OPERA NEWS - Omus Hirshbein, One of New York's Leading Presenters of Classical Music, Dies at 77
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3 January 2012

Omus Hirshbein, One of New York's Leading Presenters of Classical Music, Dies at 77

New York City, October 3, 1934 — New York City, December 31, 2011 
News Hirshbein Image 112 
Hirshbein at a cocktail party in 2007
© Gregory Downer 2012

In college, I had a creative-writing instructor whose favorite maxim was "Avoid the boringly obvious." In the fall of 1983, I went to work for Omus Hirshbein, the director of performing arts at the 92nd Street Y. I think it is fair to say that I never in my life encountered a less boringly obvious person. 

Omus, who died in New York City on December 31, at age seventy-seven, following a painful struggle with Alzheimer's, represented a long-gone era in classical music. He was a brilliant, quixotic, optimistic man who maintained a remarkably pure and simple programming philosophy— that audiences deserved the best possible quality in music, and that it was his job to see that they got it. During his tenure there, the Y rose to an importance in the music industry that it has not had since he left the organization in 1994. Omus believed that a good producer didn't follow the audience; a good producer led it, and lead he did, with great spark and originality, for years. Few people were more responsible for shaping New York musical life in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. 

Omus's own life in music had begun as a pianist. He came from a highly cultured family: his father, Peretz Hirshbein, was a leading Yiddish playwright, author of the pastoral classic Green Fields, and his mother, Esther Shumiatcher Hirshbein, was a noted poet. Omus grew up in Hollywood, where his father had secured a screenwriting contract (Douglas Sirk's Hitler's Madman) in the 1940s. Omus was handsome; he looked so much like Montgomery Clift that my friend Cynthia Peterson always used to call him "Monty." 

Omus's performing career did not take shape, but in 1964, he went to work at the Hunter College Concert Bureau, where he presented a stunning array of concert artists, including Janet Baker, Régine Crespin, Eileen Farrell, Margaret Price, Victoria de los Angeles, Alicia de Larrocha and Peter Pears, who sang a recital accompanied by Benjamin Britten. In 1974, Omus moved to the Y and set about breathing life into a music program that had been all but given up for dead. He founded the Y Chamber Symphony, under the direction of trumpeter-turned-maestro Gerard Schwarz, and instituted a New Year's Eve tradition of performing Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. The orchestra also took on adventurous programming, commissioning works from a wide range of modern composers. Omus launched Chamber Music at the Y, under the direction of Jaime Laredo. He gave introductory recitals to a number of promising little-known artists. One of the high points of his achievements was 1986's "Vienna 1900," a brilliant festival of fin de siècle music, produced in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. In 1988, he launched the Schubertiade, originally intended as a complete traversal of Schubert's work in chronological order — an ambitious undertaking that was later truncated, following his departure from the Y.

Omus's greatest musical passions were probably the piano and chamber music, but he had a healthy respect for singers as well. Opera was never first choice for him. I once took him to a Met performance of Arabella, and all he did was complain that the winds were out of tune. He tended to look askance at big-voiced dramatic sopranos because he often found their sound unwieldy. Omus prized pinpoint focus in singing; accordingly, his favorite vocalists included Lucia Popp, Judith Blegen, Teresa Berganza, Cesare Valletti (who was a close friend), Elly Ameling, Hermann Prey, Håkan Hagegård, Benita Valente and Dawn Upshaw. In 1985, the Y presented Jessye Norman, then at her peak, in recital. Part of the deal with Norman's management was that the Y also present Maureen Forrester on the same series. I was completely ignorant about Forrester and wondered why we had had to take her as well. "Just wait," Omus said. "She's one of the great Mahler singers, and you should go out and listen to everything she's recorded." To this day, I have little memory of what Norman sang, but I can remember Forrester's recital in astonishing detail. At the end of the evening, I was cheering louder than anyone. "Told you so," Omus whispered, as he raced past my seat.

In Omus's world, discussion of quality was paramount. Was this the best we could do? Was this program individual enough to be associated with the Y? These were questions that were always asked. He had the energy and dedication — but none of the arrogance — of the prodigy grown up. He could take over a room in an amazing burst of electric eccentricity. He liked to call people "Darling," and sometimes, if he was upset with you, the "Darling"s became increasingly emphatic. He was endearingly childlike in his love of laughter (he would fall apart over the Nairobi Trio on the old Ernie Kovacs show), but he could be quite prudish about anything he considered off-color. With an extraordinary naïveté, he believed that he could appeal to any person's better instincts, and he never wanted to listen when others tried to warn him about the sharks circling the waters. He wanted to be all things to all people; he wanted to help them find their own sense of self-respect. It was hard to keep him on schedule: he never had enough time for all the demands that were made of him. Once, when a staff member was hospitalized, I tried to get him to write a get-well note. He was buried with deadlines and kept putting me off until he had a few minutes to think clearly about what to say. I finally lost patience and forged a note from him. When the woman returned to the office the following week, she thanked him for his kind sentiments. "Darling," Omus said, with great sincerity, "I meant every word." 

By 1994, a different programming approach, one more concerned with populist tastes, had arisen at the Y, and Omus left, to head up the music division of the National Endowment for the Arts. His last major project was Free for All, a series of free public concerts he produced with Jacqueline Taylor at Town Hall. This was dear to his heart, since he believed high ticket prices had severely diminished New York's concert audience. But I know that he missed the days when he was at the center of everything musical in New York. 

What I will remember most of all about Omus is his boundless generosity — the time he always had for the young people who showed an eagerness to absorb anything possible about the arts and culture. No matter what time he didn't have for something else, he always had time for us. I can remember him introducing me to one of his favorite pieces, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and explaining the effect it had on him, because he wanted me to feel the same way about it. Those of us who were lucky enough to come into his orbit still spend evenings talking endlessly about him. I think we always will. spacer 


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