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She’s the Spark They Wanted

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

From an early age, Rachael Worby saw herself as an “agent of change,” someone destined to make a difference.

“I was popular, smart, focused, politically astute, a leader, a voracious reader and a social activist,” an amiable Worby recalls of her high school years. In a tone more direct than arrogant, she adds: “I was very full of self-worth.”

Nowadays, she’s channeling that drive into the classical music world, which is taking note of her talent. The new music director of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra is already putting her mark on the 71-year-old institution, as she has on the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in West Virginia, where she’s conducted for the past 14 years.

There, Worby boosted the subscriber base, expanded the performance schedule and turned a solid small-town orchestra into a strong regional band. Soon after she arrived, the Big Apple dynamo married the then-governor of West Virginia, an eight-year union that bolstered her profile--and embroiled her in controversy.

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Listeners can sample the Worby touch on Saturday, when the Pops perform “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with the all-female Cherish the Ladies troupe. The move West is a homecoming of sorts for the 51-year-old who--as a ponytailed ingenue--served as assistant conductor for Youth Concerts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1984 to 1987.

“Rachael had a knack for communicating but was very raw, in need of conducting experience,” said Ernest Fleischmann, former executive director and general manager of the Philharmonic. “In the last 15 years, she’s grown tremendously, demonstrating to the world that she’s a musician, first and foremost.”

Maneuvering in an arena wedded to testosterone and tradition contributed to the challenge. For a long time, Worby was pegged as a “children’s concert” conductor. And, early in her career, the trumpet section of an orchestra she refuses to identify walked out when she stepped to the podium.

“My father called me the Jackie Robinson of women conductors,” she says, digging into a Caesar salad and a side of fries in a Pasadena restaurant. “But the gender balance in the classical world has changed much less radically than the color of faces on a baseball team.”

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Worby is out to change the face of the Pasadena Pops, and told the group as much. Not only would she increase the size of the audience, she informed the board during the hiring process, she’d change its complexion, as well.

“Rachael’s vision coincided with ours,” says Tom Leddy, president of the Pops board. “We wanted to broaden our constituency, turning the orchestra into one of the top attractions in Southern California instead of its best-kept secret. Rachael projects a rare informality and availability onstage. She’s great at public speaking and lining up corporate sponsors. The buzz is out that she’s very special, and subscriptions, as a result, are up.”

Worby’s commitment to breaking down the wall between audience and orchestra makes Pops a perfect fit. The 5-foot-2 firebrand not only engages the crowd, but becomes an integral part of it. At a free Pops concert at City Hall, she roamed the aisles wearing a wireless mike and later autographed event T-shirts. And at her July 1 performance, Worby prompted one woman--and eventually the entire audience--to join her in a spur-of-the-moment recitation of the Preamble to the Constitution.

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In choosing not to walk the straight and narrow, she says, she’s reinforcing a classical music trend.

“During the past decade, lives have been more agile, passion more at the fore than in the days of Toscanini and [George] Szell,” she says. “There are more vibrant, charismatic people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas on the scene.

“Two of my models are Janis Joplin and the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, women who gave each moment everything they had,” she continues, standing up and flinging her arms to the side. “Then, of course, there was Leonard Bernstein, who was, I suppose, my first crush.”

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Susan Beth Worby wanted to be Bernstein, when growing up in suburban Nyack, N.Y. She started piano lessons at the age of 5 and began attending the legendary conductor’s Carnegie Hall Young People’s Concerts three years later. In setting her sights on directing an orchestra, she--like her idol--was flouting convention.

“Bernstein was young, articulate, funny and brilliant--someone who’d teach me about ‘Peter and the Wolf’ at Carnegie during the day and ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’ on ‘Omnibus’ at night,” she recalls. “Then I saw ‘West Side Story’ and got involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam struggles--and, again, there he was. The older I got, the more of an octopus he became.”

Worby credits her discipline to her mother, Diana, now an English professor at Empire State College who made her practice piano daily. Salesmanship skills were passed down by her father, Louis, who owned a hardware-houseware manufacturing firm. When it came to dreams, however, the youngster was on her own. Given their Depression mentality and the climate of the times, her parents advised her to go into teaching.

In the early 1970s, Susan Beth started calling herself Rachael. (“It was a name I’d always loved,” she says, “and I decided to make it my own.”) She received a bachelor of arts degree in piano performance from the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York at Potsdam before embarking on graduate work in musicology, at Indiana University and Brandeis.

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Unfulfilled by academia, Worby planted herself on the doorstep of conducting teacher Jacques-Louis Monod. Though he didn’t subscribe to her feminist aspirations, Monod took her on as a student from 1976 to 1981. Once a week, she made the trek to New York from Boston, where she was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music and M.I.T. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Manhattan, where she furthered her studies under Max Rudolf and Otto Werner-Mueller.

“I loved the idea that conducting allows you to make music with a large community of musicians,” she says. “But I’ve learned that that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the part the public sees. Much of the job is very isolating--studying scores for the moment of that downbeat.”

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In 1982, after brief stints as music director of two small New England orchestras, Worby landed in Spokane, Wash., as a conducting assistant at the city’s symphony. Two years later, she started the L.A. Philharmonic job and--to her amazement--a 12-year run in Bernstein’s former post: music director of the Carnegie Hall youth series. In 1986, Worby married then-screenwriter-producer David Obst (whom she divorced in 1990) and landed the Wheeling slot that put her--and the orchestra--on the map.

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During her tenure, subscriptions to the Wheeling orchestra rose from 500 to 1,200 and the budget went from $250,000 to $1.5 million. Annual concerts, including touring, increased from six to 40. Worby also launched a Pops series that regularly sold out and put together the orchestra’s first CD.

“Rachael turned us into a professional institution,” says Susan Hogan, executive director of the Wheeling Symphony. “She’s able to shift from one side of the brain to another and can tell you how much each company has contributed for the past 10 years. Of course, she had to fight, being a female conductor--and a Jewish urban woman--in a town with a heavy union atmosphere and old money. But art and harmony through conflict . . . that’s life.”

Life grew considerably more complicated in May 1990, when Worby became the wife of Gov. Gaston Caperton--and first lady of West Virginia. While maintaining full-time conducting duties, she used the office as a bully pulpit, pushing for support of the arts and other issues she embraced. Her popular Arts and Letters series featured such notables as Harry Belafonte, Eugenia Zukerman and Carl Sagan. Arts education was expanded in the schools. She also raised $1 million for her literacy campaign, which was tarnished when a well-meaning statement she made about the inability of locals to read food labels was perceived as patronizing.

“Though people came to appreciate her, there were a lot of press attacks,” Hogan says. “Just like Hillary, she wasn’t your stay-at-home, tea-party first lady. Rachael maintained a sense of dignity, but I’m sure it was terribly lonely.”

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In 1995, the flames were fanned by the publication of “Divided Lives,” a book written by former Washington Post reporter Elsa Walsh. Worby, one of three women profiled, complained about life in West Virginia and revealed intimate details about her sex life.

“ ‘Divided Lives’ was written under extremely unusual circumstances,” Worby insists. “It didn’t represent who I was then and it doesn’t represent who I am now. That’s all I have to say.”

While she is reluctant to elaborate further, she does address the trials of living in the governor’s mansion.

“I was naive and ill-prepared for the bright, white light shined on politicians and their spouses,” concedes Worby, whose marriage to Caperton ended in 1998. “Gaston said that his detractors knew the easiest way to hurt him was to criticize me--not his tax plan.”

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If some classical music aficionados view “Pops” as lowbrow entertainment, Worby rebuts that notion. All great music is created equal, she maintains. Her taste has always ranged from Shostakovich and Mahler to Miriam Makeba, “Finian’s Rainbow” and Thelonious Monk.

In her first season replacing former Pops music director Lucas Richman, Worby has planned programs featuring “West Side Story” (Aug. 26) and French classical music (Sept. 16). She’s also planning a winter holiday concert and hopes, eventually, to perform year-round. Community outreach, always her strong suit, has taken her from the Optimists Club to Pasadena High School, whose band participated in the June 17 City Hall concert attended by more than 4,000 people.

“Along with the Rose Bowl, the Pops should be one of the top two reasons to come to Pasadena,” Worby says. “If I build it, they will come.”

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Audience surveys have shown Worby to be the most popular guest conductor of the recent past, says Pops Executive Director Janet Wells. And she’s off to a strong start in 2000.

“It managed to hold the audience enraptured . . . and may prove to be the defining moment of Worby’s tenure,” said Pasadena Star-News’ reviewer Paul Anderson of Aaron Jay Kernis’ demanding “Musica Celestis,” played at the July 1 event.

Worby now divides her time among Pasadena, Wheeling and New York City, still fitting in more than 50 speaking engagements a year--and a daily five-mile run. She’s also a popular guest conductor in countries such as Germany, Romania, England and Brazil and, closer to home, cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Detroit.

The conductor has yet another focus: a 17-month-old daughter. After a 1998 benefit concert in Bogota, Worby vowed to place 1,000 of the orphaned and disadvantaged children with families back in the States. Though political complications thwarted that plan, a new one emerged. If she couldn’t save a nation, she’d settle for changing one life. She completed the adoption of her only child, Diana, in February.

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Juggling so many balls in the air, she says, is a collective proposition--particularly when it comes to child-rearing. “I don’t think of myself as a single mother,” she says. “There’s a huge community helping me--not just a ‘village’ but a nation-state.”

Assigning priorities is critical, Worby says. Though she hasn’t given up on lofty career aspirations, for now she’s simply on an “evangelical mission”: bringing quality music to the masses.

“I believe I’ll get where I’m going--and I’m trying not to project,” Worby says. “It’s not that I’m less ambitious. I just have less time on my hands.”

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Rachael Worby will conduct “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” an evening of Irish music featuring Cherish the Ladies, on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Can~ada-Flintridge. Tickets: $15-45. (626) 792-7677.


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