Muse/ique, the intriguing, eclectic orchestra founded in 2011 by conductor Rachael Worby, opens its "Summer of Sound" season on Saturday, June 29, at Caltech's picnic-friendly outdoor Beckman Mall in Pasadena with "Lost in the Stars with Patti Austin."
Austin, the Grammy-winner known for her rich, nuanced vocal artistry across multiple genres, will join concertmaster Roger Wilkie and the Muse/ique orchestra in a "musical mash-up" event encompassing works by George and Ira Gershwin, Sam Coslow, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Paganini, Mikhail Glinka and more.
"There are a couple of other surprises that I don't want to give away," said Worby, the former music director of both the Pasadena Pops Orchestra and the Symphony Orchestra of Wheeling, West Virginia, and a frequent guest conductor with major national and international orchestras.
The concert will also feature a tribute to the late icon of cool jazz, Dave Brubeck, the Morton Gould orchestrations of Kurt Weill's "September Song" and "Mack the Knife," and Pasadena-based composer-producer Tena Clark's "Way Up There," commissioned by NASA as a memorial to the crew of the space shuttle Columbia.
"We're going to have great fun," said Worby. Austin's voice and musicianship "are limitless. When she sings Gershwin's 'Lady Be Good,' it's breathtaking. When she sings Kurt Weill's 'Lost in the Stars,' you're awed, and when she sings the Beatles' 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' you can't believe it's still Patti Austin. The depth of her musicianship," Worby said, "is unparalleled."
The notion of breaking down barriers between musical genres, between audience and musicians, has shaped what Worby calls Muse/ique's "counter-conventional experience." The format allows for "a tremendous amount of osmosis and communication from the orchestra musicians, and from me, to the audience," she noted, "with the strong expectation that the audience members themselves are fully participating.
"The active engagement, the leaning forward, the active listening rather than the passive hearing, is part of what we're about," she said.
Muse/ique's "Uncorked" events, held during the fall and spring in such unconventional Pasadena venues as the Phoenix Decorating Center and the Castle Press printing company, continue the inviting informality: "You could find yourself sitting on a bleacher or a couch, on a four-foot-high stack of paper, on a turned-over cardboard carton or a folding chair or at a cocktail table," Worby said.
"There's no backstage. That's something I could say about both of the 'Summer Festival' and 'Uncorked' events," she stressed. "At some point I just look at my watch and I say, 'time to start,' and I gather up the people who are going to make the music and we just begin."
Worby's zeal to share music — all kinds of music, with all kinds of audiences — comes naturally. Growing up, "I was always the one sitting around the campfire teaching songs, teaching harmony and sharing music," she said, adding that her music-loving parents raised her with "Bach, Thelonious Monk, Odetta, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Cole Porter — it was an immersive experience and it was all created equal in the eyes of my parents."
Austin agrees. "I don't categorize music," she said. "I never have and I hope that I never will. It's just about the stuff I like."
Reflecting Worby's career-long commitment to outreach and education, Muse/ique's youth-oriented component, an interactive program called Kids/ique, brings orchestral music into the lives of boys and girls ages 12 to 18 who are in residential foster-care treatment facilities in the San Gabriel Valley.
"We create relationships between the kids and the musicians," Worby explained. "We return over and over and over again, and these young people then attend our 'Uncorked' events and our summer festival." The program has proved both rewarding and energizing for the orchestra as well, she said.
The "fearless pride and ability to take risks" on the part of the program's young participants "becomes part of the text of Muse/ique, Worby said. "It will often happen that there will be a certain interaction with these young people which will be so impressive to me that at the [next concert] I'll explore the same piece of music from the point of view that was brought to my attention by these kids."
Austin, too, is a believer in broadening horizons through the arts. She is co-founder of the non-profit, media-based Over My Shoulder Foundation, promoting and helping to support mentoring programs for all ages.
"We're trying to create a higher awareness around the importance of mentoring, not only by older people to younger, but younger people to even younger people, and younger people to older people," said Austin — whose own mentors include her godparents, music legends Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones.
"It took me many, many years to realize the magnitude of people who were teaching me, because I was a child and it was just my environment," Austin said. "It took me becoming an adult and realizing that I had the opportunity to be trained by the best … not the imitators, but the innovators."
Muse/ique's mission, Worby said, is enhanced "by the artists with whom we work, all of whom are as committed as I am to the breadth and depth and the importance of live music. I truly believe that through the embrace of live music and through the understanding of how to listen, the world is changed."
Upcoming concerts include "Moving Pictures" (July 27), a "fresh take" on motion picture scores with cellist Matt Haimovitz and actress Wendie Malick ("Hot in Cleveland"); and "Lose Your Senses with Ellis Hall" (Aug. 17), featuring vocalist/pianist Hall, the former Tower of Power lead singer.
Where: Caltech's Beckman Mall, 332 S. Michigan Ave. Pasadena
When: Saturday, June 29, gates open at 5:30 p.m. for dinner (ordered in advance) or bring-your-own picnics); performance, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $35-$86, students with ID: $10.
More info: (626) 539-7085, muse-ique.com
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.