Shulamit Ran

Resident composer

Longtime music professor Shulamit Ran gives back to the University she calls her home.

When former University of Chicago music professor Shulamit Ran was 8 years old, taking piano lessons in Tel Aviv, her teacher wrote down Ran’s original songs and, unbeknownst to her or her parents, sent them to an Israeli radio station.

When a letter arrived with news that a children’s choir would perform two of her songs during a youth program, “it was really a fantastic surprise,” says Ran. She was at summer camp when the songs were aired, and she and the other children sat around a big radio and listened.

“The children’s choir sang my songs very beautifully,” she says. “And I realized, here was this thing that came out of me, but at the same time it had an independent existence.” She knew then that she wanted to continue to create music and have it performed. “That was really the beginning.”

At age 14 she earned a scholarship to the Mannes School of Music, moving to New York with her mother (her father joined them a year later). After graduation she toured as a concert pianist while also composing. Then in 1973, UChicago music professor Ralph Shapey heard her vocal chamber recording “O the Chimneys” (1969), based on the Holocaust-themed poems of Nelly Sachs.

Shapey, who was looking to fill a position, walked into music chair Robert Marshall’s office, threw the LP on his desk, and said, “There’s our composer.” They wrote and called Ran, persuading her to move to Chicago, a city she had never visited, and join the faculty.

She stayed at the University for 42 years, during which time she served stints as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, composed an opera, directed Contempo (formerly the Contemporary Chamber Players) after Shapey’s 2002 death, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1990 Symphony.

In 2015 she retired from the University as the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Music. And in 2018 she and her husband, retired otolaryngologist Abraham Lotan, made a gift to the University to bring a visiting distinguished artist from Israel to the Joyce Z. and Jacob Greenberg Center for Jewish Studies in the Division of the Humanities, in concert with arts units across campus.

“I had known for a long time that I would want to give something back to this special place,” says Ran. “It is my home in so many ways.” With advice from her TIAA adviser and the Office of Gift Planning, she learned she could do something meaningful now and in perpetuity. The gift comes in two parts: qualified charitable distributions from her IRA over five years, and designation of the University as beneficiary of her IRA to permanently endow the Shulamit Ran and Abraham Lotan Visiting Distinguished Artists Fund.

The plan is to bring in one artist a year, rotating among music composition, the written word (an author, poet, playwright), and other creative arts such as painting, architecture, film, and choreography. “So there would be many ways of making the gift come alive.”

While retired from the University, Ran continues to compose in the airy Chicago Loop high-rise condo she and her husband have filled with art. Pages of handwritten sheet music cover her grand piano and nearby drafting table.

These pages are for Anne Frank, a full-scale opera commissioned by Indiana University, scheduled to premiere in fall 2020. Working on this story, she says, “is exhilarating, daunting, a huge responsibility.”

She takes her time when writing. “I don’t just crank them out,” she says. “It’s important to me that everything I do represents the best that’s in me.” One reason she accepted the University position back in 1973, in fact, was because her concert career left little time to compose. More time to compose was also a factor in her decision to retire from academia. Since that first radio experience as a young girl, composing is what she’s wanted to do.

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