RIP- Marvin Rabin

Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Greater Boston Youth Orchestras and Kentucky Youth Symphony has passed away at the age of 97. Marvin was one of the most universally admired and loved people I have ever encountered in the music world- a man remembered with deep affection by seemingly everyone who played under his baton, and deeply respected by every colleague he worked with.

Two beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013

Two great conductors and beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013

I last saw Marvin only a few weeks ago at my concert with the UW-Madison Symphony. It meant the world to me that he came to the concert because the main work on the program, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, had been the first piece of orchestral music I had ever heard live- played by WYSO under Marvin’s baton when I was just a very little boy. After the concert, we spoke at length about the piece, and Marvin’s intimate knowledge and love of the score was as inspiring as ever. Although he had not conducted the piece in decades, he remembered every metronome marking- something far too many conductors never bother to learn in the first place. Although Marvin’s eyesight and hearing had both been failing in recent years, it was clear to me that he had taken in every note and every nuance of that concert, and every other one he had been to in recent years, through sheer force of will and love of the art. Marvin was pleased to know I was living and working in Britain, and talked with great fondness about the year he came to this country to observe how the British youth orchestra programs worked. “My favourite program,” he told me, “was the one founded by Béla de Csilléry in Kent.” This moment, when the man who opened the door to me being a conductor talked about watching rehearsals at the Kent County Youth Orchestra, where I’ve been conducting regularly for nearly a decade, really hit home how deeply connected we all are in life.

Marvin was, by all accounts, both a great musician and a great music educator, and he also understood how to create youth orchestras that had the right organizational framework and the right outlook to give young people a chance to experience great music first hand. Having conducted WYSO through its early years with great success, Marvin was that rare founder of an organization who was able to step aside gracefully. He was always available to the board, the organization and his successors as resource, sounding board or cheerleader, but never seemed to need to remind the world of his role in establishing the program.

I never had the privilege of watching one of Marvin’s clinics or coachings, but I’ve heard a number of music educators and conductors speak with awe of his ability to transform an orchestra of young players with a few suggestions, and to open the eyes of a colleague in profound way with a  few gently shared insights into a score.

There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “

In 2011, Marvin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin School Music Foundation. He was only the third recipient, the first being Les Paul. The foundation asked a number of us to record little video greetings talking about the ways in which Marvin had touched our lives. I thought I would include it here as a personal testament to the affection, admiration and gratitude he continues to inspire in so many of us who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.

PS- Recent thoughts on the impact of WYSO here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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