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Chatting up the music

Inspiring and accessible. That's Rachael Worby, leader of the Pasadena Pops. And she hopes it's true of their concerts.

July 02, 2006|Diane Haithman | 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.

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