USC music professor and highly regarded clarinetist dies at 86

Mitchell Lurie played clarinet for the musical scores of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago.’

Steffi Lau, assistant city editor, diversity beat writer
Daily Trojan
December 3, 2008

Mitchell Lurie, a world-renowned clarinetist and former USC professor known for his dedication to his students, died Nov. 24. He was 86.

Lurie, who taught at the Thornton School of Music, died of pneumonia at his home in West Los Angeles; Lurie played under elite conductors and had solos written for him specifically by respected composers. In the late 1940s, he was the principal clarinetist for the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Chicago Symphony.

He then continued as an acclaimed chamber musician with the Budapest String Quartet and the Muir String Quartet, playing concerts at elite venues such as the Library of Congress. He was also the clarinetist of choice for Hollywood film studios, playing scores for movies such as “Mary Poppins” and “Dr. Zhivago.”

David Howard, an adjunct assistant professor at Thornton, said Lurie’s musical ability was unmatched by most.

“He was on a level of sophistication musically that most clarinet players aren’t,” Howard said. “He was giving concerts of the most sublime music ever with very important people and in very important places. He was kind of in a class by himself.”

Howard said Lurie would be remembered for his “elegant musicality, his beautiful sound and the way he sang on the clarinet.”

Lurie was also known for his commitment to his students and their work.

Yehuda Gilad, a clarinet professor at USC and the Colburn School of Music, said Lurie taught countless people now occupying major chairs worldwide. Gilad, a former mentee and Lurie’s student described Lurie as a teacher “relentless in his selflessness.”

“With him, the student always came first, like it should be,” Gilad said. “That’s one of the things, as a former pupil of his, I will carry all of my life and try to teach my students.”

Gilad said when he first arrived in the United States from Israel, he had little money, no housing and no transportation.

Lurie, he said, volunteered to drive him to and from school. “I not only learned to play [clarinet] from him, I had a lot of quality time with him,” Gilad said. “He was an extremely special man with a great passion.”

Lurie joined USC as a professor in 1952 and continued to teach clarinet and woodwind chamber music until about a decade ago, Gilad said. He also taught at the Music Academy of the West from 1952 to 1960 and from 1962 to 1984.

NancyBell Coe, president of the Music Academy, said Lurie played an important role in establishing the academy’s woodwind program.

Lurie was “beloved by students and colleagues alike for his kindly manner and his stellar musicianship,” Coe said in statement.

Howard also praised Lurie for his “generosity of spirit.” Howard took private lessons from Lurie in the 1970s as a teenager and later taught alongside Lurie at USC for 15 years. He said the most important thing he learned from Lurie was the ability to self-teach.

“He successfully made me my own best teacher and in that way, he was very selfless,” Howard said. “He didn’t need you to need him. He just gave things. ... He just wanted to prepare us the best way he could and he did it, in the most loving possible way.”

Lurie was born in Brooklyn on March 9, 1922. Soon after, he moved with his family to Los Angeles. At the age of 10, he began playing the clarinet. When he was 16, he played Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the esteemed conductor Otto Klemperer.

After graduating high school, Lurie attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1939. The day of his graduation, he was recruited by renowned conductor Fritz Reiner to play in Pittsburgh.

His career as a musician was put on a pause during World War II when he trained as an Army Air Forces fight pilot, but he never went into combat.

Though he played as a chamber musician, he also was a soloist, performing the 1967 West Coast premiere of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with the composer himself conducting. He also performed the U.S. premiere of Pierre Boulez’s “Domaines,” also with the composer conducting.

Over the years, he also segued into the commercial world, designing “Mitchell Lurie” reeds and mouthpieces that are still commonly used worldwide. The Tyro, an inexpensive clarinet he designed for beginners, debuted last year.

Lurie is survived by his wife of 63 years, Leona; his sons Alan and Mark; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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