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Classical Music

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

"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."

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'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."

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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.

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