Sunday evening, purple nightclub lighting escapes the doorway of a former garage on Waverly St. Black-clad event staff scan tickets. The house is packed. Maestra Rachael Worby announces the theme for the evening: shoes. As in, walking a mile in someone else’s. She introduces the first singer, who belts out the opening notes to “Footloose” and the full band—replete with pedal-steel guitar and a huge acoustic bass—kicks in with a vengeance.
For the next hour, the audience rocks and sings along. Blues, bluegrass, rock, even a Sandra Boynton (with B.B. King) woe about a lost sneaker. A tap dancer stomps to “Mr. Bojangles.” Everyone including the Maestra joins in on the finale, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
From one angle, everything about Pasadena’s nonprofit MUSE/IQUE, now in its eighth year, is loose-jointed, audience-friendly and has groove. From another, every event is sharply focused and staged, months in the planning. The “house band” musicians daylight at the LA Phil or the LA Opera, do John Williams recordings and other movie soundtracks, lead acclaimed jazz and chamber ensembles.
Rachael Worby, is a groundbreaking conductor who’s led orchestras from San Francisco to Carnegie Hall to the Pasadena Pops, with a famously productive mid-career stretch at the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in West Virginia. She works with top artists in so many genres of music and dance the list is nearly blinding. Worby is only the second woman ever hired to lead a symphony as its music director, and probably the only major classical conductor to date who’s ever sung in her own rock band.
She says it all started with her upbringing in Nyack, NY in the 1950s. “My parents were social activists—they marched in Selma; they marched in Washington against the bomb. They started a Brotherhood Festival in Nyack with Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and presented Paul Robeson who sang “Deep River.” Our Passover Seders were filled with what were then called “Negro” spirituals, and stories from all peoples of the globe about slavery and freedom and redemption. My notion was that be Jewish, was to be social conscious, fight for human rights and work tirelessly for social justice.”
On television she found a role model who embodied all this and more. “When I was a child, I wanted to be Leonard Bernstein. Not like him, but actually HIM. Bernstein would step right into the camera and say, ‘Let me show you the secret of Beethoven’s Fifth,’ and there he was in your living room and he was so heimische and so accessible. I thought, he’s cool, he’s involved with music, he plays Bach, I play Bach which I think is the least cool thing in the world to do, but look, he transcended the uncoolness and made it cool. And he was Jewish. And he was American, so he wasn’t Toscanini or Klemperer or Furtwängler. He was the first American to become a music director of a major symphony orchestra anywhere in the world.”
Where he led there was no clear path for women to follow. “If you take the child’s voice and the hero worship out of it, you find yourself as Rachael Worby in high school, in college, continuing to be a pianist, practicing endless hours by day and by night singing lead in a rock band and then going off to graduate school majoring in piano at Indiana U. At some point I realized I was going to need a more expansive life than that of a pianist—it’s so lonely.” She moved to Brandeis for a PhD in musicology, but also studied privately with the conductor Jacques-Louis Monod for five years—even though he insisted that as a woman she would never make it.
“Once Janis Joplin started throwing back her head and all-out ‘WAAAAAAHH’ and wailing—suddenly there was this window for women. Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Carole King—these women were fronting bands. Everybody behind them was a guy but there they were.”
But not in classical music, where Worby was nearly the only woman training as a conductor. She kept going anyway. “I think that’s largely a part of this extraordinary upbringing I had as a young Jewish woman, to speak for myself and stand up for what was right.”
Monod had been wrong about her getting hired—and right about old-fashioned attitudes. “At the time, when you stepped on the podium, everything about you was wrong. The way you looked was indicative of how little you must know, because that’s what people assumed about women in those years. I was ridiculously prepared; I knew every note everybody was supposed to play. But that didn’t mean they would play it for me—at the beginning.”
Worby used musicology as a shield. “So when someone demanded, ‘We’ve never played this movement of this Beethoven symphony so fast, why are you taking it so fast?’ I could say, ‘You know, in a letter Beethoven wrote to his publisher, he explained his metronome markings and what they meant, so actually, this is Beethoven’s chosen tempo.’ ”
She was assigned more youth concerts than adult ones, something she says women conductors still face too often, but she rose with it and changed the paradigm.
“Music Directors do not generally conduct concert events for young audiences,” she explains. “An assistant conductor takes on those responsibilities. As it turned out I had a real knack. Ernest Fleischmann, CEO of the LA Phil heard about these very cool young people’s concerts I was leading in various cities and asked if I’d come to Los Angeles to do one.” It quickly snowballed. “For many years I had the privilege of writing, producing and leading the LA Philharmonic for all their family concerts, young people’s concerts, and special events. These years were so rich. We created a series of concerts with Frank Gehry as the guest artist. it was extraordinary. A few years later, Seymour Rosen, CEO at Carnegie Hall, met with me and posed the question, ‘Why don’t you come out and take Lennie’s job at Carnegie Hall?’ For a dozen years I had the same job as Leonard Bernstein, except rather than children and their parents, Carnegie Hall was now filled with fifth- and sixth-graders from the five boroughs… It was amazing! I was making a living as a conductor, working endless weeks a year, changing lives all the time.”
Eventually, she took an offer to lead an orchestra. “The second orchestra in the world to hire a woman music director was in West Virginia—in the world. I was a Jew, I was a woman, I was from New York. But West Virginia, they hired me, the board of directors of the Wheeling Symphony stood behind me from day one.”
She expanded their reach from 6 to 40 concerts a year. “We had week-long tours in the tri-state area and brought music to everyone—college campuses, baseball fields, coal mining towns. From people who had no money, no notion of what a live orchestra was to people who had subscriptions to the Pittsburgh Symphony. We played in their towns. People flocked to our events. I always spoke and explained and like Bernstein, allowed people to understand how music was made. I don’t like the words accessible or user-friendly, but sometimes there are no substitutes. I never stood up there in a tuxedo and bowed.” The revitalized orchestra attracted high-profile musicians and NEA grants and recorded two CDs.
After nearly two decades, Worby moved west to become music director of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra. As in Wheeling, she expanded with summer series concerts at Descanso Gardens, bringing the accessibility of young people’s concerts to adult audiences.
MUSE/IQUE combines nearly every influence in her musical life. “The orchestra world is a bit like Gulliver—it’s held down. I love blues, I’m steeped in it; I love jazz, I’m steeped in it, I love Sting, I love Paul Simon, I love Bach, I love Beethoven, I love theater music, I love film music. And I want permission to saturate people with all those musics.”
The artists she invites are similarly flexible. “MUSE/IQUE is like a giant kibbutz,” she says. Sometimes the small groups rehearse in her apartment. “We move the furniture, they all set up and we work like madmen. Sometime during that rehearsal process they start to speak to one another in earnest. ‘Oh man, right, Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, let’s do this’ …They talk to each other, they listen to my thoughts. You saw Michael Valerio [the bassist], he took over at the end of the show. He didn’t tell me about it in rehearsal-it was a magnificent surprise!”
MUSE/IQUE, itself a nonprofit organization, started in 2011, also brings more intimate monthly programs to 15 local non-profit organizations—women’s shelters, foster care facilities, an academy for the blind, facilities for children with special needs, and more. Last year they served 2200 people. Not only do members and sponsors see the worth, recipients who come to events recognize performers they’ve already met and their enthusiasm radiates.
“That’s a trick I learned at Carnegie Hall,” says Worby. “Before the concerts I would go with small ensembles to every single school. So when I walked out onstage, even though it was 2600 fifth graders, they hollered, ‘IT’S RACHAEL! SHE WAS IN OUR SCHOOL!’” She introduces herself to audiences table by table at events before going onstage for the same reason. And audiences have doubled.
“No one expects an arts organization to grow as we have, but I believe people want to be attached to each other. There’s only one direct route to empathy—through our imaginations. If you can’t imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, then you’re at a loss and our world is done for. MUSE/IQUE is a reflection of the Seder table from my childhood.”
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.