As I approached the Dock Street Theatre for Saturday morning’s joint memorial celebration for our Maestro and his dear wife Karen, I could hear the music from two blocks away. The soft strains of the yearning love songs, like “There’s a Place for Us,” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, soulfully played by brasses and woodwinds from Dock Street’s outside balcony. And it set the prevailing tone immediately. You simply can’t celebrate the lives of David and Karen Stahl separately; not when there’s a love story like theirs to tell.
And what inspiring tales we were told — eloquently and from many perspectives — by the people who were closest to them. There to hear it was a jam-packed crowd of people from across the Charleston arts community: performers and fans alike, folks whose lives David and Karen had touched in ways both big and small. Others were there who had hardly known them, like all 60 of their son Byron’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers, there to lend him their strength and love.
The morning’s program consisted of spoken tributes and personal remembrances from members of the extended Stahl Family, clergymen, prominent artists, and Charleston dignitaries, interspersed with well-chosen musical interludes. There was an invocation from Baptist Pastor Edward Carney and a benediction from Rabbi Anthony Holz. Mayor Joe Riley and Spoleto Director Nigel Redden spoke of David’s hard work, huge accomplishments, and singular vision for the future, including the impending Gaillard renovation, for which Stahl lobbied tirelessly. Further commentary came from former CSO executive director Darrell Edwards, school principal Jayne Ellicott, and the local school system’s former fine arts director Barry Goldsmith. Almost all of them made tender observations about the Stahls’ absolute devotion to each other and to their children.
But the most moving words came from family members. Memories both happy and sad were heard from David’s brother Robert. One of the happiest was of David’s first boyhood declaration that he wanted to be a conductor after their dad (now 90, and in attendance) had taken them to a performance of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger in New York. The saddest was when he, being a physician and blood cancer specialist, had to tell David that he was going to die. David Turschmann, Karen’s brother-in-law, spoke brokenheartedly of her grace, strength, zest for life, and love of family.
Many of Charleston’s leading musicians were there to perform, either singly or in the small orchestra (Alex Agrest, conductor) that filled the stage. CSO concertmaster Yuriy Bekker and harpist Kathleen Wilson delivered “Somewhere,” another poignant West Side Story song. The Stahls’ love story was mirrored in Gustav Mahler’s searing “Adagietto,” the composer’s own passionate love song to Alma, his wife. Other orchestral plums were Tomaso Albinoni’s reflective Adagio for Organ and Strings (with organist Julia Harlow) and the closing number, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lush and soaring The Lark Ascending, again with Yuriy and his heaven-winging solo violin. The Ashley River Elementary School Unichorus delivered a sweet rendition of “The Artist Teaches Us All.” Tenor Robert Taylor, with Ghadi Shayban at the piano, delivered perhaps the morning’s most emotionally intense moments when they gave us the Luther Vandross song, “Dance With my Father.” Rob, who directs the College’s choral program, was one of the Stahls’ most intimate friends. Damp hankies fluttered everywhere. How he held it together, I’ll never know.
Indeed, the tears hardly stopped flowing from beginning to end. Collective grief hung in the air like a heavy cloud, though pierced here and there by rays of light from many happy anecdotes and bits of humor — not to mention a radiant sense of spirituality. For me and many others, this was one of the most emotionally overwhelming hours of our lives. But we needed this community “wake,” this mass catharsis, this chance to say our last goodbyes to a pair of Charleston’s best-loved personalities.