The Valley Line: Music and nanomechanics

My goodness we are already into the dog days of summer, having experienced some sizzling days of triple-digit thermometer readings. However, unlike residents of the East Coast, we are blessed with cool nights.

No, we don’t have those magical lightning bugs to enchant us so we won’t complain about how hot the night is. But in their place, I will accept an occasional mosquito bite and a heavenly cool breeze after the sun sets every summer night.

These are busy times in and around our community and we certainly do enjoy our outdoor summer-evening concerts.

It was a lovely evening recently (after an extremely hot day) when Rachael Worby and her newly-formed orchestra, Muse/ique, presented its inaugural concert on the Caltech campus. The concert, set in the lovely olive grove near Beckman Auditorium, found guests dressed in chic California casual attire settled in with their picnic baskets at tables covered with pink and purple cloths.

It was certainly the hottest ticket in town, as more than 1,000 concert-goers came to see the magic that Worby, who was conductor of Pasadena Pops for more than a decade, would be creating.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory was well represented, with two tables of scientists and support staff. JPL Director Charles Elachi was out of town, but he made certain that those tables were filled.

Worby didn’t disappoint. She presented a mix of nontraditional music fare. The evening’s program was a kaleidoscope of different sounds, rhythms and words.

The evening began with the magnificent voice of the grande dame of opera, Jessye Norman, who emerged, almost as a goddess vision, from the olive trees. Her powerful voice, singing Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” reverberated from the surrounding buildings and filled the Beckman Mall with a richness that was breathtaking.

At the age of 66, after a spectacular career singing on the great opera stages of the world, Norman has reinvented herself and her music as she embraces the music of American composers such as Ellington, Gershwin and Bernstein. A pin drop could have been heard when she sang the beautiful, “Summertime,” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Norman movingly returned to her early Georgia roots when she sang a cappella three soulful spirituals. Another emotionally-charged time came when she sang “Amazing Grace,” also a cappella.

A surprise to Norman came when actress and La Cañada Flintridge resident Angela Bassett recited the poem, “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou. Norman and Bassett are friends and had a very girlie moment when, almost outside mike range, they made comments about each other’s hair styles — it caused a ripple of laughter from the audience.

The eclectic mix of music continued with world premiere pieces by composers Ben Lear and Peter Knell.

It was a hometown moment when Caltech professor, scientist and concert pianist Julia Greer talked about her career specialty, nanomechanics, while playing Bach’s Partita No. 2 on the piano.

I don’t know a thing about nanomechanics, but I wasn’t bored for even a nanosecond during her performance. She is quite a woman — she is passionate about rollerblading, being a mom, her piano and mechanical properties of everything. Only Worby would think of including a piano-playing, rapping scientist in a casual summer evening of music — it was brilliant.

Worby said, “I wanted this inaugural concert to show what the orchestra of the future — the 2.0 version — might look like. I wanted it to be an accumulation of my lifelong passions for people and music, and an extension of my own values: education, engagement, curation. I want friends to mix at a salon under the stars, rather than to be passive strangers at a stuffy concert.”

Next on the calendar for Muse/ique will be a free concert honoring the 10th anniversary of 9/11, to be held Sunday, Sept. 11, at 6 p.m. on the grounds of the Pasadena Civic Center. A fall schedule includes a concert on Monday, Oct. 3, at the Pasadena Rose Place, with Ellis Hall; and on Monday, Nov. 7, at Castle Press, with the Doric String Quartet and the music of Peter Knell.

JANE NAPIER NEELY covers the La Cañada Flintridge social scene. Email her at

Copyright © 2019, La Cañada Valley Sun
EDITION: California | U.S. & World