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Remembering Composition Department Faculty Member Tibor Pusztai

Tibor PusztaiDear Berklee Community,

It is with deep sadness that I write to tell you that Tibor Pusztai, an associate professor in the Composition Department who served on the faculty for 20 years, passed away on January 12 following 13 days in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Portland, Maine. Tibor had a heart attack on December 28 and never regained consciousness. His wife, Ann, said that the hospital staff took excellent care of him and she doesn’t think he ever experienced any pain.

Hungarian-born, Tibor came to Berklee in 1996 and over his two decades here, taught many classes, including conducting, Scoring for Strings, Traditional Harmony and Composition, and directed studies (Small Forms and Orchestral Composition). Prior to Berklee, he was a faculty member at New England Conservatory of Music, Ithaca College, University of Tehran, and Tanglewood Music Center. While at NEC, Tibor served as an assistant to Gunther Schuller, an appointment he described as “an amazing experience in terms of my education and my development.”

Outside of Berklee, Tibor was the music director for the Manchester Symphony and Connecticut Valley Chamber orchestras, and the president of the following organizations: Connecticut Composers, New Voices Productions, and the Studio of Electronic Music.

He also was the former associate conductor and composer-in-residence for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the former conductor for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Tibor was the recipient of the Koussevitzky Composition Prize and the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Award (Programming); and released numerous recordings on which he was either the conductor and/or composer.

Arnold Friedman, chair of the Berklee Composition Department, shares: “Tibor Pusztai was for me a model teacher: an expert in his field, passionate about his subject, and wonderful at meeting every student right where he or she was. This quotation from a student evaluation says it all: ‘Tibor makes me want to be great. He’s hilarious and always makes me feel the need to improve.’ ”

Jonathan Holland, a professor in the Composition Department, writes: “Tibor stayed with me for a couple years when he came to town to teach. We became pretty close friends during that time and he shared many great stories about his life, from being a refugee and fleeing Hungary at the age of 10, to working under Gunther Schuller, to being the music director for the shah of Iran. He lived a very full life, and touched many people. Most of us remember him as the soothing sage, which he was for countless students, colleagues, and more. I was always impressed at how many students he knew, and how much they respected him, which was clearly the result of the respect he showed each of them as individuals first and foremost. He certainly embodied the phrase he repeated often: ‘Everything is everything.’ ”

Tibor wrote on his Berklee faculty web page:

“When one teaches, one is not teaching subjects, but people. The things that I teach—primarily conducting and composition—are pretty esoteric and have to do very much with the development of self-confidence in the student. I bring the kids out of themselves, so that they can explore their own inner poetry. My task is to make my students understand that conducting, for instance, is the synthesis of all the various things that we study, such as history and harmony, and that the conductor is the galvanizer of all of this information when interpreting a score and seeing what the vision of a composer is. It’s essential to teach this even if the student never conducts at all. For a business major, for instance, or a drummer, it might not be of great utility from a technical perspective, but from a conceptual perspective, certainly, it’s very important. My emphasis has always been to train the complete musician. That’s the way I’ve operated all my life.”

We have no information on funeral services at this time, but we will post information here if we receive it.

I invite you to share your stories and memories of Tibor Pusztai in the comments below.


Jay Kennedy
Vice President for Academic Affairs/Vice Provost

Sarah Fleischmann
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  1. Daniel Ian Smith

    When I heard of Tibor’s passing on Tuesday I was speechless and heartbroken. We can not escape mortality but we live each day and are convinced that we will come back tomorrow to share, love and create. As musicians we celebrate this optimism every day. Tibor celebrated this optimism and desire for love and sharing each day. Our every exchange reinforced and recharged my batteries. When I heard about his passing I made the following note in my journal:

    Lost my friend and colleague Tibor Pusztai. We shared a love of life, all things remote in New England, love of family and of course commitment to great music. In a lifetime there are some friends you see that no matter how bad life may be treating you, just seeing that person lifts your spirits. For me Tibor Pusztai was always that kind of light. Rest easy my friend. Thank you for your light, your spirit, your smile, your insights, your friendship, your inspiration.

    I shared these sentiments on social media and the outpouring of comments from his former students and colleagues have been profound and deeply moving. It is clear (and not surprising) that he touched so many in powerful and lasting ways. You touched so many my friend. Your journey has made us stronger and better people and gave us all fuel and inspiration as we continue ours. You will be missed but your spirit is very much here with us.

  2. CJ Alexander

    Tibor was a great teacher who really believed in his work. I had the pleasure of being in 3 classes with him and he even took it upon himself to offer and teach free private conducting lessons to me the summer after I graduated. He would always know what to say to get me to pull out new ideas. He has probably said “you know this, do it better” to me more than 200 times.
    Even out of the classroom he was just as nice. Whenever I’d catch him on the street I’d stop and we’d have a conversation and leave laughing. He definitely made school a lot more fun.
    Thanks for all the help babe.
    Rest in peace.

  3. Brandon Patrick

    Tibor was one of my favorite teachers! It saddens me that he has passed. I was hoping to take him again and will definitely miss seeing him in passing, he always greeted me with a joke and a smile. My condolences to his friends and family.

  4. Joey Gyujin Lee

    Huge sadness of Berklee Professor Tibor Pusztai. He was my favorite conducting professor of whole time. His class was where I got to enjoy every time I go there and be filled up with his sense of humors and great teachings. Tibor was not only a funny guy, but also the best conducting teacher in my life.. I signed up for another class with him and I got to meet this tragic news… Tibor took care of his students and he always called his students ‘babe’. Tibor was always there to listen to my rough life & school stories outside of class. We often chat on the 150 Mass Ave. street….
    I remember him smiling and saying on my conducting final exam day, “Ah Joey, you got an A already. Get outta here!”
    I’ve never experienced with any loss of any of my teachers before…this is very sad. Tibor showed how he cared his class and students with humors and astonishing teachings..
    I miss you very much, professor… I really do.. This puts tears on my eyes…

  5. Rachel Yarcusko

    My father and I played in a community orchestra that he conducted. I loved his humor and passion. When I graduated from high school, I bought him a t-shirt that said “Tune it or Die.” He loved it.

  6. Junhyeok Christopher Lim

    My one of a big friend and great teacher.
    Tibor, it was great pleasure to have you in my life.
    You will be live forever in your student’s music.
    Rest in peace. My teacher. We love you.

  7. Nikki DePasquale

    Tibor was very special to me since the day I met him over 16 years ago. When I was a student here, minor degrees didn’t exist but I made sure that I focused on conducting during my time as a student. He was my first conducting teacher and he taught me Stravinsky in every way. My very first memory of him in class he would need to show us how a movement is supposed to be done. In his eyes, we had to feel it in order to understand it. So he would have a student up in front of us and he would be next to that student and when he needed to show them a move – he would put his arm out, look at the student, and say to him or her in his amazing accent, “Let’s go for a ride, baby” Basically asking you to rest your arm on his arm so you can feel the exact movement the way it was supposed to be done. And we would all laugh when he would say that but let me tell you…it was the only way to really learn how to conduct the right way. I loved him so much that I had signed up for him again for Conducting 2 but during that time he was going through some health trouble and also family trouble. He was in a situation at the time where he was unable to see his son. He shared with me in tears about the fact that his son was turning 18 which would eventually allow him to see his son. It was the first time that he and I connected as friends and I never forgot it. Through the years I would see him either on the corner of 150, or in front of the beach with his cigarette and every time we saw each other I was with him for his entire hour off. I am so sensitive to cigarette smoke, but if I saw Tibor…I would suck it up and handle the smoke just to sit down with him. We would catch up and just talk about life inside and outside Berklee, laugh and make fun of strange looking people that would pass by us. It wasn’t until 2010/2011 as a staff member that I learned that there was Directed Study for Conducting and that he was one of the instructors. I worked it out so I can use my staff benefit to take that class with him. We worked on a piece of my choice which was Beethoven’s 5th and then we worked on a piece of his choice…and I knew exactly what it was going to be. L’Histoire Du Soldat… the entire suite. Conducting 1 he had us do the opening march of this suite (that was in 1999). Definitely no shock to me that we were going to do this entire thing and he said to me “If you can conduct this, you can conduct anything.” Then he would laugh and say “It is going to make a man out of you.”
    I found out shortly after that I was 1 class away from having a minor in conducting. With help from everyone, I was the first alumn to re-enroll back into the college to add a minor to my already existing degree. Tibor was a huge part of that achievement. The last few years I would continue to see him in the same spot. And as always I would use my lunch hour to hang out with him. Our last sit down must have been sometime in October. Did the same thing we always did…talked about life, and made fun of strange looking people that pass us. He just loved to laugh and do that for some reason. I would’ve love one more hour of that before his passing.
    I will leave you all with the best quote that I have from him that has stayed with me for many years.
    “The body is a servant of the mind” ~Tibor Pusztai

  8. Gregory Fritze

    What a shock to hear of Tibor’s passing. He will certainly be missed by everyone, especially by his students. I remember when we played Vuk Kulinovic’s big orchestra piece at the BPC a few years ago. Tibor was the conductor and we had several rehearsals on such a difficult piece. We were all worried if anybody would show up for the concert, and it turned out that the BPC was almost filled to capacity. It was truly a great success. Tibor really loved to conduct the more adventurous contemporary compositions that were often very difficult. I often remember his term “crazy music” for explaining pieces by such composers as Boulez as Stockhausen. It was his way of getting his students engaged in contemporary music – and it worked! He was able to get students interested in contemporary classical concert music. RIP Tibor. You touched all of our lives.

  9. Antonios Chrysovergis

    Tibor was like Socrates. He always had the time for a good conversation with me and I would always learn something new from him. But above all he had a good heart. He always had nice things to say about people and his students. We met during my years at Berklee between 2000-2004. I wish for him a safe passage to the Great Tuner! My thoughts and prayers go with the family.

  10. Sean Bailey

    Tibor made a huge positive impact in my life. I will try not to babble on & on about him (because I could). We got along right away when I took his Conducting 1 course. At the end of one class he invited me for dinner & a beer because he said he wanted to pick MY brain! I was intimidated & nervous beyond belief. I met him & then Vuk joined us (Now I’m WAY over my head for any conversations they are going to have)! I just listened, had my burger & my beer feeling like I had been SO lucky to hear those two guys talk on a musical level that very few ever get to hear. I continued to be friends with Tibor while I was at Berklee. I got to meet Ann when they reconnected & got to spend time with his son, ‘little Teebs’ several times when he was visiting his dad in Boston. Tibor even sat in for a tune of my senior recital (which he sight read), super athletic progressive rock guitar stuff. He was an extraordinary man, a musical prodigy, and a great friend. Everyone is missing you Teebs. Love you! –Sean Bailey– Berklee 2003

  11. Lynne Patnode

    I have a special place in my heart for Tibor. When I worked with him at the Hartford Conservatory, he was always there to support students and faculty in every way he could. I cannot begin to tell you how much time he donated to ensure the students had opportunities. Heaven has gained another angel.

  12. Andys Skordis

    I just heard the sad news…what can I say…there are some people that we encounter in our lives that are simply angels, with all the meanings this could mean. Angels are those who find you, lift you up when is needed, motivate and inspire you, guide you, teach you and are always behind you to do these…in any circumstance and in any occasion.

    Tibor was one of them…we lost a truly gifted and warmhearted person who always tried to push his students to their best and always be truth with themselves…away from the stereotypes and from what “should” be…a person who loved music and life for what it is and not for anything else.

    We will miss you dearest…your words and your thoughts will be with us

  13. Jorge Reygadas

    The nicest person you could ever cross paths in a hallway, the one that would always have something creative and funny to say, who made you feel at all times that you were peers, being able to deliver immense knowledge from the perspective of a friend. I got to understand how to arrange and orchestrate in the string world by visualizing each string instrument as different personalities gathering and sharing the same space, and there is no book that would deliver such philosophy and understanding. 4-5 months ago, without knowing the latter event, I had the pleasure of having that hallway encounter once again, said hello, quickly caught up, said thank you and then good bye. Thanks Tibor for all the knowledge and love delivered.

  14. I first met Tibor in Tehran in 1977 or 78 when he was musical director of the Iranian National Ballet. I was on tour as pianist with Netherlands Dance Theater and I remember his being a genial and lively host with a (to me) exotic beat-generation vocabulary and way of speaking. We had lot of mutual friends: Oliver Knussen, Simon Bainbridge amongst them. When he and his then partner Janet moved to Amsterdam, we got to know each other much better. I would visit him in Amsterdam (conveniently close to the Heineken Brewery) or he would visit me in the Hague. Usually we would (in no particular order!) drink, smoke, talk music but mainly laugh a lot – and probably all well in excess of what was healthy! I left the Netherlands in 1979 and we lost touch until we rediscovered each other many years later on Facebook. But time and space with such a friend are not really significant. He was and always will be a great friend. He was a terrific conductor and composer and clearly an excellent teacher; one of his recent graduates is studying for his masters degree with me here in Manchester (England, England) at this very moment. So this is my tribute to a lovely man of whom I have the fondest of memories.
    Gary Carpenter HonRAM
    Professor of Composition: RNCM, Manchester
    Composition Professor: Royal Academy of Music, London
    Chair of Classical Executive Committee: British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors

  15. Michael Weaver

    My late grandfather, a Hungarian immigrant, helped the Pusztai family and others following the 1956 revolution. I first met Tibor when he, at age 15, joined my mother, a Juilliard pianist, in performing the Dvorak Sonatina. I listened with amazement to their rehearsals. While I hadn’t been in touch withTibor for years, whenever I hear that piece I always think of Tibor and the “deep” musical conversations we had at that time (I was 13). Just a few moments ago, WQXR broadcast the Sonatina. Thinking I might get in touch with Tibor, I googled him to figure out how to contact him. I was met with the devastating news. Reading the wonderful tributes from his students and thinking of my memories of him and his family, I am so sad.

  16. Cathy Hall-Schor

    I know it has been nearly a year since Tibor died, but since I am not connected with the Berklee School, I had no way of finding out until recently. I knew Tibor when we were both in high school in Montclair, New Jersey in the early 1960’s . At that time he was known as “Tibby”. This was before he started attending the Professional Children’s School in N.Y. We were somewhere around 15 years old. He was the concertmaster of the school orchestra, and at that point, looking forward to a career as a professional violinist. I have two fond memories from that orchestra – one day the band/orchestra teacher, Mr. Cleaver, asked Tibby if he would like to conduct a piece at the rehearsal, for fun. He had never faced an orchestra in this capacity in his life. Mr. Cleaver showed him how to hold the baton and how to give a preparatory upbeat. I’ve often wondered if that was the day “caught the conducting bug”. On another occasion, we were rehearsing for what was then called “The Christmas Concert” (1960’s remember!), and we were working on Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”. Tibby just could not get the syncopated, jazzy section on the second page, and became increasingly frustrated with himself at not getting it. I remember him staying after school determined to do it right, getting madder by the moment. To this day, 55 years later, I cannot hear “Sleigh Ride” without thinking of him. My condolences to his family, I was so sorry to learn of his death, way too early. Can this be forwarded to his wife?

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