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A Life in Composition

Theodore Wiprud ’80 traded test tubes for major scales

By Lulu Zhou, Crimson Staff Writer

For a biochemistry concentrator, Theodore Wiprud ’80 has given new meaning to the concepts of labs and experiments.

Currently the Director of Education for the New York Philharmonic and a self-published composer, Wiprud’s foray into music has him experimenting with composition, educational projects, and more recently, E major for the Class of 1980’s memorial service.

While listening to the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Tempest Fantasy,” by Paul Moravec ’79, at last year’s reunion, Wiprud says he wondered how he could participate musically to his own reunion. After getting in touch with the reunion committee, he was asked to compose the music for the class’s memorial service.

“That really appealed to me because the memorial service is really a tremendous part of the reunion,” Wiprud says. “It’s about the only time of sober reflection, and it’s a chance to try to do something musically that isn’t only light.”

Wiprud says he decided to create something special that would be sung by a choir, so he knew his composition would have to be easy to arrange, with a text that would allow different religions to relate to it.

He settled on “Lux Aeterna,” a section from the “Requiem Mass.” Although Wiprud’s chosen text is traditionally Christian, he says it has interfaith qualities.

“I was trying to find something that would express a sentiment of giving, some quiet reflection to the loss of our contemporaries, and appreciation for their lives,” Wiprud says. “What I aim to do is something very simple, moving in a simple way.”

Wiprud says his involvement with the memorial program makes this reunion even more special to him.

“As a composer, there’s nothing like using one’s art in the service of one’s community,” he says. “It’s not ivory tower at all, it’s trying to contribute something to this community of observance.”

ARTS AND SCIENCES

As a member of the Harvard community during his college years, Wiprud bridged the arts and sciences.

He concentrated in biochemistry and practiced piano for three hours a day. Although he studied piano from an early age and was composing by high school, Wiprud says he never considered himself a good performer and did not join any musical organizations at Harvard.

Instead, he was heavily involved in the Currier House Drama Society and cites the Currier Fishbowl as the most memorable place on campus.

Inside the distant buildings of the Quad, Currier’s artistic community created some of Wiprud’s best moments in college. The Fishbowl was the site of many of the theatrical productions in which Wiprud took part, both on and backstage. His roles ranged from the romantic lead in “Ten Little Indians” to the father in “Ah, Wilderness!” As for his directorial debut, Wiprud took the reins of “Murder in the Cathedral.”

TO-GA! TO-GA! TO-GA!

Dramatic commitments livened Wiprud, who had hoped to spend his upperclass years in the Dunster courtyard—his father was a Moose—were dashed when he was banished to the Quad.

“The Quad was not the place to be,” Wiprud says. “It was a crushing disappointment when a friend and I got Currier.”

But like most Quadlings, Wiprud learned to enjoy life away from the bustle of the River, especially after a Roman encounter with a new friend.

Wiprud’s time at Harvard coincided with the popularity of the movie “Animal House,” and he paid tribute to it by working with fellow Currier resident Kim Lovejoy ’79 to plan a toga party for the House.

“We had a great toga party, and the rest is history,” Wiprud says.

The two were married in 1981.

EN ROUTE TO COMPOSING

Juggling biochemistry, drama, and piano, it was not until Wiprud began attending theory classes at Harvard that he set his sights on composing.

“My mind, being sort of scientific and systematic, really latched onto theory as a really exciting discipline when I realized I could apply that to create new things,” he says. “It gradually took over my brain.”

Music also gradually took over Wiprud’s academic life.

He says his admittance into Fred Lerdahl’s Music 51: “Theory I”—a first-level music theory class for music concentrators that required an entrance exam for admittance—was a watershed event in his life.

“I feel like getting into that was really important to me,” Wiprud recollects. “It opened the door to high level music training, that if it hadn’t opened, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten so carried away.”

Wiprud’s eventual transition to music came as a surprise to those who knew him.

“The thing about Ted was, he was pretty straight-laced and very focused, so this whole music thing caught a lot of us by surprise,” says Nicholas S. Fish ’80, who was Wiprud’s high school classmate and freshman roommate in Wigglesworth E-11. “I think everyone kind of assumed that Ted would be passionate about what he was doing, just a very smart and focused guy who followed his heart when everybody else thought he was going to follow his head and go into the sciences.”

Fish also remembers Wiprud as a gentleman.

“Every time his girlfriend visited, she got the small bedroom and I had to sleep with him out in the living room,” Fish says.

Wiprud would go on to take all the classes for a concentration in music and by senior year, was skipping his science classes in order to compose. Nonetheless, he graduated cum laude with a degree in biochemistry.

Passion for his commitments, whether scientific or musical, was a given for Wiprud, who applied to his music the devotion to excellence he cultivated before Harvard and a daring innovativeness he developed in college.

“Ted was, I think, just about the top of my class in high school, and a very focused, diligent, smart guy, but a little on the dry side, and my understanding was he was going to be either a scientist or doctor,” Fish says. “Not only did he change gears and become a musician, he became associated with new music and other experimental forms of music, which took a lot of guts.”

After graduating, Wiprud went across the river to Boston University to study composition with David Del Tredici. From there, he taught at Walnut Hill, a performing arts high school in nearby Natick.

Although he began in teaching, Wiprud says he knew he did not want to end up in academia.

“I wanted to be involved in the actual business, getting music out to people, rather than teaching people how to do it, but I’ve always been interested in getting music to younger people,” Wiprud says. “My real passion is really getting people to have a great time with music as I do.”

He began working with various orchestras on projects, including creating educational projects for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, a music community dear to Wiprud, who is a Brooklyn resident.

Then, after an old friend left the position of Director of Education for the New York Philharmonic, Wiprud was recruited for the job.

One of the many perks of Wiprud’s job, he says, is being able to listen to one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras anytime he wants to. But Wiprud says it is also rewarding for him to see the results of the many education programs he oversees.

“I can’t leave out the experience of seeing kids light up when they hear music in their school or here in the hall, seeing them recognize music they’ve heard before, and show how much they love it when they hear it again,” Wiprud says.

SPEAKING THROUGH MUSIC

Music has always been a part of Wiprud’s life, both in the background and the foreground.

Not only does he integrate the art into his different roles in life—educational director, composer, father—Wiprud also experiments with his compositional style. His catalogue includes humorous pieces like “Crow Magnum,” one of his most performed pieces that features a solo percussionist and fez-wearing stuffed crows.

But Wiprud, who is Christian, says he composes mostly chamber music and that much of his repertoire is inspired by spiritual ideas and experiences. But for Wiprud, his music does not seek to evangelize, but to express what words fail to.

“It’s exploring some spiritual idea, but other [pieces] are really trying to convey spiritual experiences, those moments in our lives that are so important for reasons that we can’t put into words, those moments when we feel like we’re perceiving something beyond normal life,” Wiprud says. “I try to put into music what can’t be put into words.”

String quartets are most conducive to his musical style of expression, Wiprud says.

“I’ve also written a lot of saxophone music, and orchestral music, but somehow the string quartets are what seem to call out the deepest music,” he says.

Through the medium of music, Wiprud also immortalizes the experiences that have served as his muse.

“In a way the music is an attempt to preserve and share those [experiences], because they can be so fleeting and inexpressible,” he says.

PASSING THE MUSIC ON

And Wiprud makes sure music is a part of his children’s lives too.

“Any child of mine is going to be taking some kind of music,” Wiprud says with a laugh. “You have a choice what kind of music, but knowing as much as I do about music education and children’s development, I feel like I would be an abusive father to not let them do music.” Wiprud’s two children—Allegra, 13 and Marlon, 10—both study the guitar. Allegra also sings and recently retired from the New York City Opera, where she sang in the children’s choir until she became too tall.

During the memorial service for the Class of 1980, Allegra and her mother will join Wiprud and other members of the class in singing in the choir.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.

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