Mitchell Lurie dies at 86; world-renowned clarinetist taught at USC

Mitchell Lurie, shown in 1982, was the principal clarinetist for the Pittsburgh Symphony and then the Chicago Symphony in the late 1940s. He then launched a long career in Hollywood as a top clarinetist for film studios.
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Mitchell Lurie, a world-renowned clarinetist and clarinet teacher who taught for many years at USC and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, has died. He was 86.

Lurie, who had been in ill health in recent years, died of pneumonia Monday at his home in West Los Angeles, said his son, Dr. Alan Lurie.

A Brooklyn native who grew up in Los Angeles, Lurie was the principal clarinetist for the Pittsburgh Symphony and then the Chicago Symphony in the late 1940s.

He then launched a long career in Hollywood as a top clarinetist for film studios and became a distinguished chamber musician, who may have been best known for his numerous performances with the Budapest String Quartet and the Muir String Quartet.

Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist and conductor with whom Lurie once performed, called him the “ideal clarinetist.”

“He was the preeminent clarinetist of the latter part of the 20th century, the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” David Howard, a longtime clarinetist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, told The Times.

Howard praised Lurie for playing “with an incredible singing quality, with an unmistakable tone and a wonderfully refined musicality.”

As a soloist, Lurie performed the 1967 West Coast premiere of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with the composer conducting; and he later performed the U.S. premiere of Pierre Boulez’s “Domaines,” also with the composer conducting.

Lurie made numerous recordings over the decades, but one of the more noteworthy was his CD of the Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets, which are the central chamber music pieces for the clarinet.

“He recorded both of those with the Muir Quartet, and he did it when he was 70 years old,” Howard said. “Any clarinetist will tell you those are the definitive recordings of those pieces.”

As a clarinetist for major film studios, Lurie played on the scores for movies such as “The Apartment,” “Dr. Zhivago” and “Mary Poppins” and had solos written for him by composers such as Dimitri Tiomkin, Maurice Jarre, Andre Previn and Elmer Bernstein.

In a 2001 story on Lurie in the International Clarinet Assn. journal, The Clarinet, Bernstein described him as “the premier clarinetist in motion picture music and indeed in the world.”

Over the years, Lurie also developed reeds, ligatures and mouthpieces that are widely used around the world. His final design for the clarinet world was the Tyro, an inexpensive clarinet made in China for beginners that entered the market last year.

Lurie joined the faculty at USC in 1952 and taught clarinet and woodwind chamber music there until several years ago. For more than 20 years, he performed similar duties at the Music Academy of the West in the summer.

He also presented clinics, seminars and workshops across the United States and around the world, including heading the First International Clarinet Seminar in Sydney, Australia, in 1976.

Howard, who took private clarinet lessons from Lurie in the 1970s and later taught alongside him at USC, described Lurie, the teacher, as “gentle, generous and always caring.”

Born in Brooklyn on March 9, 1922, Lurie soon moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he began playing clarinet at age 10. At 16, he played Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under renowned conductor Otto Klemperer.

In 1939, the Belmont High School graduate enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

In a 1983 interview with The Times, Lurie recalled that during his first year at the institute he was unexpectedly asked to play first clarinet with the Curtis orchestra the day legendary conductor Fritz Reiner made his first appearance of the semester.

While performing a solo during the rehearsal, Lurie noticed that Reiner continued to peer at him over his Ben Franklin glasses. At the end of the rehearsal, Reiner said he’d like to have a word with the young musician.

“We went backstage, and he said to me, ‘I need a principal clarinetist in Pittsburgh,’ ” Lurie recalled. “My heart went straight up into my teeth. ‘But not now,’ he said. ‘You must get your schooling; that’s the important thing for you right now. But when you graduate, you are my first clarinetist.’

“Inside, I was screaming, ‘No, no! Take me now!’ because, as you know, in our business so many people make so many promises.”

But three years later, on Lurie’s graduation day, a telegram arrived.

All it said was: Now. -- Fritz Reiner.

Lurie’s musical career, however, was interrupted by World War II, during which he trained as an Army Air Forces fighter pilot but did not see combat.

Alan Lurie said Friday that he has been working with producer Larry Guy and Boston Records in preparing a heritage CD of his father’s musical life and performances.

As Mitchell Lurie told Alan and his other son, Mark, as the end neared, “I played my song, and I played it well.”

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

No funeral will be held; a memorial concert and celebration of his life and work will be held at USC early next year. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Lurie Tribute Fund, c/o Larry Guy, 36 Hudson Ave., Stony Point, NY 10980. Funds not used for the completion of the Lurie Heritage CD will go to the Mitchell Lurie Scholarship at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

McLellan is a Times staff writer.