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Q and A with Harry Rabinowitz

by: JIM CLARK, With a soft spot for used batons and adoring violinists, Harry Rabinowitz has been conducting for six decades.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person. This week: Harry Rabinowitz

You'd think a conductor would have a proper sense of timing, but Harry Rabinowitz's seems to be a bit off.

For the past decade Rabinowitz has lived in Portland five months a year, November through March. About the time the weather here gets decent, Rabinowitz and wife Mitzi Scott head off to their home in Provence, France.

Ah, but in other ways Rabinowitz's timing has been impeccable, starting with a 1937 first trip from his native South Africa to Europe, to his long career conducting the BBC radio orchestra in the 1950s, to his work as the original conductor for the musical 'Cats' in London in 1981.

And Rabinowitz has been able to continue his storied career as musician, composer and conductor even at the age of 91.

In fact, Sunday, Rabinowitz, who has conducted the studio orchestras for more than 60 films including 'The English Patient,' 'Cold Mountain,' 'Howards End' and 'Chariots of Fire,' will host a retrospective of his work at the Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium.

He will lecture and take audience questions, and the film center will show clips from movies that used his music.

With luck, the sound, film and lecture all will take place with perfect, well, timing.

Portland Tribune: We're told you didn't always play music. You started as a jewelry salesman?

Harry Rabinowitz: I was fired after 24 hours.

Tribune: Which led to a job in the music business?

Rabinowitz: I was a pianist in a big department store playing sheet music for the customers to see if they'd want to buy the music, and there I lasted six weeks. I think the management decided I had not noticeably increased sales. So I got fired.

Tribune: Did you play as you were supposed to?

Rabinowitz: I was doing my best and I was a pretty good pianist, but maybe I took off a little too fancifully.

Tribune: How did you start conducting?

Rabinowitz: It was a show called 'Strike a New Note' in Johannesburg at the tail end of World War II. While there I realized there was a discrepancy in timing between the stage and the pit.

To overcome it I had to stand up and wave my hands and I seized a rolled-up newspaper - my first baton - and conducted the stage and the orchestra at the same time. And that was the beginning of my feeling that I could really master difficult situations in music.

Tribune: What would you say is your reputation as a conductor?

Rabinowitz: In almost all the sessions I've conducted the musicians have left smiling. They didn't go out drooping or bored. I take pleasure in that. In fact, I think a timely phrase would be, 'He never wasted his colleagues' time.' The spirit that goes with under-rehearsing is amazing.

Tribune: So most of the time, are the musicians looking at you or their sheet music?

Rabinowitz: If the musicians are familiar with the repertoire they're performing, they need less and less of the conductor. And if there are enough rogues in the orchestra they can decide collectively not to pay any attention to the conductor.

When you stand in front of a body of musicians, you don't know them. Say you've got 80 players with 10 years of experience at each chair, so you're looking at 800 years of experience and they're looking at you and you know that within the first three to five minutes they will have decided whether to ever look at you again or to ignore you completely.

Tribune: You've been living half the year in Portland about 10 years now. Any observations?

Rabinowitz: What I enjoy very much here is the chamber music. My only real difficulty with the city is the plethora of adjectives.

I find you can join a gathering in Portland and you hear words like frequently or undecided or green or timely or unexpected, and you think, 'What are they talking about? Where is the noun?'

Tribune: A tools-of-the-trade question. Are all batons the same?

Rabinowitz: An 18th-century conductor in France called Lully conducted one of his works with a big baton. He dropped it and it hit his foot, and he died eight days later of gangrene.

Tribune: And that tells us what?

Rabinowitz: That the baton is a dangerous tool.

Tribune: But do you have a favorite baton?

Rabinowitz: I never bought one.

Tribune: Are you cheap?

Rabinowitz: No. Working in the studios there was always some jerk of a conductor who left his pencils, erasers and baton. So all through my professional life I've used findings.

Tribune: Tell us the truth. When they're behind the podium, are conductors tapping their feet?

Rabinowitz: There are two conditions when you feel emotionally moved. One is when the band is playing so well that they hardly need direction. So you can just stand there and tap your foot, not for their attention but for pleasure.

Tribune: You said there were two conditions?

Rabinowitz: The other is when the principal violinist looks up with an adoring pair of eyes, and love blossoms.

Tribune: And has that happened?

Rabinowitz: Yes. And then you tap with pleasure at the possible outcome.

- Peter Korn