Conductor / Composer  David  Epstein

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




epstein



On this webpage, it is my pleasure to present a conversation with David Epstein (October 3, 1930 - January 15, 2002).  As shown above, he was both Conductor and Composer, but besides that, he was a Scholar, Author, and Professor.  He made several recordings of his own and others
music, and was the author of two important books.  These are all shown as illustrations within the text.  There is also an appreciation of the musician from the MIT News reproduced at the bottom of this page.

In September of 1987, we arranged to chat by telephone late one evening . . . . .


David Epstein:   [Picking up the phone after several rings]  I’m here, don’t despair!  [Laughs]  How are you?

Bruce Duffie:   Fine!  How are you?

Epstein:   Very well, thanks.

BD:   That’s good.  Are you sure this isn’t too late?

Epstein:   No, not at all.  I’ve been looking forward to it.

BD:   Good!  How are things at MIT this evening?

Epstein:   I have had a full day’s teaching, a two-and-half-hour orchestral rehearsal, a half-hour conference with a principal player, and came home, and waited for you!  So, it’s been a dull day! [Both laugh]

BD:   [Here I briefly explained the format of both the interview itself, and its use on the air on WNIB, Classical 97.  I also told him that an unedited copy would be placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, where many of my interviews reside, and this pleased him.]

Epstein:   It’s important work.  A lot is going on in this century, big and small, and in between, and it’s for the next generation, and even several generations down further along the line.  It helps to have these documents.  I wish we had them from Beethoven’s time, or Mozart’s time.  It would save all of us a lot of self-searching and questioning over issues that might have been resolved if we had the definitive words of the composer at hand.

epstein BD:   Do we really want definitive words from any composer, or should each generation try and find its own way with the music?

Epstein:   That’s a good question, and there’s no one answer to it.  There’s a certain framework that I would call valid, within which there’s a lot of latitude for anyone, whether it
s an individual or any given generation to explore.  But there are also aspects of the music where one can simply be on a wrong track, by perhaps misinterpreting what certain marks may mean, and so forth.  A good indication of this is found in certain aspects of movement that have now developed about playing music of the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century on original instruments, and with original ornaments, and trills, and this sort of thing.  Its valid, but we’re put to guessing to a certain extent because what lies behind a note is a matter for both intuition, and also for as much knowledge as we could get.  It certainly is helpful to know what a composer thought about his own music, even if he decides it’s wonderful, but for me it goes a different way.

BD:   Are the composers always right when they make pronouncements about their own music?

Epstein:   It depends what the pronouncements are.  This is a complex subject to talk about, because it’s so detailed.  Good composers, and certainly the great composers, had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted by and large, and down to the level of a lot of detail in their music.  The job of an interpreter, to a certain degree, is to penetrate that reference frame of the composer as much as he can by every means at hand, including historical evidence, his own intuition, and the analysis of the music itself, which is important and a very thorny field.  We don’t have any analytical tools that are of great penetrating value.  We are still developing that whole area of our musical understanding.  Despite everything that I know from the outside about feeling how this music really speaks to me, when you’ve done that degree of homework, and maybe lived with the work, and performed it over the years, then maybe you really feel you’ve got your hand on the pulse of that music.  It is at that point where you can begin making a statement about it that you believe quite fully.

BD:   If you want to know a piece of music for so long to really get a handle on it, how can you expect to bring anything, or something significant, to a brand-new piece of music?

Epstein:   You do the same kind of stuff.  But what I’m saying in my previous statement is about speaking on the part of an interpreter.  Music grows on you.  Works grow within you as you absorb them.  It’s so complex, and so deep that you absorb them on many different levels and many different perspectives, and that takes a great deal of time.  Clearly, the more you know the work, the more you’re able to play it, because a lot of times the best exploration is a performance.  You somehow hear things, and make connections that you might not make in other modes of work.  Preparation, study, practice, and rehearsals are essential.  The more you do that, the deeper and the more broadly you understand the work, and comprehend, and get a grasp upon the ideas.  That means the first performance is a tough assignment, because you’ve got to do this work as much as you can if you’re at all a conscientious and experienced performer.  You know that what you’re doing is entering this process on the first or second or third level, depending on how much time you can devote to it, and how penetrating your own gifts are.  I’m speaking now of two halves, because I’m a composer, but I’m also a performer.

BD:   Right!

Epstein:   Conducting occupies a good fifty per cent of my time.  It’s been very interesting in the last decade or so because I’m constantly called on, particularly when I guest conduct here and in Europe, to do new works.  This is in part because composers have a certain way of looking into music that is unique to what they do.  I have frequently put so much time into the study of a new work that I seem to have begun to reach the level of understanding that the composer himself has.  I’m thinking of a couple of premieres over the last four or five years where I came into the first meeting with the composer in Paris or in Copenhagen, wherever these premieres were taking place, and I came with a list of twenty-five or thirty questions about the work.  Some of them were sheer copying mistakes, and some of them were really more penetrating musical questions.  It was fascinating, in particular with one composer where he said,
“Gee, I didn’t mean that note!  You understood what I was doing to the point where you picked up a mistake in copying.  That’s the wrong pitch!  [Both laugh]  But I can tell you, this is a very time demanding, time consuming and exhausting process.  Then, having done it, I’ve gone back to some of those works a few years later to do another performance, and certain things that I struggled to understand during my first stage of the learning process prior to the premiere, by the second round of preparation for a second performance just seemed natural.  I almost asked myself, “How was that so difficult to learn?  This probably takes place in everything we do as human beings.  A baby learning to walk is a very good example.  For the first set of steps, the child thinks about every motion of the limbs in order to just get across the room.  By the age of five, obviously this is pretty much automatic, and by the age of fifteen, he’s a track star.  What you do the first time you put behind you, and it all becomes somewhat automatic.  You keep going on gaining and in prowess this way, whether it’s walking and running, or if it’s learning music.

BD:   Now there’s such a huge mountain of music, both old and new.  Has it gotten to be completely too much yet?

Epstein:   [Laughs]  You have a way of asking very penetrating questions.  What a pleasure this is!  First of all, there is a large circle, and within that circle is what we might call the standard repertoire.  A lot of us have learned that repertoire quite well by the time we reach musical maturity
whatever that is, and whenever it comes [laughs], or if it comes!  That’s out of a combination of many things.  In this day and age, we’ve heard the music an enormous number of times, because we have these fantastic instruments of high fidelityphonographs, compact discs, and so forth.  By the age of thirty, we know that music probably far more in terms of our experience with it than anybody in a prior century or half- century, because they had to go to the concert hall to hear it, or else they had to take the score and really live with it, playing it at the piano, or reconstructing it in their inner ear.  So, a musician who decides early on he’s really going to be an interpreter will want his repertoire to be as wide as possible.  He or she learns this music from a variety of ways, and knows a great deal about the standard repertoire by the time they are twenty-five or thirty, which makes it possible then to branch out into other areas of the repertoire.  But it’s almost impossible to be brilliant, and deeply learned, and specialize in all these eras.  I don’t like the word ‘avant-garde’.  I don’t know what it means, but let’s say one learns the music of our own day and age, and also the music of Renaissance Italy, such as Palestrina and Josquin Des Prez, and also the music of other eras.  Because we know so much, another process takes place with serious and rather gifted performers as they mature.  [Speaking softly, as an aside]  I was going to say ‘aged’, but it’s much more graceful to say matured!  With this process, you begin to find, for whatever reason, your own personality, which has certain affinities with certain kinds of music.  You then begin to realize life is short, and you can only do so much.  Therefore, you tend to pay more attention to that particular area of the repertoire, and that’s a good thing.

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BD:   Let’s come back to you specifically.  In your role as interpreter and teacher at MIT, you have to select what music will be worked on by the various groups.

Epstein:   Yes.

BD:   How do you decide which ones you’re going to zero in on, and which ones you will perhaps reluctantly leave aside?

Epstein:   I feel several obligations.  First of all, being the conductor of an orchestra in a major city like Boston, which has one world famous orchestra, and a number of other very good orchestras, and a large musical public that’s quite sophisticated, one is to present music that is not often played.  By this, I mean good music, not just curiosity items.  There are works in all corners of the repertoire by major figures that, for one reason or another, are not played that frequently.  So, that’s one area of my programming.  Then, as a teacher, in my role as conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra, I’m hoping that music will be experienced by the next generation.  In that regard, it’s very important to explore the standard repertoire.  By the way, when I sit down and really study these great works, I find aspects of them that many performances simply have not bothered to bring out.  Or, they are done in a routine way, and you begin reworking the score.  It’s a very creative and exciting process, because somehow the music becomes as fresh as if it was written just yesterday.  Then, I have my own special areas of taste, which, for better or for worse, are reflected in the programs that I do.  That’s true of any good musician
and should be.  Otherwise, how can you perform this music with the passion that the performance requires and demands?  I feel a very strong need to do all this.

epstein BD:   Do you feel that we are expanding, either gradually or rather quickly, the number of pieces which can be included in this standard repertoire?

Epstein:   Yes, I think we are.  I can see this in my own lifetime
which is not that long.  In my boyhood, very little Mahler was played, and now, without question, this is in the general mainstream of the repertoire.

BD:   Has something dropped out to make room for it, or have we just simply added that and accepted a greater number?

Epstein:   It’s expanded.  I don’t think we’ve dropped things.  One consequence is that some performers find the music of the late romantic period speaks to them more than some other music, and they begin to specialize in this.  Others move to different kinds of music
new music, the music of the eighteenth century, the baroque, or whatever.  But the repertoire of really marvelous music is expanding at a great rate as a result of scholarship, research, and the opportunity that we never had before to bring this music out in recorded form.  This lets people really learn it by hearing it.

BD:   From your point of view, either as interpreter or teacher, what are some of the ingredients that make a piece of music
great?

Epstein:   Oh my, you really are asking the questions!  [Both laugh]  It’s a very important question, and it’s a tough one to answer.  I don’t know that I can do it justice.  I’ve got to be vague about this, because there’s no way to be precise about it.  More than anything else, there is a very powerful, unique, personal stamp placed upon the music.  If I say to think of Mahler, Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, or Mozart, you know what I mean.  When one mentions those names
and many othersimmediately an image comes to mind of a very strong musical personality, with many sides to be sure.  When you hear five notes of any of these composers, you know who it is.  But that alone really is not enough.  We can all think of composers that we would have to say are on the second echelon.  They also had very strong musical personalities, but lacked the next ingredient, which is a powerful mind that is able to create extended and interesting musical structures.  Many people can think of good musical ideas, but not that many people can really develop the blend of imagination and technique that make those ideas become a vast structure extended through time, and which can continually develop in interest from start to finish.  So those are certainly major elements in what I call great’ music.  The interesting thing is that these composers we’re talking about now are men of real genius, which, if you ask me to define it, is the level on which their intellect and their imagination and their personality combined and functioned.  It was incredible in terms of accomplishment and complexity, and so forth.  There are other people whom we play that just don’t have that same degree of interest for various reasons.  It’s fascinating to think that when you go back to the great works of any eraincluding our ownyou constantly keep finding new things that you didn’t perceive the last time round.  This is what I was talking about when I said that when you do these works over and over again, you go deeper and deeper and deeper into them.  That’s not a complete discussion or description of what makes music great, but it’s moving along the right track.

BD:   It shows your approach to it.

Epstein:   Yes.

BD:   There is a top echelon, and then a secondary echelon, and then we start getting into a third, and perhaps a fourth.  I assume that you don’t want just pieces from numbers one and two, so h
ow should we balance what we perform, what we listen to, and what we will allow into our time from each of these?

Epstein:   What you’re talking about is not so much a process that somebody has sat down and ordained, but rather a natural social process within a society that takes place by its own momentum.  Every generation
not willingly or consciously perhaps, but just by the act of being music listeners or performing musiciansexplores the music of its time, and finds itself attracted to it by a certain number of those works, because they are remarkably good, or great – whatever those words mean.

BD:   Are we really exploring the music of our time, or are the major orchestras pushing that off onto the other orchestras and other groups?

Epstein:   I wasn’t only thinking of our time.  This process has taken place in all ages.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yes, but my contention is that it has taken place up until now, and we’re neglecting it for the first time in history.

Epstein:   That’s another argument, but let’s set the discussion first in an older frame.  Out of the hundreds of composers, only a small few emerged.  The music of the great composers gets played to the degree that people felt it was worth listening to as judged by the standard that they had come to know with Mozart and Haydn and Bach and Beethoven.  At that point, it’s not a moral question, or an ethical question, or a philosophical question as to how much of this should be listened to, but rather what we want to hear.  Our taste does indeed get shaped by the greatest works of those eras.  Now, having said that, let’s get to the question of our own century, which is what you’re concerned with.  If I understood you correctly, you’re asking what we are doing to explore the music of our own age.  Is that accurate?

BD:   I am wondering if we are doing enough to explore the music of our own age.

Epstein:   Yes, it’s a really tough problem, but it’s a many-sided problem.  If you’re saying our major orchestras are not doing their job, I would say to a large degree that’s accurate, and it’s very sad.  Many of the people in control of the major orchestras
the conductors, the managers, the players themselveswould like to do more, but they feel themselves caught in a box, or a vicious circle.  If they program much more music of this century than they do, they may lose audience, and you can’t run a major orchestra without adequate budgets.  So, the box-office plays a determining role, along with other factors, and they’re caught in this kind of bind.  I don’t think it’s as bad as it was even a decade ago, because a number of projects have gotten underway to try to integrate more of the music of our time into that repertoire of the major orchestras.  For example, there are the residencies that a number of composers have now with a lot of major orchestras.  As a consequence of this, their music is being played, and is often cycled around amongst these twelve or thirteen major orchestras that are involved with this project.  A case in point involves my colleague and very dear friend John Harbison, who has been in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  He has also been asked to start a Modern Music Series out there, which he directs.  So, in addition to his own music being played, and with six or seven or eight colleagues on similar residencies with other major orchestras, he is also presenting a lot of other music.  There are special concerts of modern music, with the players being drawn from the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  But the programs are somewhat specialized, and appeal to audiences that are eager to hear it.  Now, we’re only talking so far about one sphere, the major orchestra circles.  But even there, a great deal more of the music of our own era is being played.  Beyond that, in almost every major city of the country, and in Europe, there are a lot of specialized groups that are deeply interested in the music of our time, and who play it.  Depending on how large the audience is for this music, I’m a little bit concerned about an approach to the music of our time which presents programs that are exclusively built out of that music.  I suspect that, at some point during such a concert, everyone gets fatigued.  Certainly the audience does, so you may hear the first or second piece with great intensity and attention, but I don’t know whether you can play or hear the third or fourth or fifth piece on a program with the same degree of attention.

BD:   Right.  Very often I ask composers if they would rather be on an all-contemporary program, or a mixed program, and without fail they say a mixed program.

Epstein:   Absolutely.  As a performer who has to set the program, that is always my approach.  By the way, you can do some very fascinating things by comparing certain pieces of our time and, say, the French Impressionists, which may have certain things in common.  One style may have sparked something in the other piece, so your program notes can point this out.  You begin to make connections between these pieces which are both intellectual and also emotional, and it makes the whole thing much more exciting and more meaningful.  But the problem there is how much music of the seventies or eighties can you present if you’re doing only one or two pieces on a program?  Again, this is in part a musical/social question.  In other words, how is our musical society going to go about exploring the music of its own time?  That’s the neutral compositive point of view.  It’s also an economic problem, and that’s a negative point of view.  We are working under terrible financial constraints to prepare this music, to play it, and even to compose to it and get it published, or even just written down in manuscript.  This is a real problem, and if we come anywhere near close to solving it, it’s going to be by a long process of making more and more funds available, and developing audience taste to the point where we can program more of this music.  Every generation seems to have to find its own way to handle this question, and it’s a dynamic thing.  There’s no static salutation that works for every place or every time.

BD:   Having said all that, what bits of advice do you have for the young composers who are coming along?

Epstein:   First of all, learn another trade!  [Laughs]  That’s only a partial quip, but anybody who goes into music as a composer and expects that he can support himself by writing his own personal vein of serious music, is not being very realistic.  So, to that extent you indeed have to have some other string in your bow, whether it’s the ability and the opportunity to teach, or, as some people have done, to write music for films or for Broadway, or, for that matter, popular music if you can do it.  Whatever you do, then find the time and the freedom of mind to write your own music, and go about promoting it and getting it played as best you can.  There’s no question about it, other than the fact that it’s a tough profession to be in, and a very tough road to carve out for yourself.  There’s another way to answer that...  The process is somewhat self-selecting.  To be a composer of serious music today, you’ve got to want so intensely to do this that you’re going to do it no matter what.  Some people are just going to say there are other things in life that they want to do.  This degree of sacrifice to write music is not what they want to do, and many others say they’ve got to do it.  It’s not even a question of wanting.  It’s a compulsion, and this is what they must do, and the odds of him or her making their way into some degree of recognition are greater by virtue of this enormous drive.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of all of this?

Epstein:   For anyone whose life is given as a composer, there’s a big question mark.  In an overall sense, yes, I am optimistic.  I don’t think people can live without serious art, high art.  I really don’t mean that to sound snobbish, or elitist, or anything else.  There are certain levels in our lives, and at a certain point, life is just not satisfying unless it can be enriched by what poets, authors, painters, or composers have to offer.  Because of this, it seems fairly probable that some artists in the various fields are going to succeed... but I mean that word
succeed in a special way.  They’re going to write, and their products will eventually be adopted by society, and cherished, and listened to.  So, in a broad sense, I’m optimistic because this is a natural process, just as that process of selecting.  Every generation selects and evaluates the art of its own time.  It is a natural process.  It’s got to be, but in terms of an individual life and career, I’m just too much aware of all that’s involved.  The business of music, as well as the process of making music, is a very, very tough path to chart out for yourself, and only those people who must do it, who are driven by that kind of total need, are going to do it.

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BD:   Let me ask a balance question.  In serious music, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Epstein:   That’s a very good question, and I don’t know the answer.  We’ve gone through a lot of phases with regard to that question.  Maybe the Second Viennese School
the Schoenberg Schoolwas so driven by a kind of expressionist Angst in its music, that entertainment has very little to do with a large part of what it was intended to do... unless you think of entertainment as total absorption in something, which gets you out of yourself.  All entertainment does that, but on different levels.  On the other hand, with composers like Stravinsky, Copland, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, there’s a large degree of entertainment in the sense of a wide variety, a wide spectrum of expression from humor and brilliance to pathos and depth.  That has to continue.  Human beings are so wide in their capacity for experience that a composer with a very narrow range of expression is going to appeal to a much smaller segment of society.  That, in part, may be why Schoenberg’s music has, to this day, a relatively small circle of people who are deeply passionate about it.  I happen to be one of them, and it doesn’t bother me that he didn’t have as wide a power of expression as some other people did.  What he had to say is terribly gripping, and important to me and to some other people.  But over a broad social viewpoint or prospective of it, those composers who do have a wide palette of expression are going to have the broadest appeal.  Mozart may be the best example of all.  His spectrum was just unbelievably wide.

BD:   Is he really the only one who was the master of everything?

Epstein:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m sure the answer cannot be yes.  There must have been others.  Beethoven certainly had a wide spectrum, but perhaps not as broad as Mozart.  I would need some time to think about that because that’s a very big question.  [Both laugh]  We are talking about music, but there are certain figures in all fields of art that we immediately turn to as the symbol, the chief sign-post of what we’re saying, and Mozart in that regard, and Bach in another regard, do crop up immediately.  Stravinsky is another one with such a wide palette of expression.

BD:   So far, we’ve talked mostly about the half of your career that is interpretive.  Let’s move to your creative side.  But first, to meld the two, are you the ideal interpreter of your creations?

Epstein:   Yes, and no [both laugh], and I’m not being coy.  There’s one enormous advantage to a composer in being a capable performer himself, because he is at least able to get out of the music those things that he feels very certain must come out to make a clear performance.  I’m thinking of the works of mine that I’ve conducted, but it goes beyond that.  For example, my second string quartet, which is on a Desto recording [shown at right].  The actual title was String Quartet (1971).  I didn’t perform it.  The Philadelphia Quartet commissioned it, and gave its first performance, and I remember the first rehearsal that we had together.  They had been working on it by themselves.  It so happened that we were both on tour in Europe, so coincidentally we met in Brussels for a morning, and had our first joint rehearsal.  I found that they had interpreted what I’d written very conscientiously, and literally in a good sense.  They did what the music seemed to say, and yet there were certain things about the music that they hadn’t quite figured out.  I don’t blame them, because my music is my music.  There are precedents, yes, but only in certain general stylistic ways.  You’d have to penetrate the score in my term of reference, and that was what I was able to do for them at this first rehearsal.  I was able to tell them that they were making too much of certain phrases.  They were not the principal focus of the piece, but rather phrases en route, if you like, from Point A to Point B, and point out the direction that the music should go in certain parts of the score.  As a consequence of that, I helped them with how much they should articulate, and what the dynamics should really be.  You can never pinpoint how loud or how soft, or how gentle or how sharp an accent should be, but what I was able to do was to redirect their focus of the music.  It certainly helped that I was a performer, because I could make very precise comments, even down to how their bowing should be figured out in certain passages.  I remember how the leader of the quartet said to me that even though they had worked so hard, after that morning everything just became clear, and we knew what to do.  Then they went and learned it by themselves.  We didn’t see each other again until the week before the premiere.  Then we had three sessions, one day after the other, but by that point it was a totally different level of work.  They knew what to do, and it was a question of refinement in various parts of the piece.  If I had not been a performer, I couldn’t have been as helpful in the preparation of that score.

BD:   Then you recommend that most composers should perform at some point?

Epstein:   Oh, very strongly.  Absolutely!  If you look back in the history of music, most of the important figures who are composers were not just performers, but good performers.  Think of Handel, Bach, or Beethoven, who was a brilliant pianist and also capable as a string player.  Brahms was a fine pianist and choral conductor in his own day, and a scholar who knew a great deal about music of the Renaissance.  In fact, it stimulated him as a composer, and in his concerts with the Musikverein in Vienna, he programmed a lot of Palestrina and Des Prez, and other composers.  Debussy was a first-class pianist, as was Stravinsky.

BD:   What stimulates you as a composer?

Epstein:   [Sighs]  It’s a very curious question, and I never asked it of myself before.  The ideas were just there.  It’s a lot of things.  It’s my own contact with the society as a social person, and my own contact with the whole heritage of music.  Then there is my own personality, whatever that is!  I’ve never spent much time trying to analyze it.  I don’t think it does much good, but there it is, and ideas come.  Then the big process of composing is to recognize your ideas, and begin to sense in them what’s important to you in those ideas.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, how do you know when you have finished tinkering with it, and it’s ready to go?

Epstein:   There’s a combination of your own intuition about completeness, and, on a conscious level, the craft that you have been able to develop.  That is concerned with that very same question, and it certainly helps to know the music of the great masters... not that I want to imitate in any way, but by knowing their music rather deeply and analytically, I get a sense of how a lot of these people handled similar problems.  We’re all handling those same problems
to get the ideas, then to develop a sound world out of what you find interesting and compelling in those ideas, and then see how to structure all that into a complete statement.  Studying what Debussy did, or what Brahms did, or what Schubert did is not to copy their music, but to get a generalizedor, in some cases a precisesense of how they went about handling those very same problems.

BD:   Do you ever go back and revise scores?

Epstein:   Yes.  More often than not, it is for practical things.  Something that I wrote which doesn’t come off the way I expected to, may be because I didn’t make clear enough what I wanted to happen.  So, I may change dynamics, or insert rests, or breath marks
Luftpausen, as they say in German.  Those will make a separation of the phrases, or re-alter the balance.

BD:   But you’re really still looking for the same thing?

Epstein:   Oh, yes.  I don’t think I’ve ever revised a score from the point of view that it just doesn’t work.  It’s never happened to me, but if it did, I’d discard the piece rather than try to revise it, because the thing is so organic.  Then it’s not just revising, it’s quite major surgery.  Some composers can do it, but I would need to find how it just dies.  A very interesting example of that question of a level of greatness is Beethoven, and the Opus 130 String Quartet.  The last movement of that is what has now become the Grosse Fuge.  The publisher said to Beethoven
, “You can’t publish this quartet without that oversize last movement.  It’s too long.  The public won’t stand for it.  So, out of that demand, he wrote a different last movement, and many musicians feel that it’s just not as good as the Great Fugue... not that it’s not well composed, of course it was!  It was late Beethoven, but the Great Fugue grew out of the innards of that piece.

BD:   Has contemporary expression then over-ruled this idea of practicality from the old publisher?


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Epstein:   [Thinks a moment]  It is true of past generations as well as our own, that important figures, whose music has been accepted, arrived at the final version of their score before it was performed, but very frequently, the first performance and the process of rehearsal taught them a lot.  The pieces are rarely published until they’ve gone through that process of being rehearsed and performed.  There’s a very interesting story about this, by the way.  When I first recorded the two piano concertos of Ravel [LP shown above], the pianist was a young Portuguese who was friendly with a pianist, Marie Antoinette Lévêque de Freitas Branco (1903-1986),
and her husband, Pedro de Freitas Branco (1896-1963), who was a well-known conductor.  They had been very close to Ravel, and were with him throughout the season when the two-hand piano concerto, the one in G major, was premiered by Marguerite Long.  It turned out that the publisher, apparently anticipating the great success of this piece, because it was the event of the Paris season, published the score before the first rehearsal.  Ravel found a number of things he wanted to notate differentlysome dynamics and so forth, after the first performance, and the rehearsals that went before it.  Subsequently, he went to the publisher asking for some changes to be made, and learned that it was impossible.  The scores were already engraved, and they were in the warehouse.  So, I learned some aspects about this pieceparticularly aspects of the second theme in the first movementfrom my young pianist friend, who in turn, learned it from the Brancos, who, in turn, were friends of Ravel.  These things are not to be found in the scores.

epstein BD:   Why couldn’t Ravel have at least published an addendum or erratum?

Epstein:   It just didn’t get done.  Of course, if somebody wanted to, there’s a whole field there of work.  Somewhere along the line, I would hope that somebody will make an edited score, because without that kind of knowledge we really do not know fully what the composer wanted to get at in the music.  One can easily go astray.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to your own music, are there ever instances when performers or interpreters find things in your scores you didn’t know you had hidden there?

Epstein:   Oh absolutely, and that’s one of the great joys of working with performers.  I have this enormous regard for the brilliance and the intuition of performing musicians.  They know things I don’t know.  They can do things I can’t do, and it’s marvelous when they find things in a score.  Regarding the Second String Quartet, the Philadelphia Quartet are just superb musicians.  They originally were members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they eventually left to go out on their own as a quartet.  So, these were all musicians with tremendous experience in every aspect of the repertoire.  They showed me bowings and nuances in that quartet that I hadn’t been aware of, and it was very exciting to find them.  We literally built together that first performance, which in turn led me to make certain editorial markings in the score before it was published.

BD:   Are most of the compositions you write on commission, or are they things you just have to write?

Epstein:   It’s been a lot of both.  Maybe a dozen works have been commissioned, and in between those have been other works that I’ve wanted to write, and just done.  Unless the commission is for a very oddball combination
such as a piece for ten flutesmost commissions are for standard media.  I’m often asked to write a quartet, or a trio, or a symphony, or a concerto, and one begins seeking ideas in that medium.  Before you know it, you are part of the media, and it doesn’t make any difference whether you just wanted to write it, or were asked to write it.  The ideas flow, and the knowledge that there’s a live human being out there who wants something, and is going to be playing it, and it’s going to be rehearsed and receive the hard work and dedication that any work must have to be performed is a very exciting incentive to write.  The alternative is that I’m writing this, and I just hope somebody gets interested in playing it, but this score may sit around for years before it comes to performance.  So for me, the commission is a form of real composing stimulation.  The other thing is the collaboration with a performer.  I have a cello concerto that has been commissioned by the New York State Arts Council.  It’s at the stage where it’s been written, and I’ve even gone through it with the cellist who is to play it, but it has not yet been orchestrated.  But it was very exciting going through the solo part with the cellist, because he began to hear things the way I wanted them.  He heard other things that I did not hear, and there was a real dialogue.  We spent six hours one day going through the piece this way, and as a result, the piece began to mature in my own mind in ways that it would have not have if I just kept the whole thing to myself.  It’s another way of saying that music is a social art, not just between composer and audience, but also between composer and performer, and that bond, that exchange, is very valuable.  It sparks each of us.  I spark the performer, and he or she sparks me as well.

BD:   Tell me the particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

Epstein:   For me it’s been mostly joy with very little sorrow.  The human voice has always had a very deep and powerful feeling.  Interestingly enough, it
s been the female voice more than the male voice.  I can’t explain that.  I don’t know why, but in particular I’ve always found that in the darker tones of the low soprano range and of the contralto.  I’m not the only who has found it.  They have such profound statements to make about life and about tragedy.  Bach found it in the St. Matthew Passion, and Mahler, Heaven knows, was very much affected that way.  So, I have found that a lot of my writing of storms has been for the female voice, and also for chorus.  I’ve written quite a number of choral cycles because, there again, there’s something about it being the most human of all instruments.  It’s so unbelievably subtle in the nuances and shades of expression that it can get, that when I start writing for those media, they almost evoke their own music.  But I’ll add something else to that.  I must have good poetry.  In writing songs cycles and choral cycles, I’ve spent days, literally days and sometimes weeks searching through all kinds of poetry to find the phrases or the shapes of whatever will evoke in me corresponding images.  In fact, I had a negative experience in that respect that may be very demonstrative about it.   I was once given a libretto for an opera, and when I began writing it, I found it didn’t do anything to me.  I hadn’t asked for this.  It was given to me, and I wasn’t writing my own music as a result.  Finally, it was mutually recognized that this just wasn’t getting anywhere.  I find it tough to write music on texts that just don’t somehow grab me.

BD:   Have you come back to opera at all, or is that a lost cause?

Epstein:   Oh, I don’t know.  I hope it’s not a lost cause, but it’s an extremely complex idiom, and I notice that those who write successful operas have spent a great deal of time working in that medium, and in the theater itself.  For me, it obviously lies in the future, not in the past.

*     *     *     *     *
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BD:   Do you do anything differently in the recording studio that you don’t do in the concert hall?

Epstein:   You’re asking me now as a performer?

BD:   Yes.

Epstein:   No, not really.  There are many performances that grabs the audience, and evokes something in the performance that nothing else can have.  I certainly have experienced that many times, but somehow when I make music
whether it’s my own music or somebody else’sI find myself so deeply involved in the music itself that I don’t care who’s sitting behind me, or if I am alone in the room.  The experience is that intense every time.  So, as far as getting a ‘performance’ even though the hall is empty, that’s not really an important consideration with me.  There are technical things about recording that I have do differently from a performance.  Because of the way records are made these days, you cover your small mistakessuch as wrong notes or broken tonesby redoing that passage.  Of course, you’ve got to develop a certain skill in keeping the conception of a piece in every respect the same, whether you’re recording it for the first time or the twentieth time in a session.  I had to learn that the hard way!

BD:   Is there ever a point where the cut-and-piece of the recording engineer’s laboratory makes the disc a fraud?

Epstein:   It depends what you mean by a
fraud.  If you mean that no human being played it that perfectly, calling it a fraud is a little strong, but yes, that’s a fact.  But I don’t view it that way, and a lot of other artists who spend a lot of time recording don’t view it that way.  My view is I have in my head a certain idealized performance that I want to achieve, and nobody can ever achieve it in a concert hall performance because it’s brutally impossible to play a flawless performance.  It has only happened once or twice in my experience.  So, recording is a fantastic opportunity that didn’t exist a hundred years ago, to realize the ideal performance that I have inside my head.

BD:   Once you have this put together this idealized performance, does that create an impossible standard for the live performance in the concert hall?

Epstein:   No.  As a matter of fact, I find a very different thing happens.  First of all, I almost never record a piece until I’ve played it public, hopefully several times, so that for me and for the orchestra, we’ve digested it in a sense that it’s our music.  Then, I find the recording process itself is incredibly intense.  Every note, every bar, every phase, every section of the music you’re forced to think about with a degree of precision and intensity that doesn’t always happen in a performance.  So, what you’ve achieved in that recording is quite a distinctive performance.  There is no such thing as the ideal performance.  That’s ridiculous!  The piece has so many complexities and nuances that you can’t capture all of them at one time.  What happens is that I when I re-perform pieces that I recorded perhaps five or ten years ago, my conception of the piece has stepped even higher as a result of the recording.  Things that were hard work to capture that day of the recording, have now just settled into my own system, and they are part of me.  I can take them for granted, and I begin seeing new things that I can strive for.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings of your own compositions?

Epstein:   I’ve got to think back over that...  I would say by and large yes, but I take the attitude of a composer who’s also a performer.  I know that we didn’t reach everything.  Others will do better, I hope, whether they record them or simply play the music.  But the recordings of my works are very good, and I’m very fortunate in this respect.  I feel they present to the public a good picture of what the music is about, which I hope will be a help to the next person who comes along and wants to perform the same piece.  I really think that’s all you can do with any music, whether it
s my own or any other music that I play.  Many artists have said to me that recordings they made five or ten years ago were the performance they gave at that time.  They were very good, but now they do it so much differently, and that’s also very good.  The pieces are so complex that there’s never such a thing as a definitive performance.

BD:   When you say they do it differently, that’s not necessarily to say it is better?

Epstein:   Maybe... although the way in which they do it differently probably does mean better, because they’ve lived through one whole interpretation, and then grown out from that to yet another level.  I would think that their grasp of the music is even greater the second- or third-time round.  It’s really a continual process of growth.  You penetrate those works more and more, and certain things that demanded a lot of conscious attention first time round, are now automatic second time round, or third time round, so you can look for other things with the confidence that Level A is already inside your system so deeply that it can’t go wrong in any significant way.
epstein
BD:   Is composing fun?

Epstein:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes, sometimes.  A lot of the other times, it’s very hard work.  It’s tough, and it’s exhausting.  I don’t know what ‘fun’ means.  I’ve had joy out of composing.  There are days when I just felt so in-tune with myself, and the ideas have flowed onto the paper so easily that it’s a high, it’s a kick, it’s an enormous exultation.  There are a lot of other days when I’m engaged in that most difficult of all processes, namely trying to figure out where my instinct is taking me with a certain part of the music.  That can either be answered very quickly, when it just happens automatically, or I have to give it a lot of thought, and worked out things to find out what I want to change or discard.  That’s what anybody who composes goes through.

*     *     *     *     *
 
BD:   I want to be sure and ask you about your relationship with Herbert von Karajan.

Epstein:   [Thoughtfully]  That’s been a very deep, meaningful, and quite exciting experience.  It all started long ago, and it seems like it’s been an age.  Amazingly, so much has been packed into it.  It came about because of a very compelling interest I have in the way music functions in time
how a piece moves and gets going, how it gets all the initial premises, and how it continues.  This is really about everything that happens in time, referring, obviously, to tempo, to the way you articulate a phrase, to the kinds of articulations that one feels from the rhythm of a piece, as opposed to the meter of a piece.  Often those two things are in conflict with each other.  It concerns the way you may alter tempos by acceleration and ritardation, or by the rubato... all these things!  About ten or fifteen years ago, I began to realize that this was the aspect of performance, and of composition, and of structure that was least understood by most musicians.  If we want to understand something about the way a piece of music is built harmonically, let’s talk about the common practice theory in the late nineteenth century.  We have a lot of theory that explains how to make a lot of sense out of complex passages.  If you want to understand something about counterpoint, or the formal layout of a piece, we have a lot of theoretical equipment to do that, but if you want to understand how the whole thing progresses in time, we have very little theory about that.  I found that as a consequence of performing music with the combined mentality of a performer’s personality and also a composer’s mind, I began studying my scores from these many perspectives.  Some of these perspectives had to do with the way the piece is constructed in time, and I wrote about this.  I’ve written articles and given lectures, and I’m in the middle of book on the subject [shown at left].  My introduction to Herbert von Karajan came at a symposium in Salzburg at the end of the Easter Festival, which he sponsored and which he attended.  The subject of this particular symposium happened to be The Experience of Time in Music.  As the organizing committee sought members of this symposiumsome of whom came from fields of science where they talked about the neuro-biology of time and time controlthey approached me as a musician to talk about time.  I went, and found that Maestro von Karajan was very much in agreement with a lot of things I said.  Even more than in agreement, he was excited to find that we had these ideas in common.  We began discussing them, and the relationship has just grown as a result of this musical kinship.  So, whenever it’s possible, whenever I’m in Europe, we visit.  Often, I’ve had a remarkable experience of sitting in rehearsals while he was preparing an opera, and watching his conception of a complex major work grow.  Always the over-arching concern seems to be how does it go, which is to say, how does it move through time, and how is it structured, and how do I control this?  This has led to a wonderful rich friendship, and an understanding of how we conduct these things, and what makes something work by the conductor.  We’ve discussed these things as well.

BD:   It
must be fascinating to find someone who is that kindred spirit on such a high level of international reputation.

Epstein:   Obviously, I’m terribly fortunate to have fallen into this marvelous relationship, but I would say that a lot of artists look for kindred spirits in this sense.  There’s a tremendous excitement when artists find that they spark each other off, and quite remarkable friendships grow out of these sorts of things.  I collaborated with a particular soloist just the other night in a concert, where the soloist came in to play a Mozart concerto with a professional orchestra here in Boston.  They are excellent musicians, where we have played together for a number of years, so much so that it’s like a family.  We spark each other off, and we listen to each other like one very closely knit group.  The soloist was from the outside, so he wasn’t part of his circle.  He came and sat down, and began the concerto, and within five minutes we suddenly began hearing things in the way he was playing that we wanted to agree with.  The rapport was so unbelievably close and intense, that it may be that the best performance was the last rehearsal, not the public performance!  [Both laugh]  The public performance was fine, and everybody in that hall at that moment knew it.  As a consequence, this artist and I couldn’t stop talking.  There was so much that we had to share, and to discuss together.  There are very exciting relationships that spring up this way.

BD:   I hope that this discussion is included among those.  I have learned a great deal, and I certainly appreciate your taking the time.

Epstein:   Well, I loved it.  This is my life!  It’s what I do day and night and in between, so I’m happy to talk about it as long as you like.

BD:   I do hope that we get the chance meet at some point.

Epstein:   I would like to very much.  Everybody’s life and career take particular turns.  At the moment, I find that I have a very intense and busy life in Boston, which, of course, extends to New York, where the seat of music is in so many ways in America.  The publishing companies are there, my publisher is there, record companies who do my works are there, but so often I find I’m crossing the Atlantic going east.  For whatever reason, which I really can’t explain, I’ve been asked to teach in a variety of conservatories in Europe, which I do part-time as a guest.  I’m asked to conduct a variety of orchestras throughout Europe, and those are return engagements.  I don’t think I’ve been west of New York in the last nine years.  It’s just one of those crazy conditions of life.

BD:   Just make sure you don’t burn yourself out!  [Both laugh]  This is something I’m always telling singers, but I very rarely have to tell that to a conductor.

Epstein:   It’s an absolutely valid point, and I’m beginning to find out that I can get fatigued.  Therefore, I go to a great length to see to it that I can balance it all.  These tours are very intense work, with periods of totally different activity.  I find athletics
certain kinds of sports which are in contact with natureare an enormous counter-balance.  I have a sail boat, and I can’t wait to escape to it during that one month of the year.  But it’s not just the act of sailing.  It’s also being in contact with wind, and water, and the mechanics, and the mathematics, and the logistics of sailing.
epstein
BD:   And being away from the music temporarily?

Epstein:   Yes, exactly!  It isn’t the actual challenge, but it’s a very refreshing one.  It’s also a physical thing, and I love to swim.  In the winter months, I love to ski.  It’s exactly the same sort of thing, and in the Fall, I just love to get off into the mountains and go hiking for a day, or several days.

BD:   I hope that it all continues, and I hope you have lots more success.  Being greedy, I also want lots more from your pen.  [Both laugh]

Epstein:   I’ve gone through an interesting period over the last fifteen years.  My primary work began as a composer.  I was a good pianist... no Van Cliburn or Alfred Brendel, God knows, but a good capable professional pianist.  However, I had no interest in being a pianist professionally.  It was also the equipment for whatever else I would do, so my primary focus was as a composer.  I had no intention of being a conductor until I found that as works of mine were being performed, especially on the first performance, they weren’t coming out right.  Clearly, the musicians who had to do them didn’t quite have my personality or my ideas, and I found it was much more successful if I could conduct them myself.  As a consequence, I found out at Juilliard that I had an ability to conduct, which I’d never anticipated.

BD:   It was born out of necessity?

Epstein:   Yes, it was born out of necessity, and was something I found I did quite easily.  Being a composer was a great advantage, because whether I was playing my music, or Beethoven, or Debussy, it didn’t matter.  I was able somehow to get into the scores.  It was also my own composer’s mentality, so that grew.  Then, at a certain point, I found a most peculiar frustration growing.  I would be aware of so many things that I had to explain to other musicians, including very good musicians.  I then realized that the training of musicians as performers had a lot of gaps.  These were not gaps that anybody was ignoring, but rather the fact that we lack certain theories about music that are helpful to performers.

BD:   Do all the performers have the same gaps, or does everyone have different gaps?

Epstein:   No, no, no, no, no.  Many of them don’t have these gaps.  They have enormous intuition, and many of them have sat down and worked through scores, and become their own theorists to solve these kinds of question for themselves.  There’s also a disparity.  Performer A is wonderful in aspects one, two and three, and Performer B in aspects four, five and six, and so forth, but you have tremendous overlapping.  A lot of times, there are questions that come up in rehearsals for which there are no answers, and it was this that drove me to try to figure out some answers.  As a conductor, I wouldn’t just be on the podium and say,
“Do it this way.  It wasn’t convincing.  I had to have a reason why it ought to go this way.  It may sound insane that anybody goes to this length of pursuing the premises and the assumption of his ideas, but I have.  As a consequence, I found myself starting to sit down and write articles, and eventually I grabbed some of these theoretical questions and formulated them, codified them, and came up with sufficient perspectives.  I’m not saying they were the answers, but perspectives that allowed me, and maybe some other musicians, to find solutions more easily.

BD:   I assume this whole process continues now?

Epstein:   It’s an ongoing process, and the most amusing aspect of this was the preface to the book I published in 1979 [shown above-right].  Like everyone before, among other people I thanked my family, which tolerated a closed study door for many years.  I appreciated their patience, and assumed it would never have to come again, because I could not imagine myself writing another book.  That was surely the most short-sighted thing I’ve ever said.  That book led me to solve certain questions, and opened up more new ones than I had ever anticipated.  I find myself now in the middle of a second project of writing about rhythm and tempo and meter in brief time in music.  It’s got to finish its own natural cycle.  This book will be done, and after that I look forward to getting on much further with composing.  There are lots of works I just can’t do at this point, because nobody can do all these things.  But it’s not destructive.  Each one of these processes reveals and widens my own perspective of what music is all about.  So, one nourishes the other.  I don’t think I would be a good a composer if I hadn’t conducted, and I don’t think I would be as good a conductor if I hadn’t had the experience and the training of composing.

BD:   I’m glad that it’s all fused together.

Epstein:   It’s talent that fuses things together, and that happens with a lot of people at some point in their lives.  Somehow, they’re able to draw those diverse strands of experience together, and it makes them better at what they do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [After a bit of chit-chat about when he was leaving again for Europe, and when he would return to Boston...]  I’ll play some of your music on the air, and will also put together a special program of just your music and some of this interview.  [The special programs would air in October of 1990 (to celebrate his 60th birthday), and again in 1995, and 2000.]

Epstein:   I’m very honored, or flattered that you’re doing this.

BD:   My Cause is the living composer in general, and American composers specifically.  I try to get as much of it as I can on the air.

Epstein:   It’s marvelous when I think of the fantastic musical culture that has grown up in this country in the last forty or fifty years.  I grew up in New York, which was certainly a very musical city, but when I was a boy we didn’t have one tenth of the musical life that exists now in almost any city in the United States
and many non-cities, like college campuses, for example, where the same activity goes on.  It’s just marvelous for somebody like yourself, who is properly interested, to get all this down in some kind of permanent record, and bring it out, and present to the public all that is going on.  It’s an incredible field.
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BD:   It's a wonderful journey of exploration from me, and I find myself enjoying so much of it, and just wanting to share it.

Epstein:   Yes.  The more I go to places where I meet fellow colleagues and composers, or conducting other musicians, my mind gets stretched all the time without an end.

BD:   Is there ever an end to it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with George Perle, and Gerard Schwarz.]

Epstein:   No, thank God!  [Both laugh]

BD:   The End is the ultimate end?

Epstein:   The End is the ultimate end, yes!  It’s marvelous what this seems to have done to some great artists in their later years.  I remember a concert with Casals when he was in his very, very late years.  He came out to conduct, and he was frail and somewhat feeble.  You felt for him, and almost worried if he would make it just walking to the podium.  Then the music began, and my God, he was absolutely transformed.  He was a young man again.  Then, when the performance ended, he was tired, and he had to be assisted off the stage.  Music has this effect.  It’s just a driving force that never stops until you stop.

BD:   That’s what is also happening with Karajan?

Epstein:   Yes, no question!  It is the most powerful motivating force I think of in his life.  Even though he’s now in his later years, it’s just unbelievable what’s happened.  Some of the greatest performances he’s ever given have been in these later years, precisely because of all these things we’ve discussed tonight.  The way one digests these works, the musicians grow ever deeper into them.

BD:   Is it safe to assume with any reasonable musician that the last performance they give is the culmination of all of their experience?

Epstein:   Yes, but you qualify it by saying ‘reasonable musician’.  I would say
serious musician.  I don’t like the word ‘great’ because I don’t know what it means, but serious artists and depth, yes.  Given those assumptions, I would say absolutely.

BD:   Leaving aside those who just don’t learn anything?

Epstein:   That’s right.  There are those who just become routiniers, but that’s in every field.  The ones who have a capacity to grow are what we’re talking about.  There’s no question that their last performances are a reflection of everything they’ve learned in the experience before that.  That’s why life is so fantastic and marvelous.  I don’t know if it was film about Toscanini, or a book about him, but I do remember that a few years before he died, he did a performance of the Verdi Requiem, and he said to his son-in-law,
It’s amazing... I’ve done this piece maybe a hundred and fifty times, and just yesterday I found some new things in it.  Can you imagine?  Here is this man who was almost ninety reliving this music he had known probably all his life, and just yesterday he found some new things to think about in the music.

BD:   I’m glad that Man has been able to create things which have such depth that would be plumbable.

Epstein:   Yes.  Each generation, and even preceding generations, sort out the great music from the good music, and what we’re walking about now is one of the aspects of the great music that they find.  The more they go back to it, the more they’re challenged by it, and the more they find there is to know about it.  Very, very few people in the world are given the gift to write music on that level.

BD:   I hope we can find even more great pieces of music.  One of the things about exploring new music is to find the ones that have this greatness in it.

Epstein:   Yes, and that’s an enormously exciting moment when you do find it.

BD:   I really must let you go.  You’ve been more than generous with me this evening.  I know it’s been a very long day for you.

Epstein:   I just realized we’ve been talking for an hour and quarter.  [Laughs]  It seems like it was fifteen minutes.  It’s been really a pleasure, Bruce, and you have an open invitation to call whenever you like to carry on this discussion.  It’s been a lovely experience.  I feel as if I know you, even though we’ve never met!

BD:   Thank you so much.  That’s very kind.




Retired MIT Conductor David Epstein dies at 71;

Brought the joy of music to campus for 33 years

MIT News on campus and around the world    January 17, 2002


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Professor David M. Epstein conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at his farewell performance with the MIT Symphony Orchestra.

Ode to Joy was a fitting finale to Dr. Epstein's career at the Institute. The concert, at Kresge Auditorium on March 14, 1998, capped a 33-year career during which he brought the joy of music to the MIT campus.

Dr. Epstein, 71, died on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., from complications of lung and liver disease. A memorial service will be held in the Wong Auditorium in MIT's Tang Center at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 21.

Bonnie Kellerman, recording secretary in the MIT Treasurer's office, played many concerts with the second violin section under the direction of Dr. Epstein as an undergraduate and as a 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, class of 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.

MIT Professor Alan J. Grodzinsky joined the orchestra as a freshman in 1965, Dr. Epstein's first year on the podium. Grodzinsky was the principal viola player for eight years and toured with MITSO. "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, director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Engineering, took Dr. Epstein's course in Music from the Baroque and Romantic Era. "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."

Dr. 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 Dr., Epstein. He noted that Dr. 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," Thompson said.

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

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

Dr. Epstein helped to 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 (Pa.) Symphony Orchestra from 1974 to 1978 and the Worcester Orchestra from 1976 to 1980. He appeared as a guest conductor with 28 orchestras in nine countries, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Orchestra and the Berlin Radio Orchestra. He conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1972 in the premier of Night Voices, written on commission for the BSO by Dr. Epstein and his wife, Anne, an author of children's books.

While at MIT, Dr. 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 an MIT 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."

Dr. Epstein, a fellow of the Alexander Humboldt Foundation, 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" (MIT Press, 1979) and "Shaping Time: Music, the Brain and Performance" (Schirmer Books, 1995), which won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1996. This work led to a visiting fellowship at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., founded and directed by Gerald M. Edelman, 1972 Nobel laureate for medicine.

While at Antioch in the 1950s, Dr. Epstein helped desegregate barbershops in Ohio when he testified against a white barber who claimed he was not able to cut African American hair. Dr. 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 suit.

A native of New York City, he loved to ski and sail and 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, Dr. 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. Donations in Dr. Epstein's memory may be made to the MIT Symphony's David Epstein Scholarship Fund, c/o the MIT Department of Music, Room 4-246, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.







© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on September 28, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at the very end of that year.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.