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Prof. emeritus named president of American Academy of Arts and Letters

By Jessica Chow

Section: Arts

March 13, 2015

Who is Yehudi Wyner? To say the least, he is a man of many talents. Wyner is a renowned composer, a former professor at Yale, Harvard, SUNY Purchase, Cornell and Brandeis, a professor emeritus at Brandeis and the new president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Wyner was born in 1929 into what he described to be “a musical family.” His father was a well-known Yiddish composer. Wyner described his father as a “remarkable musician and a wonderful composer.” Of course it was only natural that, following in the footsteps of his father, he too would pursue a career in music and composition. Wyner states that “the fact is, [he] was programmed to be a musician,” recalling that he was “given lessons at the first sign of any talent.” At first Wyner started as a pianist, saying that he was “being groomed and trained to be a professional musician, at first just a pianist,” but also recalling that “as [he] began to write pieces, [he] became more and more interested in composition. And also, [he] lost interest in being a career pianist.” Wyner went on to pursue his talents at the prestigious Juilliard School, where he graduated with a diploma in piano. His musical and compositional studies continued at Yale and Harvard.

Over the years, Wyner has composed over 100 diverse pieces, from orchestral to choir, and has received myriad awards for his works, including two Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. His most well known works include “Friday Evening Service” and “On This Most Voluptuous Night.” Wyner could not choose a favorite composition because “each of [his pieces] occupies a special place in [his] interest and in [his] affection.”

 He eloquently described the compositional process, saying that there are two types of composers: There are those who are able to see the whole piece and how it all comes together, and those who are not able to see a clear cut path or plan for their works. Considering himself the latter, Wyner said that he “will start without any idea of where a piece is going to go.” He adopted the method of not having any clear idea of where his composition will go by “learning from novelists and writers.” He further explained “that these things just develop and evolve on their own and depend on a sense of intuition and momentum.”

In addition to composing for the theater and the orchestra, Wyner has taken some time to teach at various universities. Wyner worked in the Music Department at Brandeis between 1991 and 2005, holding the Walter W. Naumberg Chair of Composition. He currently holds the title professor emeritus. During his time at Brandeis, Wyner taught Introduction to Music each fall, according to David Rakowski, a current professor in the Music Department who worked alongside Wyner. In addition to that course, Wyner also taught all levels of music theory, graduate level composition courses, an intense performance seminar and was head of the Brandeis Contemporary Chamber Players.
Wyner said he “very much enjoyed his time at Brandeis,” and some of his fondest memories include “working alongside students and performing with the students.” Rakowski described Wyner as a fantastic teacher. Wyner’s “passion and energy in class helped imbue Brandeis students with a sense of the importance of music as an art and as an expression of the human spirit every bit as important and serious as any other human endeavor,” and “as a teacher, he encouraged students to think about the act of performance when they wrote, and he was ruthless with students whom he perceived were weak with fundamentals of composition. He didn’t mind compelling students to do counterpoint exercises or chorale harmonizations when he perceived that their training was not up to par.” Though he no longer teaches at Brandeis, Wyner’s influence prevails in the music department. As Rakowski said, “Yehudi was so much the face of the department and the personality of the department.”

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