.

“I remember my first interaction with him, you know, he handed it to me and he said, ‘Play it and tell me what you think,'” Off-Fixmer said. “I know this is going to sound a bit dramatic. But I think there will be violin musicians and people who will identify with that: it was an immediate, immediate, perceptible connection. And not just for me with the violin, but rather… as if you were communing or engaging with a living being.

Off-Fixmer said old instruments, like Sternberg’s, often feel like they have an existence of their own.

20220915 GREELEY PHILHARMONIC VIOLINHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Dylan Fixmer discovered that a purchased violin once belonged to Terri Sternberg, a world-class musician who fell into homelessness. It is displayed in the home he shares with Sarah Off, an assistant professor of violin at the University of Northern Colorado, second from left.
20220915 GREELEY PHILHARMONIC VIOLINHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Dylan Fixmer, with composition notes at his home in Greeley on Thursday September 15, 2022. Dylan has written a concerto for the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra based on the story of a violin he bought a once, and later discovered was owned by Terri Sternberg, a world-class violinist who fell into homelessness. His work, in which his wife, Sarah Off, an assistant professor of violin at the University of Northern Colorado, is the featured violinist, will premiere Sept. 24.
20220915 GREELEY PHILHARMONIC VIOLINHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Dylan Fixmer, left, and his wife, University of Northern Colorado violin assistant professor Sarah Off, at the piano in their Greeley home Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Dylan wrote a concerto for the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra inspired by the story of a violin he once bought, and later discovered belonged to Terri Sternberg, a world-class violinist who fell into homelessness. Her work, in which she is the star violinist, will premiere on September 24.

“Because when you play an instrument, you put a totally different kind of unfettered…authentic, very deeply human energy into that thing, because that’s how you try to express things. You cannot necessarily express it in words and actions.

Sternberg has written about his experiences and his time on the streets for The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. She fought as an activist for other homeless people. This heritage inspired Dylan Fixmer to compose this new violin concerto.

“I wanted to make it a violin concerto because I wanted the soloist to express Terri’s feelings. I wanted his heroic journey, his pain and his triumph to be staged by the soloist. And since Terri herself was a violinist. I wanted that voice to be his voice,” Fixmer said. “And I wanted his words to be the thing, the impetus behind the melodies and, and the things that I used in the piece.”

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