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 & 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 & in the timeless performance we could not only appreciate his scholarship on the subject of tempo & musical structure, but his understanding of the
very essence of Mozart.
The strings played
with a natural serenity, the winds appeared & 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 & 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 & life-affirming: in his ability to do so, he was one of the few to share the legacy of Mozart & in those beautiful
solemn moments both Mozart & Epstein seemed present, hand in hand.
A large group of David’s
colleagues & 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 & which at times reached levels of intensity & 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 & demanded
& achieved exciting results.
Institute Professor John Harbison
pointed to David’s multifaceted contributions as a great performer, original composer & 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” & 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 & get the score inside of him.”
In addition to speeches by
several of David’s music colleagues & friends who described his great humanity, his daughters & other family
members remembered him fondly. Beth Epstein-Hounza described her pleasure at wandering up & down the aisles of Kresge
Auditorium when her father was rehearsing & how she would “curl up in a chair & 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 & 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 & Peter Jung ’01
& 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 & 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 & caught scowls & 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 & 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 & in doing so
enriched many lives. A great human being as well as superb musician, he made friends in many circles & will be remembered
with joy & missed with sorrow at MIT & many places & communities beyond.
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