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Renowned professor emeritus honored with concert

By Dana Trismen

Section: Arts

October 4, 2013

Composer and professor of music at Brandeis for almost 40 years, Harold Shapero made a huge impact in the field of classical music. Born in April of 1920, he became a central figure in the neo-classicism style of composition. Known for writing piano sonatas and eventually full symphonies, Shapero was also a professor who motivated students. Shapero died this May, at the age of 93. Brandeis held a concert in his tribute on Saturday, to honor a professor emeritus who made a difference in lives of many students.
“He was always feisty, full of strong opinions and good humor. I enjoyed his company when I saw him at Brandeis, at his home or at concerts we both attended,” said Daniel Stepner, Professor of the Practice. Stepner is the first violinist of the Lydian String Quartet, and joined the faculty in 1987. Shapero was already retired at this time, but Stepner worked with the legend and recorded his music.
“I understand from students that he was a good teacher that challenged them. He taught composition and was an early experimenter with electronic composition. He was also an imposing pianist,” said Stepner.
Sally Pinkas and Evan Hirsch performed the concert on Sept. 28; their team is known as the Hinsch-Pinkas Piano Duo. Pinkas received her Ph.D. from Brandeis when Shapero was still on staff and is currently a professor of music and pianist-in-residence at Dartmouth College. Hirsch is a current professor at Brandeis who teaches piano. The pair are married and knew Shapero well.
“[Shapero] was quite outspoken, lively and irreverent. I only took one class with him as an undergraduate at Brandeis. He had amazing stories about an interesting period in American music, the days of Bernstein, Copland and Stravinsky,” said Pinkas.
During the concert, Pinkas played two solo works, and then the duo performed a work from his younger years, for one piano and four hands. The couple felt as though it was well-received.
When describing his music, Pinkas said, “There is great rhythmic vitality, deep feeling but also robust texture. It is very pianistic, especially the solo works.”
Shapero composed the piece titled the “Four-hand Sonata” in 1941. This is the piece the duo performed together during the concert, and it was dedicated to Leonard Bernstein when Shapero originally composed it. “The two used to play piano duets together and toured as a duo, though, according to Shapero, Lenny never practiced,” said Pinkas in the program for the concert. “Indeed the work is demanding and the close proximity of the parts makes for some challenging encounters between the duo partners.” The work was written during Shapero’s student years.
While Shapero’s style is technically defined as neo-classicism, the man was known for being inventive while composing. “He is thought of as a neo-classicist because of his tonal writing, but this doesn’t do him justice,” said Stepner. “He had remarkable facility and inventiveness with basic musical materials. His music could be bracing, lyrical, ghoulish, driving.” In regards to Shapero’s music, Stepner highlights the lyricism and rhythm.
Pinkas also agreed that Shapero was one of a kind. “The young Shapero of the 1940s had to contend with a musical zeitgeist, which was turning in ways quite contrary to his nature,” said Pinkas in the program. “Musicians of my generation, educated at Brandeis in the 70s and 80s, got the tail-end of that ebbing musical tide and have lived to experience a remarkable sea-change in musical tastes. Playing the two solo pieces in the 21st century brings us back full-circle.”
It may be possible to keep Shapero’s legacy alive even after the concert rang out its final notes. “Brandeis can best carry on his legacy by supporting the Department of Music in a way they used to and have had to curtail rather drastically due to the economic downturn,” said Stepner. “Musical tastes and teaching methods change, but what does not change is that the arts need serious support, not window-dressing.”
Pinkas is in agreement. “The Brandeis Music Department had amazing musicians in it, at its inception, and it has wonderful musicians in it now. But it cannot thrive without institutional support to infrastructural and to concert presentation.”

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