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PERFORMING ARTS

She's the Spark They Wanted

The Pasadena Pops hope the new hard-driving music director can turn the group into a top draw.

July 30, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | 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.

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.

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."

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