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Harry Shapiro, 100; horn player spent decades with BSO

Mr. Shapiro was a horn player in the BSO from 1937 to ’76.

Danny Pitts/BSO Archives

Mr. Shapiro was a horn player in the BSO from 1937 to 1976.

When Harry Shapiro was a boy, he accompanied his father, a freelance French horn player, to gigs across Boston, carrying his father’s instrument and sitting for the performance right there in the pit next to him.

“From then on, that was his favorite place to be,” said his daughter Laura, “right where the musicians were, right where it was all happening.”

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Mr. Shapiro managed to secure that precise location, or something very close to it, for the entirety of a musical career that included more than six decades of involvement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From 1937 to 1976, he was a horn player with the BSO, appointed by Serge Koussevitzky. When his performing days came to an end, he stepped backstage, working as the BSO’s assistant personnel manager, its transportation manager, and later as the manager of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, roles that placed him at the logistical nerve center of the institution.

Mr. Shapiro died June 28 in The Cambridge Homes in Cambridge. He was 100 and previously lived in Richmond and Needham.

“The wealth of experience he had from doing so many different things for so long was just invaluable to all of us,” said Ray Wellbaum, the BSO’s orchestra manager. “He always seemed to be confident because he’d seen it all: weather, travel, artistic issues on stage. And he had the confidence of the musicians because he had been one of them.”

Mr. Shapiro also worked over the years as a contractor, hiring players and helping to build, virtually from scratch, the orchestras of the Boston Ballet and the Opera Company of Boston and later the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. He was known by musicians across New England. Colleagues recall him as an indefatigable figure, with razor sharp ears, an assertive presence, and a comprehensive knowledge of the world of orchestral playing.

“Harry was larger than life,” said Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians’ Association. “He had a fierce pride in the orchestras, and a dignity, in an old-school kind of way. His entire life was in this business. And if you ever crossed him, you were in big trouble. But the other side of it was that he had a big heart. He cared.”

Hollenbeck recalled a time in the 1980s when the Boston Pops flew to Tokyo for performances. Most of the players emerged from the plane jetlagged and disheveled, but Mr. Shapiro strode confidently off the plane. “He didn’t have a hair out of place and looked ready for the Olympics,” Hollenbeck said. “Then he began barking at the Japanese bus drivers: ‘Do you know who these people are? This is the Boston Pops. Get them to their hotel!’ ”

Mr. Shapiro also had a passion for mentoring young musicians, whether through individual lessons, chamber music coaching, or helping them prepare for major auditions. And his enthusiasm was evidently reciprocated. For years the students of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra began each rehearsal by shouting “Good Morning, Mr. Shapiro” in a unison call that typically crescendoed over the course of each summer, building by mid-August to a roar. In the 1990s, he began traveling in the winter season to Miami, where he consulted for another professional training orchestra, the New World Symphony, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

One young horn player, who met Mr. Shapiro as an undergraduate, was Richard Sebring, now associate principal horn of the BSO. “I always really admired his wonderful set of ears,” Sebring said. “His comments were always spot on. He cut to the chase and never pulled a punch, which was very helpful for me as a student, because it eliminated a lot of guesswork.”

Mr. Shapiro was born in Roxbury, grew up in Revere, and graduated from Boston Latin School. He studied at The Juilliard School and during the Great Depression played in the People’s Symphony Orchestra, where the horn section included his father. After a year as first horn in the National Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Shapiro was accepted to the BSO.

In a 2004 interview with the Globe, Mr. Shapiro recounted his first rehearsal with the BSO, at which he was poised to make a fractionally wrong entrance in Sibelius’ Second Symphony, until a colleague jabbed him with an elbow just in time. “That guy saved my life,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I didn’t realize that nobody started until the baton fell to the third button on Koussie’s vest. After a total silence, this marvelous sound emerged, as if from nowhere.”

Mr. Shapiro was drafted and served in the US Army Air Force Band during World War II, stationed in England with performances in Paris and beyond.

Not long after joining the BSO, he was introduced to Frances Sidd at Tanglewood, and they married in 1941. She died in 1997.

In addition to his daughter Laura of New York City, he leaves another daughter, Emily Koplik of Albuquerque; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service, held at Tanglewood, will be announced for later in the summer, and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra will dedicate its performance Sunday to his memory.

“He was a real force, a strong force,” said Sebring. “And he just had such an unbounded love for this organization, a sense of belonging to this great BSO family. I think Harry felt very much like the patriarch of it.”

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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