John von Rhein
5:22 PM EST, December 27, 2012
George Lepauw lives his life according to a precept he picked up as a very young child studying piano with Aida Barenboim, mother of former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, in his native Paris.
"I would be playing, and she would surprise me by lifting my arms up," he recalls. "And if they went right up, she knew I wasn't putting enough weight in them. That really shaped my whole conception of musical sound, but also my conception of life — because to do anything right and well, you have to be convinced of what you're doing, and you have to do it all the way."
Absolute conviction, thinking big and a determination to turn his idealistic vision into something new, daring and important for the cultural life of Chicago are the forces that drive Lepauw. They help to explain why 2012 was a banner year for the 32-year-old Chicago-based pianist and arts administrator, and why the second annual edition of his brainchild, the Beethoven Festival, helped to raise Chicago's profile as an international center of the arts.
With Lepauw heading an administrative team consisting of dozens of people equally committed to making the event a success, "Revolution 2012," as this year's megablast of Beethoven was called, brought participants from nearly a dozen nations to take part in 60 events scattered over six venues throughout the city. For nine days in September, Chicago became Beethoven Central. It's the kind of colossal challenge Lepauw relishes.
While the artistic director praises the hard work of everybody on his team, the fact remains that it was his idealism and determination that created the annual Beethoven Festival and is moving it forward.
Even operating on a modest budget (about $300,000) that limited his ability to publicize the festival, this year's event succeeded in attracting an audience more than twice the size of the first Beethoven fest in 2011. And fully 40 percent of those listeners were new attendees, some coming from as far away as Europe, according to Lepauw.
Many artists agreed to reduce or donate their fees so they might take part in the festival. Such are Lepauw's powers of persuasion that performers the Chicago public would not have gotten a chance to hear otherwise — including composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, composer Mikolaj Gorecki, pianist HJ Lim, violinists James Ehnes and Rachel Kolly d'Alba and clarinetist Julian Bliss — graced this year's roster.
"Beethoven's music can be a creative platform for explorations of our humanity that go way beyond that music and beyond Beethoven," says Lepauw, who also serves as president and artistic director of the International Beethoven Project, a Chicago-based, not-for-profit organization. "Beethoven respected tradition but he also had this desire to break new ground, sometimes in a consciously shocking way. These elements were what the festival was all about this year."
Lepauw's mission to bring old Ludwig into the 21st century did not stop there this year.
In April, he became the first pianist to play on a specially-built Yamaha Disklavier concert grand piano equipped with technology that allowed his performance of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with the Northbrook Symphony to be broadcast live around the world. Other Yamaha-equipped pianos, including instruments at the company's headquarters in Japan that were tuned in to the concert, were duplicating Lepauw's key strokes in real time, complete with video streaming and audio pickup of the orchestra.
There was more. Last fall the pianist took center stage at Chicago's TimeLine Theater, where he played excerpts from Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations in nightly performances of Moises Kaufman's play "33 Variations." Although the six-week gig overlapped with his duties at the Beethoven festival, he says he wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to present the master's music to an entirely different audience.
"I learned so much working with the cast and crew," Lepauw says. "The experience was very inspiring to me as a musician and gave me a renewed faith in the performing arts in general."
Without hesitation the pianist declares that "the 21st century will be Chicago's century" and that its cultural richness and diversity is a significant reason why. "I really believe in the power of culture to positively affect the fabric of the city going forward."
The man who believes in doing things all the way has chosen the right city in which to realize his lofty ambitions. And he knows it.
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