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Retired MITSO conductor David Epstein is dead at 71

David Epstein
David Epstein
Photo / Graham Ramsay

Professor David M. Epstein conducted Beethoven's ninth symphony at his farewell performance with the MIT Symphony Orchestra in March 1998, which included the "Ode to Joy" chorale section. It capped a 33-year MIT career during which he brought the joy of music to campus.

Epstein, 71, died on Jan. 15 at Emerson Hospital in Concord from complications of lung and liver disease. A memorial service will be held at MIT on April 21.

Bonnie Kellerman, recording secretary in the Treasurer's Office, played many concerts with the second violin section under Epstein's direction as both an undergraduate and staff member, including at his final performance.

"It was a thrill for each of us in the orchestra to once again have the opportunity of having David lead us in making beautiful music," said Kellerman (S.B. 1972). "David was an educator who gave a great deal to all who had the privilege of knowing him."

Kellerman organized an orchestra reunion weekend of events surrounding the concert, celebrating the conductor's career. Her memory of a post-rehearsal luncheon that lasted six hours is still vivid. "David was so enjoying catching up with his former students, sharing his visions and passion for his upcoming undertakings, and generally imparting knowledge about music and other related topics," she said.

Professor Alan J. Grodzinsky, director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering, joined the MIT Symphony Orchestra (MITSO) as a freshman in 1965, Epstein's first year on the podium. Grodzinsky was the principal viola player for eight years and toured with the group. "David made it clear to students that MITSO was an organization that made real music--an intense, serious, but also extraordinarily enjoyable experience at the end of the day," said Grodzinsky, who also performed at the final concert.

Grodzinsky took Epstein's "Music from the Baroque and Romantic Era" class. "He was a really enthusiastic and clear lecturer," he recalled. "I remember his playing at the piano, and his comments at the end of our first term paper that MIT students were incredibly smart, fun to teach, but terrible writers."

Epstein expanded MITSO's audience by mixing new and rarely heard works with those of major composers in the same program, engaging professional and student soloists, and planning and leading tours throughout the United States and abroad. He wrote insightful listener notes and embarked on an ambitious commercial recording venture with the orchestra, which has preserved on the Vox label more than a decade of its finest performances. Due primarily to his drive to raise its artistic goals and standards, the orchestra became the first co-curricular performing ensemble through which MIT students could earn study credit toward a degree.

"David Epstein's contribution to the vitality of music making at MIT is broad and deep," said Professor Marcus A. Thompson, a violist who collaborated frequently with Epstein. He noted that Epstein's "scholarly inquiry" into structure, tempo and articulation provided guidance for performers to make better interpretive decisions. "Some of this inquiry grew out of the obvious pleasure he took in teaching as well as learning from students and colleagues in the MIT scientific community," he said.

A 1952 graduate of Antioch College, Epstein had graduate degrees from the New England Conservatory, Brandeis University and Princeton University. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1968.

Before joining the MIT faculty as an associate professor and conductor of MITSO in 1965, Epstein taught at Antioch and Sarah Lawrence College. He became a full professor in 1971 and chaired the music department in 1982-83 and 1988-89.

Epstein helped found the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra and conducted its debut concert in 1963 at Carnegie Hall, featuring a 17-year-old violin prodigy named Itzhak Perlman. Later in his career, he was on the podium with the New Orchestra of Boston when it performed with legendary jazz drummer Max Roach.

He was music director of the Harrisburg (Penn.) Symphony Orchestra from 1974-78 and the Worcester Orchestra from 1976-80. He appeared as a guest conductor with 28 orchestras in nine countries, He conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1972 in the premier of "Night Voices," written on commission for the BSO by Epstein and his wife, Anne, an author of children's books.

While at MIT, Epstein observed that brilliance in science and music often went hand in hand. "As with many of us, my students were my professors," he wrote in an essay on music and science in 2000, when he was a senior fellow in the arts and humanities. "In a way, we enjoy at MIT what some 100 years ago was a norm in European culture, a diverse, literate and active musical society."

Epstein did research on music and the brain at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Germany which led to theories about the role time and motion play in music of all cultures. He explored these theories in two books, "Beyond Orpheus: Studies in Musical Structure" (1979) and the award-winning "Shaping Time: Music, the Brain and Performance" (1995).

While at Antioch in the 1950s, Epstein helped desegregate barbershops in Ohio when he testified against a white barber who claimed he was not able to cut African-American hair. Epstein, who had thick, black curly hair at the time, had it cut by the barber and then appeared as a witness against him in the successful lawsuit.

A native of New York City, he loved to ski and sail, and he maintained a shop in the garage of his Lexington home in which he exercised his mechanical creativity. Among his inventions were a harness for boaters, a more stable ladder, and an automobile rear-view mirror that eliminated blind spots. He held several patents.

In addition to his wife of 48 years, Epstein is survived by two daughters, Eve Epstein-Burian of Portland, Ore., and Beth Epstein-Hounza of Paris; a sister, Carolyn Koistinen of Northridge, Calif; and two grandchildren.

The MIT memorial service will be conducted at 2 p.m. in Killian Hall on April 21. (Editor's note: location has since changed to Wong Auditorium in MIT's Tang Center.) Donations in Epstein's memory may be made to the MIT Symphony's David Epstein Scholarship Fund, c/o the Department of Music, MIT Room 4-246, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 30, 2002.

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