Remembrances pour in for Larry Rachleff

·6 min read

Aug. 12—New London native Larry Rachleff, the former music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, the longtime music director of Rice University's Shepherd School symphony and chamber orchestras and an internationally known and admired figure in classical music, died August 8 in Houston after a long fight with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

He was 67.

"He was so talented from childhood. He just instantly had that skill — a gift — as a musician. We didn't know how to express it back then, but you knew Larry was going to make a big noise in this world," said lifelong friend David Neilan, who grew up across Plant Street from the Rachleffs. "He was one of those truly genuine people. A wonderful friend. It didn't make any difference how long it might have been since we saw one another; we just picked up in mid-sentence."

Rachleff, the son of Naomi and the late Edwin Rachleff, was born in New London on Feb. 25, 1955. He graduated from New London High School in 1973, received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Music from the University of Michigan. He was also the recipient of honorary doctorates in music from Roger Williams University and Providence College, Rhode Island. Rachleff was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame (ACMHF) in fall 2017.

Rachleff was with the Rhode Island Philharmonic from 1996 to 2017 and taught at Rice since 1991. At various times, he was also music director of the San Antonio Symphony, a faculty member of Oberlin Conservatory, where he was music director of orchestras and conducted the Contemporary Ensemble and served as conductor of the University of Southern California's Opera Theater.

Rachleff conducted masterclasses all over the world including the Chopin Academy in Warsaw; the Zurich Hochschule; the Sydney and Queensland, Australia conservatories; the Juilliard School; the New England Conservatory and Royal Northern College in the U.K.

He was a tireless advocate for music education in public schools — and conducted All-State orchestras and festivals in virtually every state in the United States as well as across Europe and throughout Canada. He had also served as principal conducting teacher for the American Symphony Orchestra League, the Conductors' Guild and the International Workshop for Conductors in the Czech Republic.

The geographical and artistic scope of his work suggests that, had he wished, Rachleff could probably have accepted a position with a big-budget orchestra. But he knew early on what his priorities were and where his professional satisfaction came from.

"Because my focus is teaching, I've decided not to have lofty career aspirations," Rachleff told Day reporter Steven Slosberg in a 1998 profile, shortly before the musician's second year with the Rhode Island Philharmonic. "The kind of orchestra I enjoy is one making a connection with and having a strong relationship with a community. My interest in being with (the Rhode Island Philharmonic) is that the orchestra's whole season would not interfere with my teaching."

Though he had lived for years in Houston with his wife, soprano Susan Lorette Dunn, and their son Sam, Rachleff continued to resonate in a huge way with his hometown and across the region.

Two summers before Caleb Bailey became executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in 2015, he was an orchestra manager for the Aspen Festival Orchestra. One of the featured conductors was Rachleff.

"He was such a warm and welcoming person to meet among the intimidatingly talented folks that I worked with there," Bailey said. "Throughout rehearsal, I was becoming more and more a fan of his through hearing his interesting phrases and use of humor. He had a high bar for the ensemble, but his use of his personality and charm to get different colors from the mostly student orchestra was amazing. When he turned to piano soloist Joyce Yang and did the 'raise the roof' gesture after one of her blazingly virtuosic passages, I became a lifelong fan! The orchestral music world lost a giant with his passing."

Cara Cheung, ECSO executive coordinator and a cellist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, remembers Rachleff from her days as a graduate student at Rice.

"Larry was really the one that prepared me to be an orchestral musician," Cheung said. "He believes in all students' ability to create the highest quality music. He inspired me — and numerous students before and after me — to carry on the torch and bring quality music to all people. I will never forget his proud face and warm hug in what turned out to be our final performance together."

And Brian Mitchell, retired director of the Kingston Chamber Music Festival and a former editor at The Day, said he regularly attended Rachleff's presentations with the Rhode Island Philharmonic as a fan.

"Larry energized the orchestra and audience with his knowledge of and enthusiasm for music," Mitchell said. "What he projected from the stage was always accessible and done with good humor. And, for over 20 years, his mom and dad sat two rows behind me at all his concerts. Naomi gushed with pride — as well she should have."

Retired Day classical music critic Milton Moore — whose professional assessments could be prickly — emailed that he was a big admirer of Rachleff's.

"A year or two after he was appointed music director (in Rhode Island), Larry guested at Summer Music in what was a real homecoming," Moore said. "The buzz was strong, and he concluded with a riveting reading of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. I'll never forget that in the closing measure, as all seven themes of the rondo played simultaneously in a contrapuntal gyre, he basically stopped conducting, having wound that orchestral engine up. That's usually a major 'ham it up' moment for conductors because it's a pretty iconic moment, but Larry just folded his arms, lowered his head and listened."

"He was a regular guy and hated that 'maestro' stuff,' Neilan said. He paused. "When you've been friends since you were 3 years old, and stayed friends ... you don't realize how special it was back in youth, when it's happening. But when you get older, you have the wisdom to describe and appreciate it ... Someone told me that the level of grief someone feels after losing someone reflects how much you cared about the person you're missing. When I think about that, man, I was lucky."

A funeral service for Rachleff will be held Monday in Houston. Plans for a local memorial haven't been announced.