It has become a running joke at Northbrook Symphony Orchestra concerts. Before each performance, Lawrence Rapchak comes out on stage and tells the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is going to be our best concert ever."
But Rapchak, now in his 12th year as music director of the suburban professional orchestra, is only half kidding. Getting his audience as excited about the ensemble's music-making as he is about programming the concerts is a serious part of his mission.
By steadily expanding the repertory in adventuresome directions, he challenges the curiosity and playing ability of his musicians, all the while building a loyal base of listeners increasingly receptive to symphonic music most of them most probably have never heard before.
Thus far, the conductor's strategy for pulling in and engaging audiences appears to be working. No fewer than 1,000 listeners, on average, turn out for each of the six subscription programs the orchestra performs each season in Northbrook's 1,500-seat Sheely Center for the Performing Arts at Glenbrook North High School.
And he's clearly delighted that the passion he pours into assembling his unique programming is reflected in the enthusiasm his musicians, a mix of seasoned pros and young area instrumentalists bring to their performances.
"My intention is to make the Northbrook Symphony the orchestra people can go to for a thrilling, exciting time," says Rapchak, who will preside over the NSO's season opener on Sunday afternoon. "By constructing each concert around some sort of narrative, we allow people to buy into it much more readily than they would a more standard program. We try to make each concert its own self-contained little time capsule, a one-of-a-kind event."
The NSO's first subscription concert of the season is typically built around unifying themes and neglected rarities of the sort few other area professional orchestras venture.
Anchoring the all-French bill will be Saint-Saens' majestic "Organ" Symphony, with Patricia Lee as guest organist. Rapchak is surrounding this standard work with selections from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" incidental music, plus esoterica by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Suite from "Nais") and Gabriel Pierne (Basque Rhapsody, from "Ramuntcho").
"If you pick pieces that have an immediate appeal to your audience, you're able, over time, to build your brand," Rapchak explains.
He doesn't worry about possibly driving away listeners who only want to bask in classical music's greatest hits. "The people who complained we don't play more warhorses left years ago," he says. "The majority of our listeners don't have any pre-formed ideas of what the repertory is – they just come and ask if they will like what they will hear."
Plenty of conductors play Mahler symphony cycles, but how many of them present neglected symphonies by Mahler contemporaries? This season Rapchak is launching "In Mahler's Shadow," a multi-year artistic initiative that will introduce Northbrook audiences to three seldom-heard late-Romantic symphonies, each steeped in Mahler's musical language and written by composers whose personal lives were closely intertwined with his.
For the orchestra's season finale on May 5, Rapchak will conduct the presumed local premiere of the hearty, tuneful Symphony No. 1 (1899) by Franz Schmidt. Schmidt was an Austrian composer who played principal cello in Mahler's Court Opera Orchestra in Vienna but was later demoted, perhaps because Mahler was jealous over the Viennese critics having praised Schmidt's symphony over his own music.
The following two seasons will bring NSO performances – all under Rapchak's baton – of Symphony in E major (1880) by Mahler's Viennese classmate, Hans Rott; and Symphony No. 4 ("Easter Eve," 1904) by Czech composer Josef Foerster, who served as Mahler's assistant at the Hamburg Opera.
"This initiative is a huge step for the orchestra," says Rapchak. "It's our way of setting ourselves apart from what the many other orchestras in this part of the state are doing. There's a lot of symphonic activity here, and we're fighting and clawing our way to somehow distinguish ourselves from the pack."
The Schmidt, Rott and Foerster symphonies are all big works requiring extra musicians beyond the NSO's normal component of 70-72 players. A special fund will allow Rapchak to tap additional personnel. "There are lots of wonderful young players at the universities, who play in the Civic Orchestra, or who have just begun to set down roots in the area. This allows me to cast a wide net," he says.
"People ask how I can build a cohesive ensemble from concert to concert when we have a 15-percent rotation of personnel. My answer is: I live in the real world. There is only so much we can afford to pay our musicians, to make it worth their while to turn down other gigs. We are just able to compete in that regard. I endeavor to offer them a really good playing experience, so they're doing it for more than just the money."
He's offering an unusual listening experience to his audience as well. Certainly that holds true for the remainder of the NSO season, which includes programs tied to Eastern European folk music (Nov. 4), the Classical tradition (Feb. 17) and the 3 M's (Mozart, Martini and Mendelssohn, April 7).
Lawrence Rapchak conducts the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra in a program of Rameau, Bizet, Pierne and Saint-Saens at 4 p.m. Sunday at Sheely Center for the Performing Arts, Glenbrook North High School, 2300 Shermer Rd., Northbrook; $25-$45, $8 for children and students; 847-272-0755, northbrooksymphony.org.
Lou Harrison profiled
Lou Harrison, who died in 2003, at 85, was one of the great originals of American musical composition. His fusion of Eastern and Western musical influences, often incorporating Asian instruments such as the gamelan, anticipated today's world music movement by decades.
Yet this colleague of Charles Ives and John Cage, an outspoken pacifist and gay activist, remains largely unknown to the concert public. Perhaps Eva Soltes' in-depth portrait, "Lou Harrison: A World of Music," will help bring the man and his music out of the shadows. A close friend of Harrison's, she will attend both screenings of her film. 8 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Monday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org.