Chicago Classical Review » » Larry Rachleff, 1955-2022

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Larry Rachleff, a fiery conductor and inspirational teacher who was the founding music director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, died Monday in Houston after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 67 years old.

In 1991, Rachleff conducted Symphony II’s first concert at Evanston’s Pick-Staiger Hall, launching its inaugural three-concert series. Formerly known as the Illinois Orchestra, the ensemble was founded by musicians from the Lyric Opera Orchestra who wanted to perform symphonic concert repertoire outside of their opera program. Rachleff served as music director of the orchestra – renamed the Chicago Philharmonic in 2004 – for 23 seasons until 2013.

Among the memorable performances of his final seasons with the Chicago Philharmonic were an incendiary Brahms First in 2011 and his last gig as musical director.

Rachleff also served as music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra for 21 years from 1996 to 2017. His farewell concert in 2017 also featured his wife, mezzo-soprano Susan Lorette Dunn. (Rahleff’s passing comes less than a month after the death of Bramwell Tovey, the current musical director of the RI Philharmonic.)

“Larry brought an intensity and vision that lifted the Orchestra to new heights,” said David Beauchesne, executive director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic in a released statement. “His tireless interest in artistic quality, dedication to excellence and advocacy of music education have been embraced by [the] Orchestra, audience and the greater Rhode Island community.

But Rachleff’s greatest legacy will likely be as a dedicated educator, who taught at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music for three decades.

“Larry was unique, unlike any colleague I’ve known,” said Leone Buyse, Shepherd School flute teacher and longtime colleague. “His influence on students and fellow professionals was enormous, life-changing and utterly incalculable. He was a superb musician, an extraordinary conductor and an educator who cared deeply about all the young talent that he tutored at the Shepherd School, at top music festivals across the country and at masterclasses overseas.

“For all of us at Shepherd School, this loss is indescribable, but we take comfort in knowing that his spirit will always remain with us and his legacy will live on through the generations.”

“Those of us lucky enough to have followed his baton from the stage will remember Larry as a unique musician and an educator of the highest caliber,” said Matthew Loden, Dean of Music at the Shepherd School. “On the podium, he was a clear and inspired conductor who regularly expected his ensembles to collectively surpass individual talent and ability. Teamwork, disciplined listening and joint responsibility to bring the best music possible to an audience are just a few of the legacies of excellence that Larry leaves behind.

“Larry’s musical genius was evident to anyone who saw him conduct or met him off the podium,” said bandleader Cristian Macelaru, a former student of Rachleff who earned a master’s degree from the school. Shepherd and is currently musical director of the Orchester National de France in Paris. “He was passionate, funny, knowledgeable, sensitive, caring and supportive, but above all he had a unique gift for bringing people together and making them feel valued and appreciated. He had the ability to create an atmosphere of success where everyone could give their best. The impact of his passionate mentorship continues to be an inspiration to all who choose to leave behind a better world.

Larry Rachleff is survived by his wife, Susan; their son, Sam, who will be attending Shepherd School this fall; his mother, Naomi; and a brother, Peter Rachleff.

Services will be held Monday at 1 p.m. at Rice University’s Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Room. After the funeral, there will be a funeral service at 3:00 p.m. at Emanu El Memorial Park, Bissonnet, Texas

The Shepherd School of Music will pay tribute to its former colleague during the opening performance of the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra on September 30.

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