Lambert Orkis is one of the most respected American pianists, particularly in the fields of chamber music and accompaniment, and as a proponent of modern piano music. He studied with Eleanor Sokoloff at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After obtaining his degree there, he went on to obtain a master's degree from the Esther Boyer College of Music of Temple University (also in Philadelphia), where his teacher was Maryan Filar. He joined the Philadelphia Chamber Soloists, the Penn Contemporary Players of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Twentieth-Century Consort in Washington, D.C. Another early musical association was with the Temple University Music Festival and Institute, and he has maintained a recital partnership since those days of the early 1970s with cellist Barbara Haffner, a fellow member of the Philadelphia Chamber Soloists. He has been a member of piano faculty of the Boyer College of Temple University since 1968. As a teacher he stresses the teaching of modern repertory to his students and concentrates on chamber music performance.
Early in his career, Orkis was the chosen accompanist of legendary American soprano Eleanor Steber when that former star made her successful comeback concert and established a second career. Since Steber was especially interested in American art song and opera, he found himself developing a major interest in new American music, which led to his commissioning many new works from major composers. A very partial list of such compositions includes Richard Wernick's Piano Concerto, George Crumb's A Little Suite for Christmas, and works by James Primosch and Maurice Wright.
In the late '70s he served as pianist in a master class conducted by members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., of which famed cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich was then music director. Rostropovich was so taken with Orkis' playing that he invited the pianist to become his recital pianist and created the position of principal keyboard player of the orchestra for him. In the latter capacity Orkis plays piano, celesta, harpsichord, and synthesizer. He found that there was a difference between playing as part of the general lush orchestral sonority and of playing as a concerto soloist in front of an orchestra. Calling it a "thrilling experience," he said he is challenged by the different skills such a position requires when compared to solo or chamber music work and says it "...helps me maintain razor-sharp listening and flexible reaction abilities." He retained that position when Leonard Slatkin succeeded Rostropovich as music director.
As Rostropovich's partner, the two played in the U.S. and Asia, including performances before presidents Reagan, George Bush, and Clinton, King Hussein of Jordan, Emperor Akahito of Japan, and President Gandhi of India. In 1988, Orkis also formed a performance partnership with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, which he called "a pinnacle of my professional life and a continual source of artistic fulfillment." With her he has also performed before major world leaders, including the presidents of France and Germany, the Queen of Spain, and the King and Queen of Sweden. In 1998, the two gave 85 performances, playing all ten Beethoven violin sonatas exclusively, then recorded the cycle in live concerts in Wiesbaden, Germany. This Deutsche Grammophon recording won the NPR Performance Today Critics' Choice Award.
He is also a member of the Castle Trio, a major chamber group associated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, playing on instruments from the Smithsonian collection that are appropriate to the era of the music and has recorded on fortepianos.