Teresa Sterne was an outstanding pianist in her own right, but her most enduring legacy is as one of America's greatest and most influential recording producers. Her work with the Nonesuch label in the 1960s and 1970s helped to establish that company as the leading innovator in classical recordings.
Her mother was a professional cellist, and her uncle a well-known violinist. At the age of four, Teresa proclaimed Johann Sebastian Bach her "sweetheart" and showed such signs of musical awareness and skill that she was given piano lessons. These were so successful that at the age of 12 Sterne appeared with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the first piano concertos of Tchaikovsky and Grieg, respectively. She made a few recordings, including a fine account of Bach's Italian Concerto, concertos by Rachmaninov and Mozart, and a sonata by David Broekman, a Dutch born composer friend and mentor.
When she became an adult, however, she decided not to pursue the strenuous and uncertain life of a professional piano soloist. She later said she "lacked the sophistication about how to build a career," and was afraid that for the time it took her to built a career she would "be a parasite."
Instead, she took secretarial courses and attended a modeling school. Her first job was as a secretary and part-time model for a knitwear company. The pivotal job in her career was a position in the offices of the great classical music impressario Sol Hurok, which put her back into contact with the music world and began educating her in the business side of the art. Then she joined the enterprising independent label Vanguard Records, where she became personal secretary to its director. In 1965, Jac Holzman, director of Elektra Records, offered her a position as director of its classical sub-label, Nonesuch, which was noted for obtained quality tapes of broadcast organizations in Europe and releasing them in the United States at a budget price. In just a few years she transformed the label into the leading commercial source of the latest American classical music.
Composers such as George Rochberg, William Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen, John Cage, Edgard Varése, George Crumb, and Elliott Carter frequently appeared on the label with such performers as Gilbert Kalish, Paul Jacobs, Joshua Rifkin, Jan DeGaetani, and Speculum Musicae. Sterne's interest in earlier American music led to Joshua Rifkin's series of Scott Joplin rag recordings; this led to the ragtime revival of the 1970s (including the use of The Entertainer in the film The Sting).
When Warner Communications acquired the company in 1980, they closed down its new recording operations and sacked Sterne; she retired from the business and, only a few years later, was stricken with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. By the late 1990s, she was virtually confined to her New York apartment. However, she saw Nonesuch revived as a leading force in American classical music under Robert Hurwitz. In 2000, her old label honored her by releasing a two-disc tribute album, which included her old teen-age recordings and excerpts from several of her great production efforts.