Chicagoans slowed down for Rush Hour Concerts, thanks to Deborah Sobol, who founded the popular free summer series at downtown’s St. James Cathedral.
During a career that stretched more than 40 years, Ms. Sobol, a concert pianist, helped start the Chicago Chamber Musicians in 1986, a respected, Grammy-nominated ensemble. Instead of the more typical string quartet, it is a diverse group of bass, woodwind, piano and strings that draws some of the city’s finest classical players.
The Chicago Chamber Musicians, a group she worked on with longtime WFMT program director Norm Pellegrini, received glowing reviews. “They give free concerts, complete with grand piano, flowers and formal concert dress, several times a year in offbeat locations from the Lawson YMCA on West Chicago (Avenue) to Lambs Farm,” wrote Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, in a 1997 article.
Ms. Sobol also brought top musicians into city schools so the children could study with masters.
She died unexpectedly Saturday of natural causes, friends said, following a meeting at the Rush Hour Concerts office at 650 N. Dearborn. The Rogers Park resident was 63.
To her, music was the great equalizer. “It doesn’t recognize age, nationality, sexual orientation, race or economic status,” she said. “It needs only humanity to affirm its reason for being and serves us all.’’
“She liked taking people out of the humdrum, daily life, like when we are listening to great music,” said Brant Taylor, a cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who played with Rush Hour Concerts.
She discussed the rewards of bringing music to the masses in a story in the Chicago Sun-Times last year. “At one concert a few years ago, a young woman came up to me,” she said. “She’d just learned that she’d failed the medical board exams, and she was so distraught that she’d run into the nearest open church, which happened to be St. James Cathedral. She told me the music brought her back to herself, to the reality that she could take the exam again, this time with more experience,” she said.
“Then there’s the homeless man who comes neatly dressed every week, puts 15 cents into our donation box, and sits next to one of Chicago’s philanthropic icons, discussing ‘what we heard last week’ and ‘what we’ll hear next Tuesday.’ He leaves connected and dignified.”
Born in Larksville, Penn., she graduated magna cum laude from Smith College and continued her studies in Vienna and the Royal College of Music in London, said Beth Silverman, a spokesman for Rush Hour Concerts.
Those concerts, which Ms. Sobol started in 2000, grew from a 13-week summer program to “a year-round arts organization with three dynamic programs of world-class music-making . . . serving more than 560,000 people across Chicago annually,’’ Silverman said.
“Those are free concerts and her hope was people would wander in (to St. James Cathedral) because they’re curious, and become classical music lovers,” said Steve Robinson, general manager of WFMT-FM (98.7).
She was skilled at making connections. “If we did a concert of Austrian music, there might be a reception with the Austrian consul afterwards,” said Taylor. “ She was one of these stakeholders who developed these relationships. We collaborated with the Lyric Opera and they would send us singers every summer; the Poetry Foundation, combining spoken words and music.”
And, she organized arts residencies in poorer communities that allowed students to study with top musicians, Thomas Orlando, president of the board of Rush Hour Concerts, said in a statement.
‘‘She struck me as someone who is similar to Leonard Bernstein, a person who has so many ideas,” Taylor said. “She was a phenomenal pianist, a born teacher.”
“Teaching was always a huge part of her life,” Robinson said. “She started teaching, I think, when she was 13.”
Ms. Sobol offered private lessons and workshops in piano and chamber music with her company, Studio 1301, said Julie Hutchison, former managing director of Rush Hour Concerts. She also taught at Roosevelt and Northwestern universities.
She is survived by her husband, Dr. Rowland W. Chang; her son and daughter, Benjamin and Sarah; her mother, Rosemarie Sobol, and her sister, Suzanne Sobol Hagmeyer.
A memorial service is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday at St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron. A memorial concert, to be broadcast live on WFMT, is planned from 5 to 7 p.m. at the cathedral.