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Sporting a tuxedo jacket with tails, Bugs Bunny often has given a maniacal portrayal of a symphony conductor, seemingly inspired by the late Leonard Bernstein, whose conducting often reached fever pitch.

Many folks view musical conductors with that stereotypical image in their mind -- as though a conductor's only job is to wildly wave a baton at a gaggle of orchestra musicians.

Were baton waving all the job entailed, Kirk Muspratt would be a well-rested man.

The Canadian-born maestro of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra comfortably may wear many adjectives, but "well rested" is not among them.

The music director and conductor's demanding schedule keeps him hopping, often logging in 16- to 18-hour days while preparing for a concert performance.

Interviews with the wild-haired Muspratt over the years, have taken place all hours of the day and night -- in person, on the phone and via e-mail -- because he is so difficult to nail down in one spot.

Warming up to the region

Muspratt has become a local celebrity in the region, during the five seasons that have passed since the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra wooed him away from a conducting job in Pittsburgh, Penn.

"There were two incentives for me to come to the region," he explained. "The first was because it gave me the chance to work with some very wonderful musicians. And the second, taking this job brought me closer to Chicago, which is a major cultural hub in America."

Muspratt's accessibility and warmth immediately endeared him to area symphonic music fans.

"I believe in personal contact with people, so I try to make myself available as much as possible," he said. "We have interactive intermissions now, where the musicians, the chorus and I go out into the audience and say hello to our patrons and answer questions if they have them."

At every concert performance, a violin case is placed on the corner of the stage and Muspratt encourages fans to fill out his "Ask Kirk" cards.

Fans are welcome to ask questions about music, instruments, his career or any related subject.

"I answer every card that comes in, either by phone or by e-mail. I answer three questions every day, but if I find that I have extra time on some days, I answer more," he explained.

Just prior to speaking with The Times, Muspratt answered questions for the mother of a little boy wanting to play the trumpet. Before that, he had spoken on the phone to an 8-year-old girl and her mother, explaining for the child why there are no guitars in the orchestra and why it is better for a child to start musical training on piano than on guitar.

When one is not enough

Last year, Muspratt drew closer yet to Chicago, when he took the helm as music director/conductor for The New Philharmonic at the College of DuPage in the western Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn. In recent months, Muspratt also became artistic director of the DuPage Opera Theatre.

"These are professional musicians, not college students," stressed Muspratt of his musical charges in DuPage. "We actually have quite a few musicians from the Northwest Indiana Symphony that also play in the New Philharmonic. With the Opera, we put on two fully professional operas a year. We build sets, design costumes, we do the whole thing."

The opera company just wrapped up a 1930s version of "The Marriage of Figaro" and is gearing up for their July production of "Faust."

While his two new gigs aided in the burning of his candle at both ends, Muspratt stays busiest with the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra.

"We do eight major performances -- four Pops concerts and four classical concerts -- at the Star Plaza Theatre a year. Plus we do a variety of educational concerts at Star Plaza and at area schools; a couple of family concerts; and our series of free summer concerts in area parks," Muspratt said. "The Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra keeps really busy year-round."

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Aside from talent-related work that he is involved with as music director/conductor -- auditions, hiring special musical guests, matching room acoustics to musical pieces, scheduling and assembling the repertoire for each program -- Muspratt also is responsible for the business side of things. He must secure the performance rights of the various musical pieces, bring each production in on budget, assist in fund-raising projects, and do assorted other important duties.

Earning baton waving rights

From the cozy perspective of an audience seat, conducting may seem like a cheesecake job. Not the case. It has taken a lifetime of dedication, including 11 years of formal university study, for Muspratt to earn the right to wave his baton at Chicagoland's finest musicians.

"I've loved music for as long as I can remember," Muspratt said.

"Music was a major part of my world growing up, because I was raised in a tiny coal-mining village (in Alberta, Canada), surrounded by mountains. We were pretty much isolated from the rest of the world."

With no television available to them, Muspratt's village got their entertainment from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company). The healthy dose of classical music programming that came courtesy of the CBC, coupled with the scratchy 78 rpm records his friends' parents and grandparents would play, gave Muspratt an early appreciation of music.

"Our village had a lot of immigrants come after WWII to work. They brought their cultures and their music with them. So I grew up in this little haven full of ethnic folk music and classical music. Music was as much a part of growing up in my village as having chickens in the back yard, curing sausage in the kitchen and making your own wine," he said.

One of Muspratt's earliest childhood memories is crawling around the floor while listening to his older brother playing hymns on the piano.

"My first day of school, my mom took me to my first piano lesson. I was 6 years old."

Muspratt learned theory, counterpoint, harmony, form, analysis and history before he hit his teens. "Had I not grown up in the little village I did, I would be a million miles behind where I am right now," he said. "Believe me, I hated being 12 years old and going to my harmony teacher's house on Tuesday evenings at 6 o'clock, but I am grateful now that I was made to learn that stuff at a young age."

Muspratt eventually mastered not only the piano, but also trombone, tuba and other instruments. Like most teens, Muspratt embraced rock 'n' roll for a while.

"I was about 14 when I started playing and singing rock music with these guys who were in their early 20s. They worked in the coal mines during the day and would play their guitars at the bar on weekends for fun. They were like 'Hey that little Muspratt kid can play keyboards' and there I was playing cover songs in a bar. Those guys were mostly hacking around and I was an educated musician, so I could learn the songs off a record by ear and show them how to play it."

Muspratt put rock music behind him once he finished high school. After attending Juilliard for a few years, Muspratt transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia to complete his undergraduate studies. He then went abroad to study at the Music Conservatory in Vienna.

"Some things are just destined to be, I think," he said. "I had never thought about being a conductor until I was about 27 years old. I couldn't have cared less about conducting, because I was a pianist. All I wanted was to practice piano seven hours a day at that point. I had as much interest in conducting as bowling."

A graduate school conducting course kick started what eventually would become Muspratt's career.

"I had just planned to get my A and move on," he said. "Then suddenly, I found myself getting more and more interested in conducting."

While studying in Vienna during the mid-1980s, Muspratt's instructors at the conservatory recommended him for a position that had opened up at a small German opera house.

"I really wasn't too sure, but they kept telling me that I was more than ready to start working," he said of the day he was reluctantly pushed out of the nest and made to fly. "So I went to Germany and auditioned. I got the job."

A series of better jobs followed, bringing the young wild-haired conductor to a variety of venues and cities.

Although Muspratt presently calls Northwest Indiana home, his musical story is far, far from over.

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