September 21, 2019

Rachael Worby’s Mission to Bring Great Music to Everyone

Rachael Worby and her orchestra, MUSE/IQUE. Photos by Ben Gibbs

When Rachael Worby was 8 years old, she attended a Young People’s Concert at Carnegie Hall. Leonard Bernstein was conducting. Until that point, Worby thought all conductors were old, European and “unreachable.” Bernstein, by contrast, was “young, American … friendly and interactive,” Worby told the Journal. He also was Jewish. From that day on, when people asked Worby what she wanted to be when she grew up, the New York native had a ready answer: “Leonard Bernstein.”

Today, the Pasadena resident is the founder and artistic director of MUSE/IQUE and one of only a handful of female Jewish orchestra conductors in the world.

Neither of Worby’s parents were musicians. They did, however, love music and exposed their children to a dizzying variety they played on their phonograph: Ella Fitzgerald, Shostakovich, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Broadway show tunes. Worby also took piano lessons on the family’s spinet piano and was expected to practice daily.

“I was raised in a family, which, though the means were exceedingly modest, arts were held in the highest esteem,” she said.

Worby studied musicology at Brandeis University. During her final year, in the hopes of learning to conduct, she wrote letters to 10 teaching professionals on the East Coast. The only response she received was in French from Jacques-Louis Monod. And he said no.

Undaunted, Worby took a train from Boston to New York to meet him. Her mission was successful and he became her teacher for the next five years. But he ended every lesson by reminding her that women could not be conductors. 

Years later, she ran into Monod at Carnegie Hall, where her larger-than-life image was on a poster displayed outside the storied concert venue. She had become the conductor of the Young People’s Concerts, the very job held by her longtime role model, Leonard Bernstein.

Prior to the Carnegie Hall post, Worby was an assistant conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. More recently, she led the Pasadena Pops. Around 2010, when Worby’s position with the Pops was coming to an end, she contemplated a return to New York. But unbeknownst to her, several Los Angeles music lovers — all fans of hers — had gathered to talk about their keen interest in keeping Worby nearby. These individuals became some of the earliest and most important supporters of MUSE/IQUE, which Worby founded in 2011.

MUSE/IQUE is not a traditional orchestra. The players don’t typically perform in a concert hall. Among the many places they have performed are the Pasadena Ice Skating Center, the grounds of the Huntington Hospital and the locker room at the Rose Bowl. Shows are thematic and more often than not related to the site. The show at the skating rink was called “FREE/SKATE” while the one at the hospital was called “HUMAN/INSTRUMENT.” 

Rachael Worby

MUSE/IQUE is not strictly a classical orchestra. A recent show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing featured a program that ranged from the song “Fly Me to the Moon” to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It’s all part of Worby’s mission to lose the pretension and rigidity often associated with orchestral music, deliver an element of surprise and bring music to the people — all people.

“I believe that music is a basic human right and must be the purview of every person on the planet,” Worby said. “And toward that end … we make the entire community of Los Angeles our concert hall.”

MUSE/IQUE has longstanding relationships with over a dozen nonprofits in and around Pasadena that serve “some of the most disenfranchised populations there are,” Worby said, including “young people aging out of foster care and seniors on the poverty line.” 

In addition to bringing MUSE/IQUE musicians and other artists into those spaces, free tickets are set aside at every show for those organizations’ clients. These include the two remaining summer series concerts taking place at the Huntington Library, “TRAIN/GLORY” on Aug. 3 and “BAND/TOGETHER” on Aug. 24.

“I’m constantly eager to deconstruct the secrets and curate so everyone in the space understands,” Worby said. “In some ways, my responsibility is like a rabbi. I have a group of people in front of me and I have an opportunity to cause them to experience themselves as a loving community and go forth and make more love in the larger community, just through having experienced something powerful and passing it on.”