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David Epstein

Recalling A Great Conductor

By Jonathan Richmond

Celebrating David Epstein 1930 - 2002.

Wong Auditorium, April 21, 2:00 p.m.

One of the advantages to being a great artist is the immortality of one’s work. Professor David Epstein died on January 15 this year -- far too early at the age of 71 -- from complications of lung and liver disease, but members of the audience remarked that his spirit was present as the memorial to his remarkable life ended with the playing of a recording of the Andante from Mozart’s G major piano concerto, K. 453.

David was conducting the New Orchestra of Boston, which he founded, and in the timeless performance we could not only appreciate his scholarship on the subject of tempo and musical structure, but his understanding of the very essence of Mozart. The strings played with a natural serenity, the winds appeared and blended in with the most intense of mournful gentleness; the eloquence of the piano playing of Manfred Eigen was made all the more compelling by the natural flow of sonorities produced by David’s orchestra. No matter that his chosen tempi were slower than those demanded by modern performance practice and its claims of “authenticity.” David was taking us to depths of profundity unknown by pedantic musicologists; he was bringing to life that element of music which exists in no other medium, which relates sounds to time to create deep but indescribable meaning. David had produced work at once grief stricken and life-affirming: in his ability to do so, he was one of the few to share the legacy of Mozart, and in those beautiful solemn moments both Mozart and Epstein seemed present, hand in hand.

A large group of David’s colleagues and friends gathered in Wong Auditorium on Sunday afternoon to celebrate his life. As conductor of the MIT Symphony Orchestra for 33 years until 1998, Epstein built up an institution whose amateur members were led to give performances that were often professional in stature, and which at times reached levels of intensity and revelation that placed them among the great orchestras of the world. David not only brought discipline to his players; he fired their imaginations with his at times idiosyncratic interpretations, and demanded and achieved exciting results.

Institute Professor John Harbison pointed to David’s multifaceted contributions as a great performer, original composer and influential theoretician. David linked his activities together, using his practical experience in making music to inform his theoretical contributions.

John P. Ito ’93, a former student of David Epstein now completing doctoral studies in music theory at Columbia University, spoke of his teacher’s “generosity in helping younger colleagues,” and how he continues to feel his influence. As a member of the MIT Symphony Orchestra, he recognized David’s special relationship with music: “David could get inside the score, and get the score inside of him.”

In addition to speeches by several of David’s music colleagues, and friends who described his great humanity, his daughters and other family members remembered him fondly. Beth Epstein-Hounza described her pleasure at wandering up and down the aisles of Kresge Auditorium when her father was rehearsing, and how she would “curl up in a chair and let my father’s music carry me away.”

The afternoon included three live music performances, including the Andante from Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 played by members of the MIT Symphony Orchestra, and moving renditions of the second movement of Brahms String quartet No. 1 in C minor, Opus 51, No. 1, performed by Philip N. Springmann ’04, Andrew L. Wong ‘04, Jennifer Grucza, and Peter Jung ’01, and of three songs from David Epstein’s The Seasons, sung by Margaret O'Keefe, with Heng-Jin Park on piano.

David’s concerts always held a special place for me as The Tech’s music critic. I put attendance at them first priority not only because they provided a display of MIT talent, but because David’s performances offered special insights on music, and on countless occasions would send me home feeling animated by their revelation.

David was always free to discuss music with humor as well as insight. On a few occasions I felt the orchestra performed badly, and caught scowls and worse from members of the orchestra in the Infinite Corridor after laying out my opinion in The Tech. David, however, was ever supportive, gently going over my comments with a smile in his voice and using the occasion to teach me about music.

David Epstein, just awarded the prestigious Conductors’ Guild Max Rudolph Award posthumously, brought greatness to music at MIT, and in doing so enriched many lives. A great human being as well as superb musician, he made friends in many circles, and will be remembered with joy and missed with sorrow at MIT and many places and communities beyond.