Maestra of her own domain

Female conductor Rachael Worby has excelled in a profession that was once reserved exclusively for men.

rachel worby 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
rachel worby 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Maestra Rachael Worby energized the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday night with "The String's the Thing," the Jewish American conductor's debut performance in Israel. She will lead the ensemble in a repeat recital on Saturday night. Worby was invited to Israel for the two concerts by Harvey Bordowitz, the founding music director and conductor of the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra. As the concerts' name suggests, the recital program is devoted to music for a string orchestra, featuring works by Handel, Bach, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Barber. The animated Worby, who all but dances on the conductor's podium, cajoled the Herzliya musicians to give their all at Tuesday night's concert - and the audience was treated to a high quality performance indeed. Known for her work with orchestras of all sizes and her command of a diversity of musical genres, Worby requested that the musicians stand during the performance. "I've found that this brings an incredible presence to the sound. The audience can expect to hear a great lush string orchestra," Worby said earlier this week. Worby has a strong and growing reputation in the music world, enhanced by the three titles she currently holds. Now in her 50s, the conductor serves as music director of the Pasadena POPS Orchestra in California, as music director of the American Music Festival in Cluj, Romania, and as laureate conductor of West Virginia's Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. As a guest conductor, she's also led orchestras throughout Europe, South America, Australia and Asia. She's performed with opera grande dame Jessye Norman. "Whenever I go anywhere in the world to conduct, I'm always very excited," Worby said. "[But] when the plane touched down here in Israel, it felt like I was coming home. It was a deep and glorious feeling for me." In addition to being one of the leading conductors in the US today, Worby is one of a handful of female conductors on the international classical music circuit. She says Haifa Technion Professor Dalia Atlas, an internationally award-winning conductor, was one of the people who inspired her to pursue her goal. "When I first started out, there was only one woman I knew who was a conductor. That was Dalia Atlas. She has always been a hero of mine," said Worby, who hopes to meet Atlas while in Israel. While there are usually as many female musicians as men in professional orchestras, Worby said that women who have their eye on the baton still meet with resistance. "It's just a male bastion. It's always been a stronghold … but gradually things are changing," said the mother of one. "One would think that in the business of conducting music, a female would be one of the least offensive intrusions into the perceived order of society. But no. The world of classical music is steeped in tradition and like so many Tevyes, we cling to it with faces reddened and knuckles white," she wrote in an op-ed two years ago following the Baltimore Symphony's appointment of a female conductor. "Those of us in the microscopic world of 'chicks with sticks' didn't get this far without having to be better and better and still better." The native of New York state is only one of a handful of women who realized their childhood dreams of becoming a conductor. "When I was a child, I imagined that I would be a conductor because Leonard Bernstein was my hero," Worby said. "He epitomized to me everything that would be possible in life. He had great politics, he was a social activist, he made great music, he played jazz piano ... "Because I was a girl, nobody said, 'That's a great idea - why don't you study conducting?' Instead, people directed me towards teaching and playing the piano and other arenas in which it was more acceptable for women to operate." Worby began her music studies on the piano at the age of five. She holds a doctorate in musicology and has been awarded numerous teaching and musical honors. Although her standing in the music world is first-rate, she admits that some of the conducting invitations she receives are to "fill a gap." "I think in some instances I'm filling the space of needing somebody African American or a woman - in other words, somebody who isn't a Caucasian male," she said. "But in other instances, by this point in my career, I do believe - and it is certainly the case here in Israel - that I was invited here because of my reputation as a musician and as a conductor." In addition to leading orchestras and paving a path for women, Worby is also well-known for her educational work with high school students. She says music can build self-esteem and help curb violence. "Of course I believe that all the arts inspire us," she said. "But music, I believe, the actual experience of organized sound, turns on a switch. I've seen this happen with young people all over the world ... Violence in general is often generated by a true, profound inability to hear, to actually hear and listen, to absorb information, to analyze what is said to you and then think. "Music uses only the ears. You can be mute [or] you can be blind, and you can learn from music. The actual art of hearing is what I think life is all about."