Chilled by April winds, Marvin Rabin stood on a platform conducting the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra on the White House lawn in 1962, only to be joined at the podium by President John F. Kennedy and, later, by Jacqueline Kennedy.
The president stepped up beside Mr. Rabin after the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief” to say that “this is a demonstration of what talented boys and girls with gifted teachers can do.”
Kennedy added that while he needed to return to work, “I promise I’ll keep the door of my office open all afternoon so I can hear you.” After a concert that closed with excerpts from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, known as the “New World Symphony,” Jacqueline Kennedy went to the podium to congratulate Mr. Rabin, who had arrived in Boston four years earlier to teach at Boston University.
Mr. Rabin, an influential conductor and educator who helped cement Boston’s reputation as a center of orchestral music for youths, died Dec. 5 after a brief illness in Madison, Wis., according to the Associated Press. He was 97.
“We would not be here together today if it weren’t for his enthusiastic musicianship and his groundbreaking work with youth,” Federico Cortese, music director of what is now called the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, said in a statement.
“When I met Marvin Rabin for the first time during our 50th anniversary celebration, I was struck by his generous, sensitive and communicative personality: an open and beautiful soul if I may say so without sounding too rhetorical,” Cortese added. “It was particularly encouraging for all of us to see that he seemed to approve and recognize that the values he had set forth as the founding conductor of GBYSO were still alive today, and his visions and his goals for GBYSO were very similar to what we are now striving for as BYSO.”
Mr. Rabin conducted youth orchestras in 48 states, as well as Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Europe. His teaching and conducting influenced generations of students, including some who went on to become conductors themselves.
In 1958, after joining the faculty of Boston University, he helped start the youth symphony orchestra.
“The policy is the general benefit of the student,” he told the Globe in October 1958, speaking of his work at BU. “What will help the student will be done, and the emphasis will be upon the musical progress of students and less upon the aim of merely working up concerts for purposes of display.”
He added, however, that “naturally, we want to make our public concerts as good as we can.”
The following month, when he made his Boston conducting debut with BU’s student orchestra, a Globe reviewer wrote: “An experienced and authoritative musician, Mr. Rabin made a good impression. His baton technic is simple, practical, and sufficient. It was evident he has that special gift for making young musicians play their best in music of demanding caliber.”
In May 1959, when what was then the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra made its formal debut in Jordan Hall, Globe reviewer Cyrus Durgin praised the orchestra and Mr. Rabin’s efforts.
“We have a new orchestra in our midst, and considering the fact it is composed of youngsters in high school, a remarkably good one,” Durgin wrote.
“As some of us have had occasion to remark before now, Marvin Rabin is an excellent musician who has a way with youngsters,” Durgin added. “To judge by the results he obtains he is strict, demanding, but no tyrant, and his interest is in his players and the music they produce, not in his own prowess as conductor. That, by the way, happens to be notably good; his baton technic is prodigious, he exudes confidence and with what looks to be the ease of real authority, controls everything all the time.”
The orchestra of 100-plus students from across Eastern Massachusetts performed under his direction at Carnegie Hall the day after performing for President Kennedy, his family, and 700 guests on the White House lawn.
“Its polish could shame many professional orchestras; its zest should shame them all,’’ a New York Times reviewer said of the Carnegie Hall concert.
In 1963, Mr. Rabin also started the Greater Boston Junior Youth Symphony Orchestra, now called the Repertory Orchestra.
“He was always trying to make musical expression a possibility for children,” his son Ralph told the Wisconsin State Journal. “He just had such a passion and love for music – seeing the community that it brings together, the depth of emotion it can touch.”
Born in South Bend, Ind., in 1916, Mr. Rabin was 8 when a trip to see a vaudeville show set him on his musical path.
“I saw the first violinist sitting and playing down there, leading the orchestra, and I said to my father ‘That’s what I want to be,’ ” he told the Globe in 1958.
He took his first violin lessons in South Bend and played the viola at the University of Kentucky. He graduated with a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and received additional training at Juilliard School in New York City.
Mr. Rabin spoke reverently about studying conducting with Pierre Monteux, a former director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at his school in Hancock, Maine. He also studied under famed conductors Fritz Mahler, Eugene Ormandy, and William Steinberg.
Eventually Mr. Rabin moved to Madison, where he founded the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.
In addition to his son Ralph, Mr. Rabin leaves another son, David; a daughter, Martha; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
A memorial service will be held on Dec. 29 at the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison.
“Marvin Rabin was the most passionate advocate for youth orchestras that the world has ever known,” said Bridget Fraser, executive director for WYSO.
The organization plans to memorialize Mr. Rabin at its Winterfest concerts in March.