David Epstein is not one to reminisce. Although retiring from MIT this semester after nearly half a lifetime of teaching, conducting, composing and research, his focus right now is on the present -- on rehearsals with the MIT Symphony Orchestra (MITSO) for the performance this Saturday, March 14, of a demanding and complex work, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
"We had taken it apart and worked on it literally phrase after phrase after phrase," said Professor Ep-stein, describing one of many "exhausting" rehearsals of the massive piece, a pinnacle of musical and emotional achievement written late in Beethoven's life. "Suddenly, last Tuesday night, things just took off," he said, his voice hushed, almost awestruck. "It was unbelievable -- absolutely a stunning moment. And they [the members of the orchestra] knew it too," he said.
"There's no question that the intellectual brilliance and the analytical capacity of these students enriches this process tremendously," he added.
There have been many of these golden moments for Professor Epstein in his 33 years on the MIT music faculty. As director of the MIT Symphony since 1965, he has conducted the orchestra in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and other major concert halls across the country to critical acclaim.
In keeping with MITSO's commitment to contemporary music, he has led the orchestra in challenging works by numerous modern composers, including premieres of works by many of his MIT colleagues. Under his baton, the orchestra recorded on the Vox/Turnabout and EMI labels and gained widespread recognition in the 1970s through nationwide telecasts of a concert on PBS.
All this was in addition to numerous guest conducting appearances in the United States and overseas, his own work as a composer, and his research and published writing on questions of musical structure, particularly as they affect performance and how we perceive and understand time in music. The latter are passionate interests of Professor Epstein's that have been both fueled and advanced, he said, by his work at MIT with "lively, advanced students" in his seminars in musical analysis, in rehearsals with MITSO and by work with researchers in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science.
It's no wonder, however, that Professor Epstein seems more focused on the future than the past. After he takes what will be his final bow this Saturday as music director of MITSO and begins his so-called "retirement," he plans to continue an active life of guest conducting, composing, researching and writing.
MITSO REUNION WEEKEND
Nevertheless, there will likely be a good deal of reminiscing and scrapbook-sharing this weekend, as alumni/ae of the MIT Symphony from the "Epstein years" return to MIT for a special weekend of reunion events in honor of their music director.
Approximately 40 MITSO alumni/ae are expected to participate in the weekend of events, which includes, in addition to the Saturday evening concert, a pre-concert alumni/ae dinner, a post-concert reception, a sight-reading session conducted by Professor Epstein on Sunday morning and a Sunday afternoon luncheon.
The weekend was voluntarily organized by Bonny Kellermann (SB '72), recording secretary in the Office of the Treasurer, who played violin in the orchestra both as a student and as a staff member. She said Professor Epstein "had a very special way of conveying his love and excitement for the music."
Alan Grodzinsky (SB '69), associate director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering, was a freshman and a member of MITSO in 1965, Professor Epstein's first year on the music faculty. He remembers it as "a difficult and terrific time all at once for the orchestra, which David had to build from scratch.
David understood how difficult it is to be a student around here," Dr. Grodzinsky added. "At the same time, MITSO was not treated simply as a 'hobby,' but was taken as seriously as any other academic activity."
What will it be like for Professor Epstein this weekend when he is reunited with former students and MITSO members from the past 33 years? "One huge euphoria," he says, with characteristic quiet confidence and authority. And what advice does he have for his successor? "You've got a treasure here, a very well-developed orchestra with a tradition behind it. Keep it alive and take it forward."
David Epstein's farewell performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the MIT Symphony Orchestra and MIT Concert Choir begins at 8pm this Saturday, March 14 in Kresge Auditorium. Soloists are Margaret O'Keefe, Gale Fuller, Mark Evans and Robert Honeysucker. Admission is $2 at the door. No one will be admitted once the concert begins.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 11, 1998.