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Violinist’s legacy benefits past and future students

February 11, 2002

Raphael Spiro (1905 - 2000)


For decades, Raphael Spiro was Oregon’s violin teacher par excellence.

“You’ll find his former students in major orchestras throughout the world,” says violinist Robin Cook ’82, who performed with the Boston Esplanade Pops and Boston’s opera and ballet orchestras for 16 years before returning to Portland to play with the Oregon Symphony.

Melinda Benson Wilde ’82, J.D. ’88, who studied viola with Spiro and later became his attorney, estimates that 80 percent of the violinists in Portland’s symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras worked with Spiro at one time.

He was the reason Oregon symphony violinist Lynne Eisert Finch ’77 decided to stay in Portland and attend Lewis & Clark. And he was the reason Mary Dakin ’88, now assistant director for the Center for Russian and East european Studies at Stanford University, enrolled at the College.

Spiro, a Jew, immigrated to the United States from Lodz, Poland, in 1921 at the age of 16. He had a gift for languages and spoke Polish, German, Russian, and English (the latter with “an accent so thick you could cut it,” says Dakin).

He attended Chicago Musical College from 1923 to 1927, studied privately with Leopold Auer, who also taught Jascha Heifetz, and was concertmaster and soloist for the Mutual Broadcasting System radio orchestra.

Spiro and his wife, Magdelene, a German Catholic who died in 1997, later moved to Oregon, where he joined the Portland Symphony (now Oregon Symphony). He taught at Lewis & Clark from January 1983 through December 1988 and continued teaching in Oregon until the day he died at the age of 95.

“He had high expectations of his students but also believed they could live up to those expectations,” says Suzanne Segerstrom ’90, violinist with the Lexington Philharmonic and Lexington Community orchestras and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. “He didn’t have to browbeat you. You worked hard because you didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“He approached teaching like a doctor,” Wilde explains. “He would analyze what you could and couldn’t do and then prescribe ways to improve your vibrato or your bowing technique, for example.”

But he was far more than a violin teacher, according to his former students. He was a painter, a photographer, a jewelry maker, a calligrapher, a philosopher, a counselor, and a mentor.

“He was a deep thinker who had much more than music to teach his students—he taught lessons about life,” says Finch. “Before starting a violin lesson, he’d take a moment to talk to you. If he thought you were going the wrong direction with your life, he would offer words to think about.”

“You felt he could see right through you—that he could see every part of your past,” says Wilde. “We thought of him as a mentor, but he also thought of himself as a mentor. That’s how he signed his letters to me.”

Spiro’s only child died at an early age, so his students became his family and, after performing throughout the world, loyally returned to Portland to visit their beloved teacher.

They say he lived in a modest home, wore the same clothes year after year, and drove an old car. But when he died, he not only left a legacy of superb musicians and music teachers, he left a $504,150 gift to Lewis & Clark’s music department.

The gift will endow the Raphael Spiro Memorial Music Scholarship and a discretionary fund for special projects such as string workshops.

“I was greatly moved by this gift,” says Gil Seeley, James W. Rogers Professor of Music and chair of the music department. “Raphael Spiro’s name is legendary. His name and his gift will attract and benefit generations of future music students.”


—by Jean Kempe-Ware 

The Chronicle Magazine

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