Presenting Lawrence Rapchak

By Bruce Duffie

The Chicagoland area has long been the home to a large community of fine musicians who display their talents in all corners and facets of musical life.  Most obvious, the performers of world-class stature, both soloists and ensemble players.  There are composers who have written works that have been successful in terms of popularity, and praised by winning of awards.  There are scholars who do the basic research and find the truth in long-standing pieces which are much in need of tidying-up. We have conductors who interpret the works and lead our forces to the highest levels of accomplishment.  And don't forget the audiences who are among the most sophisticated anywhere.  We know what's good.  We know what's great.  And we demand the best while exploring the new and revering the old.  It's a grand showcase.

Today, let's focus on one of the best-and-brightest in this musical community:  Lawrence Rapchak.

Lawrence Rapchak is one of these all-round musicians that seems to radiate good will and fine performances wherever he goes.  While he has done some guesting in venues both American and European, his focus is here in Chicago, where he lives and devotes most of his time and energy.

He's a composer, whose works have been played by opera companies and major orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony.  Two of his pieces are currently available on CD - an orchestral piece called "Orloj" and the opera "The Lifework of Juan Diaz," which he brought a few years ago to Chamber Opera Chicago, the company he helped found and where he was Music Director, before moving on to the same position with Chicago Opera Theater.  The COT recording of Menotti's "The Medium" with Rapchak conducting has also been well-received and highly praised.  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.] 

Besides being all this, he is a fine pianist, using his keyboard skills while conducting pit orchestras, or playing examples of complicated orchestral scores.  But perhaps his most high-profile gig is doing pre-concert lectures for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  His bon-vivant style and jovial humor distinguish his work, and endear him to the people who gather at 6:45 on the night of the program to hear him extol the virtues of the coming performance with wit and charm... and solid musical history told in an enjoyable fashion.

I've watched him deliver many times, and the effect is always skillful packed with knowledge and insight, yet calm and friendly enough to keep his audience with him no matter how complicated the composition he has to deal with. His eyes light up, and he punctuates each point with a small jab or large gesture, often ‘conducting' the recorded musical example.  Other times, he plays it himself at the piano, diving right in and speaking (or singing) in the manner of the late Boris Goldovsky, the most famous opera advocate.  [See my Interview with Boris Goldovsky.]  Rapchak also delves into the social and historical implications of the work, knowing full well the rigors of composition himself, and the trials and tribulations of getting music performed before a wide audience.

And then there's this news flash: Lawrence Rapchak has just been named Music Director of the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra, which is a local group of mostly-professional players with a high reputation and several awards.  They were named "Illinois Orchestra of the Year" back in 1997, so it will be a fine showcase for both his flair for interesting repertoire, and the chance to enrich an already-successful ensemble and reach an ever-wider audience.  This is truly exciting time for him, and for us!  [Click HERE for photos from a 2007 concert.]

The Northbrook Symphony has an Outreach Program, and that fits Rapchak like a glove.  He has been involved in bringing the music her cares about to young and old for a long time.  Those pre-concert lectures for the CSO were also a feature when he was the Music Director of COT.  He knows that getting the audience involved is essential for the growth of both the organization and the ensemble.  He can't make up entirely for what is currently lacking in the schools, but he's doing his best to spread his enthusiasm and help concert music gain the popularity it deserves.

His current venture is in conjunction with the Ravinia Festival and Symphony II.  Rapchak is the Director of Educational Projects, which includes a series of  weekly visits to the Cleveland School, the culmination of which will be on Thursday, March 8.  The project involves Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird" at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Chicago.

The performance will be in two parts.  During the first half, the kids will do what Rapchak has called a ‘massive pre-concert lecture' in which they will demonstrate their new-found knowledge of the work in dance, music, painting, etc., derived from their experience gleaned over the previous weeks.  Then part 2 of the concert will be a full performance of the ballet by members of Symphony II, with placards telling the audience what is happening in the ballet - very much like supertitles in the opera house.

The event will take place in the social center, which might seem strange at first, but works well for all the goings-on.  The orchestra will be on the floor with the audience sitting around them.  It bodes well for an experience which has already piqued the interest of the young participants, and will remain with them long after the final notes have sounded and all the trappings have been put away.

Continuing the affection for Classical Music in the coming decades means getting youngsters to be part of the whole creative and performing process.  Lawrence Rapchak is here to lead the way.

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Considered by the editor for publication in the March 2, 2001 issue of "CityTalk" magazine, but not used