Chicago has lost one of its visionaries: Deborah Sobol, an outstanding musician and an inspiring educator. Throughout her career, Ms. Sobol was the embodiment of the Citizen Musician movement: engaging musicians, music lovers and organizations in using the power of music to create connections and to build community. With her hard work and dedication, the musical community of Chicago has grown and will continue to thrive.
Ms. Sobol’s extensive career spanned over 40 years. She was known both as a solo pianist and chamber musician, collaborating with many world-renowned artists in concert venues across the globe.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Ms. Sobol’s career was her remarkable dedication to community building through music. It was her dedication to the arts and her drive to present music to communities in meaningful ways that inspired her to envision new music organizations. These include the Chicago Chamber Musicians, and later, the Rush Hour Concert series.
In 1986, Ms. Sobol was the founding artistic co-director of the Chicago Chamber Musicians. At the time, the concept was unique in the city’s musical landscape: a mixed chamber consisting of internationally acclaimed musicians each united in the same vision – sharing their gift of music with wide community audiences in Chicago. While artistic co-director, Ms. Sobol brought to the organization critical acclaim, but even more, she was able to bring classical music to a broader audience in the city of Chicago. She also helped establish many programs while artistic co-director, and later executive director, including programs for education and for Chicago communities. One of these programs is the Chicago Chamber Musicians’ Professional Development Fellowship Program, which is dedicated to helping members of young ensembles develop their niche as artists in the community.
In 2000, Ms. Sobol pioneered the creation of Rush Hour Concerts, a nationally recognized concert series of free performances during the summer. Her vision was to provide “great music for busy lives,” and Rush Hour Concerts were an immediate success. Each week, the program draws crowds of nearly 700 attendees, roughly a third of whom are under the age of 40. Rush Hour Concerts is also broadcast live to over 250,000 listeners in the Chicago area through 98.7 WFMT. Ms. Sobol’s vision of attracting all types of audience members from Chicago communities by providing free concerts has become a reality, as the program prepares to celebrate its 15th season in 2014.
“Everything Debbie did in her life reflected a rare conviction in the power of music and culture to change society,” said Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Brant Taylor. “Chicago is extraordinarily lucky that she happened to live here, and that her energies were spent on us. Her steadfast belief that great live music should be free and available to everyone led her to found Rush Hour Concerts 15 years ago. The organization thrived under her leadership, touching countless Chicagoans through live concerts and radio broadcasts. Now, it echoes the entire spectrum of her talents, not just as a superb musician, but as an educator, a connector of people and a real dreamer about what’s possible in an ideal world. One of the many reasons I wish she were still with us is because I know how many ideas she had that were still to be explored.”
Under Ms. Sobol’s direction, the Rush Hour Concerts two years ago established Make Music Chicago: a free, citywide festival that “embraces music of every style and musicians of all ages and abilities.” This program was inspired by France’s “Fête de la Musique,” also known as World Music Day, an annual festival that takes place on June 21. Its mission to promote the performance of music in public spaces for free, no matter the ability level of the musicians, is what initially inspired Make Music Chicago. In its inaugural year, Chicago joined over 460 cities in 110 countries in this daylong celebration.
In a statement to Chicago Tonight, Ms. Sobol described the inspiration behind the program: “We launched Make Music Chicago in 2011, knowing that we wanted to join in this international day of music-making. The enthusiasm that radiated from the whole city was palpable. Everyone taking part knew that they were part of something larger than themselves – they’re joining people all over the world in making music.”
Rush Hour Concerts has touched so many lives in the city of Chicago, and Ms. Sobol’s vision of building communities through music in a free, live venue has been realized. In June 2013, Ms. Sobol herself wrote an article for the Chicago Sun-Times in which she described the inspiration behind the program.
She frequently collaborated with the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and regularly engaged them on the Rush Hour Concert series. Frank Villella, archivist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a member of Rush Hour Concerts’ Board of Directors, remembers Deborah’s work: “Debbie’s contributions to the Chicago classical music scene are truly immeasurable, and she tirelessly worked to achieve her goal that live music should be easily and readily accessible, and — whenever possible — free. She will be missed by all of us as a gifted musician, a beloved colleague, and a dear friend.”
As an educator and a devotee to arts education advocacy, Ms. Sobol has held faculty posts in piano and chamber music at numerous institutions, including the Longy School of Music of Bard College, Northwestern University School of Music and the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. During her time at each institution, Ms. Sobol was dedicated to not only educating her students in the fundamentals of music, but also preparing them for starting careers in music in the 21st century. She was dedicated to developing her students’ entrepreneurial skills, making sure that each of her students possessed the ability to fulfill the needs of their community through music.
Dr. Winston Choi, Head of Piano at CCPA, remembers the impact she had on students: “She was instrumental in shaping and re-shaping the lives of all the students she came in contact with. Students were profoundly touched by her incredible generosity in her teaching approach, her complete and utter devotion to the highest of musical ideals, while embracing the larger impact that music could have on society. She was courteous, engaged and supportive; I learned a tremendous amount from her.”
The city of Chicago has suffered a great loss, and it is without a doubt that Deborah Sobol will be greatly missed. She reached so many lives through music, and we at the Institute for Learning, Access and Training are deeply saddened by her passing. We hope that you will help us remember and honor such an outstanding woman, musician and educator.
The home of the Rush Hour Concert series, St. James Cathedral, at 65 E. Huron St, will be holding a public memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 31 in honor of Ms. Sobol.
St. James Cathedral also will present a live memorial concert at 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 31. WFMT will air a special live broadcast of the performance, with a moment of silent tribute at 5:45 p.m.
Many of Deborah Sobol’s colleagues have provided statements honoring her memory. You can read them in full below:
“When I first saw Deborah Sobol teach a piano lesson, her global concept of music and music-making impressed me deeply, and I knew that she possessed the intellect, instincts, and sensibility of the true artist-teacher. This was in 2009, as part of the process by which we brought her onto the CCPA faculty. Deborah’s teaching was both exacting and encouraging. She worked painstakingly to help the student see the big picture, first to understand and articulate in words the specific expressive qualities and musical unfolding of the piece being presented, and then systematically focusing upon every detail in the score until the student was able control and coordinate all aspects of the phrase, and could communicate a compelling musical thought. Deborah was not satisfied until the student understood fully what she was being asked to do, and could execute it in such a manner that she could hear and feel the change in her own playing. Deborah’s vision of the music world was equally broad and deep. Her dedication to each student’s development as a whole person, to their spiritual growth as well as their technical and musical achievements, set her apart. Helping students conceive of musical activity within a very broad social and cultural context was her specialty, and she helped them grow into capable and confident citizen-musicians. Deborah’s work at our school was mainly with the piano and chamber music programs, and it is my great sorrow that we were not given enough time with her to share her influence, her amazing musical mind, and her activism to each and every student. Deborah was an inspiration to us all, and it is my privilege to have been able to call her my colleague.” — Linda Berna, associate dean and director of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University
“The news of Deborah Sobol’s passing was an incredible shock with an undertow of sadness that will remain with all of us at The Chicago Chamber Musicians for a very long time. As a Co-Founder of CCM, Debbie generously shared her passion for music, vision, camaraderie and leadership skills with everyone to create and nurture the special entity that CCM has become. Having just joined CCM in 2012, I was more acquainted with Debbie through her work in the community with the Rush Hour Concerts and collaborative activities that she participated in with us at Sherwood Conservatory of Music, when I was executive director there. With an enormous heart and artistic conviction, she created programs that single- handedly introduced thousands to the power and joy of music. This is a great loss for Chicago.
CCM Life Director, Louise Smith, who worked closely with Debbie in the earliest days of CCM and beyond, commented to me that, “Debbie’s extraordinary vision and leadership in creating and shepherding CCM’s mission and growth led her to serve in every possible capacity from co-founder to board member, artistic director, executive director and performer. Her profound love of music, particularly Schubert, and artistry as a pianist energized everything she did. Because of Debbie’s commitment to the community, CCM developed programs beyond the concert series, finding ways for the ensemble to take its performances into nursing homes, schools and other community venues. She was a true renaissance woman and will be deeply missed.” — Kathleen Butera, executive director of the Chicago Chamber Musicians
“Debbie was brought on to join the Artist-Faculty at CCPA in 2009. In conversation with her and her students through the years, as well as sitting on jury panels and competition committees together, I have witnessed her tremendous expertise up close.
Not only was she an intellectually stimulating pedagogue, an incredibly rich musician able to connect to the most subtle of emotions, but she was also a visionary that helped to redefine the classical music world as we know it. She was instrumental in shaping and re-shaping the lives of all the students she came in contact with, in private piano lessons, chamber music coachings, or duo piano coachings. Students were profoundly touched by her incredible generosity in her teaching approach, her complete and utter devotion to the highest of musical ideals, while embracing the larger impact that music could have on society. As a colleague, she was courteous, engaged and supportive; I learned a tremendous amount from her, and all of my conversations with her have made a tremendous impact on me personally, as well as how I see the future of our piano program developing. She will be deeply missed by all of us from the CCPA Piano Program.” — Winston Choi, head of piano instruction of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University
“I performed with Debbie Sobol in countless CCM chamber music concerts over the past 25 years. She was a wonderful collaborator. Her tone on the piano was warm and round, never percussive. She was the heart and soul of CCM, a founding member. Her dedication to community outreach and education was extraordinary. She gave so much to the arts in Chicago and will be dearly missed by all who knew her, and by all who had the privilege to make music with her.” — Michael Henoch, oboist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and member of the Chicago Chamber Musicians
“Deborah Sobol was the soul of The Chicago Chamber Musicians, artistically, philosophically and practically. She made things happen. She followed through. A true visionary. We played many recitals together.” – Michael Mulcahy, trombonist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
“Everything Debbie did in her life reflected a rare conviction in the power of music and culture to change society. Chicago is extraordinarily lucky that she happened to live here, and that her energies were spent on us. Her steadfast belief that great live music should be free and available to everyone led her to found Rush Hour Concerts fifteen years ago. The organization thrived under her leadership, touching countless Chicagoans through live concerts and radio broadcasts. Now, it echoes the entire spectrum of her talents, not just as a superb musician, but as an educator, a connector of people and a real dreamer about what’s possible in an ideal world. One of the many reasons I wish she were still with us is because I know how many ideas she had that were still to be explored.” — Brant Taylor, cellist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
“Debbie’s contributions to the Chicago classical music scene are truly immeasurable, and she tirelessly worked to achieve her goal that live music should be easily and readily accessible, and—whenever possible—free. She will be missed by all of us as a gifted musician, a beloved colleague, and a dear friend.” — Frank Villella, archivist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and a member of Rush Hour Concerts board of directors