Chatting up the music

Times Staff Writer

RACHAEL WORBY, music director of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, is hardly alone among female orchestra leaders -- or, as Worby jokingly called them in a 2005 essay she wrote on the subject, “chicks with sticks.”

According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, of the approximately 350 professional orchestras in the U.S., about 50 have women as music directors or principal conductors. The most prominent among these maestras include Marin Alsop, director-designate of the Baltimore Symphony, and former Long Beach Symphony conductor JoAnn Falletta, now music director of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony.

Worby herself notes that women have become far less rare on the podium since she joined the Wheeling (W.Va.) Symphony Orchestra as music director in 1986. “There were fewer than 10,” she says. “Now, it’s almost a nonissue.”


But in 2006, it is not her presence as a woman on the podium but her style off the podium that serves to make Worby -- leader of the 19-year-old Pasadena group since 1999 -- stand out from the conductor crowd.

Angelenos who prefer music under the stars are probably familiar with the dry humor and chatty concert prologues of longtime Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conductor John Mauceri, who will give up that post in September at the end of his 16th season. Worby goes a step further by taking her act into the audience.

At a Friday night concert last weekend at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, the home of the Pasadena orchestra’s summer concert series, the Worby method was on full display.

The orchestra performs on a temporary stage in a glen surrounded by old oaks. At first glance, the area appears set up less for a concert than for a garden party, or perhaps a wedding.

Large tables covered with white cloths serve as the main seating area for about 2,000. You will meet your neighbor. You may even meet an orchestra board member who, after scanning the subscriber-heavy audience for new faces, drops by to offer a welcome.

You also might meet Worby, who that evening cruised the tables, greeting regulars with laughs and hugs, dressed in slim black slacks and practical flats that she would top onstage with an elegant knee-length, cream-colored coat.


Worby has been known to take a hand-held mike into an audience, emcee style; here, however, she was just a member of the family.

Onstage, her manner was equally low-key as she tossed out musical factoids during a performance that included such crowd-pleasing touches as a sound clip of the voice of Sean Connery’s James Bond before the “Goldfinger” theme.

John Hancock, executive director of the Pasadena Pops, says Worby’s approach seems to be working: The subscription series audience has doubled during her tenure. He also praises her for introducing a series of year-round educational programs to supplement the orchestra’s 12 to 16 concerts a year, of which eight make up the summer series.

“Rachael’s personal style of making concerts and telling stories has made friends far and wide for the Pasadena Pops Orchestra,” Hancock says of Worby, who is also music director of the American Music Festival in Cluj, Romania, where the late composer Gyorgy Ligeti began his musical studies, and who guest conducts around the world. “She is just a brilliant and attractive spokesman for the idea that music is fun.”


A personal touch

ON Tuesday, Worby and the Pops will play a bigger venue: the Rose Bowl, in a patriotic-themed concert with fireworks. Their guest artists will be actress-singer Cynthia Sikes, actress Holland Taylor (“Two and a Half Men”) and the 5 Browns, a quintet of twentysomething siblings from Utah who play five Steinway grand pianos simultaneously.

“I’m a connector,” Worby declared one recent morning, sitting under the trees in Descanso Gardens. “I make a very personal connection between myself and the audience. I am not interested in coming in from the wings.”


Petite, intense, stylish -- in her 50s, with a cascade of flowing brown hair -- Worby is not only a connector, she’s a toucher.

“I want to be with you, I want to be with you,” she said, using the second “you” as an opportunity to apply a firm grasp to a visitor’s forearm. “I want you to be with the music. I want you to feel, by me, personally attached to the music.”

At her Descanso Gardens concerts, she said, “I have 2,000 ‘yous.’ I go back out because I see them, and I want them to see me. I want them to see me. If they have a child, I talk to the child. If they have an older parent, they introduce me. Ten nuns come -- I Eskimo-nose with them. I’m not a dark personality with my back to them.”

There was no obvious nun-nuzzling on that Friday night, but the crowd did see her. Whether in an outdoor garden or a concert hall, Worby believes that today’s audiences require something more from any orchestra conductor than a view from behind.

“People have lost the ability to connect with live music,” she said. “It has seemed to me for quite a while that people are grasping for something else, and that something else is what I think I am providing.”

But you -- you -- should not get so caught up in the touchy-feely that you don’t listen to the music. Don’t forget that the program featured not only singer Andrea Marcovicci performing Cole Porter songs but Verdi’s overture to “La Forza del Destino,” Mascagni’s Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C (with a program note pointing out that it was featured in the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer”).


“My personal philosophy is that I want evenings spent with me, or afternoons spent with me, to be memorable,” Worby asserted. “I would be heartbroken to think that people who hear a concert would be sitting across from each other two weeks later at the breakfast table, saying: ‘What did they play again?’ Come away with something.”


‘A force field’

ONE of Tuesday’s Rose Bowl guests, actress Taylor, got to know Worby socially at a Hollywood Bowl concert last summer and has seen the conductor in action at Descanso Gardens.

“She’s a one-off -- there is nobody quite like her, and I guess that’s what we always want from an orchestra leader,” Taylor says. “You want them to be a force field, and she is that.”

Though Worby interacts with her audience, Taylor adds, “she is separate in that she is this towering talent. She may mingle with us, but she ain’t one of us. She’s not Everygal -- she deigns to walk among us.”

Born in Nyack, N.Y., Worby holds a bachelor’s in piano performance from the State University of New York at Potsdam and did doctoral work in musicology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She changed her name from Susan to Rachael in the late 1970s.

Perched on a low wall in Descanso’s shady Japanese Garden, through which chattering groups of elementary-school-aged children occasionally passed on guided tours, she said that, despite her current association with a more eclectic approach to programming, “at my heart and my core, I am a classical musician. I began studying Bach and Mozart at 5.”

Still, her early influences hailed from all walks of music. The first was Leonard Bernstein. Later came folk singer Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, jazz vocalist Nina Simone and rocker Janis Joplin.


“They really took music so personally. They were music, the way I am music,” Worby said -- evoking Simone or Joplin not so much as Barry Manilow, who staked a prior claim in his 1975 hit “I Write the Songs.”

By this point, Worby had leapt to her feet, oblivious of the effect on passersby. And the sincerity of her declaration prevailed over the slight absurdity of the moment.

“Janis Joplin was music,” she continued, passing the baton. “She was reckless, but she wasn’t reckless about delivering the song. I’ve seen her during sound checks, delivering like she was behind the footlights of Carnegie Hall.”


Tending to state business

BUT then, Worby has never been one to care if people turn and stare. Her Wheeling Symphony position, which ended in 2003, ran concurrently not only with her leadership of the Pasadena Pops but also with another important job: In 1990, she became first lady of West Virginia, having married Gaston Caperton, the state’s governor from 1989 to 1997. The two have since divorced.

During that period, snipers in the media portrayed her as an unhappy New York artiste, trapped in the conservative South.

The same image dominates in a 1995 book by Elsa Walsh, “Divided Lives,” that focuses on the intimate lives of three prominent women: TV personality Meredith Vieira, surgeon Alison Estabrook and Worby. Besides offering somewhat too much information on the sex life of the gubernatorial couple, the book details how pollsters at the time asked the public whether Worby had erred by not taking her then-husband’s name.

Worby, who now lives in Pasadena with her 7-year-old daughter, insists she enjoyed the spotlight that came with being a first lady. She ticked off the many social and educational programs she was able to introduce, including a statewide adult literacy initiative and free mammograms for underinsured women.


“Do you want my cellphone number? It still starts with 304,” she exclaimed. “I was actually thrilled to have the podium to bring some of my deepest sensibilities to the state of West Virginia. I was profoundly supported by the people and the Legislature and the governor. I love West Virginia.” (She remains conductor laureate of the Wheeling band.)

Still, she added carefully, “I was the governor’s second wife.” The first “had been married to him for a long time, and she was a different kind of person. She was born and raised in West Virginia, she had been a Miss West Virginia.

“There was a columnist who wrote a story about his father giving him a BB gun to shoot sparrows, those little brown birds. And the first day he had the gun, he saw this bright yellow bird, and he took aim, and he killed it. His father said to him: ‘Why did you do that?’

“That piece was about me. It was about the reaction that one has when one wants to take away the thing that’s different. And I think at first, I was different enough.”

Though there are more female conductors now, she said, “you superimpose that on first ladies and you’ll find that in the history of time, there will not have been a first lady who was a conductor. Doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, librarians -- extraordinary women all. But conductors?”

Worby still seems to cultivate her difference from the formal image of the orchestra leader. Photos on her website, which she says she included on the advice of friends and colleagues, show her wearing a solemn black pantsuit but barefoot -- in motion, arms outstretched and long hair flying.


Speaking of raising her profile, how would she feel about being considered to succeed Mauceri at the Hollywood Bowl?

“It’s a great orchestra. Who would not want to conduct it?” she said. “If the Hollywood Bowl is interested in the approach that I have come to believe in, nothing would make me happier than to work with those musicians.”

For Worby, there are no rules except to connect good music with an audience.

“The only thing that would be a ‘shouldn’t’ is that I shouldn’t ever not know every single note of the piece that I am conducting,” she said. She put a hand to her chest.

“All this that I talk about is from Rachael Central here, which is about music. I am about music. And wanting to make music for as many people as possible.”


Pasadena Pops

Where: Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena

When: 6:45 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $10; children 5 and under, free

Contact: (213) 480-3232 or