“I’ll never leave my music. This is the one thing that gives me my private world,” Mimi Rosenberg told Washington Jewish Week after her retirement in 1993 from what is now the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras.
Today, the violinist turned conductor and music teacher says that still is true. Although Rosenberg, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., laid down her conductor’s baton, her former students and colleagues have not forgotten the high bar she set for them 24 years ago.
Sitting in the living room of her Fairfax home, she thumbs through a sizable photo album. There are photographs, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia the Philharmonic Orchestras compiled about Rosenberg’s time there as a retirement gift.
Rosenberg asks that her age not be disclosed because “when [people] know my age, they say ‘How wonderful you are still walking around.’ I feel that what I am doing has nothing to do with age. I want people to judge me as they see me.”
And as Rosenberg’s friend of 35 years, Ed Faggen, put it: “Mimi has always been a bundle of energy. … You wouldn’t think she is anywhere near the age she is.”
Former students and colleagues of Rosenberg who were interviewed for this story agreed with Faggen’s sentiment, one adding Rosenberg is a “contained ball of intenseness.”
“I think having someone like Mimi as a teacher is priceless because you see someone who has fine training, plays well and is really solid at running [an orchestra],” says Elizabeth Adams, who played violin under Rosenberg’s direction as a fifth-grade student.
Today, the 34-year-old Adams is an accomplished musician, having performed across the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia. She also mentors young musicians and is an adjunct professor at George Mason University.
She credits her time with Rosenberg, who she calls an “absolute firecracker,” as motivating her to pursue music beyond grade school. Adams also says Rosenberg was unlike other conductors she met.
The Philharmonic Orchestras was initially the youth education arm of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, in which Rosenberg, who trained at the Julliard School in New York, was a violinist. The education program split off from the Fairfax Symphony in 1964 and became the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony Association, which Rosenberg helped to found. The symphony became the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras in 1999 and trains Washington-area musicians up to age 21.
“If you don’t expect kids to play well, they won’t,” says Bonnie Hudson, a former conductor at the Philharmonic Orchestras. “If you expect them to produce what they are capable of producing, then you can get them to play well.”
Hudson says Rosenberg did just that for all of her students at the Philharmonic Orchestras.
“I was in Mimi’s group for only one year, but she left a lasting impression. She had a passion for music and did not tolerate foolishness,” says Karen Chisholm, who played cello under Rosenberg’s direction as a seventh-grade student.
Since leaving the Philharmonic Orchestras, Chisholm, 37, earned a bachelor’s in music education and taught orchestra in Fairfax County Public Schools for nine years. She also played with the Haase Quartet and Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Chisholm remembers Rosenberg as a “kind, but firm director.”
“We would listen attentively because she was quick to point out those who were chatting,” Chisholm says.
Rosenberg still keeps a busy schedule. She is a member of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, where she exercises daily and is considered “unofficial staff” for her commitment to regularly organizing and scheduling events such as a discussion between journalists and brothers Marvin and Bernard Kalb.
She laughs at the suggestion of some JCC staff members who say she is “as sharp as a tack.” “I don’t know how sharp of a tack I am,” she says.
She also teaches violin regularly.
“I get along with the kids, I’m at their level now,” she says of teaching. “When you get older you get down to their level.”
Being at her students’ level means understanding issues they confide in her about, such as not wanting to take music lessons. Rosenberg says some students face tremendous pressure from their parents to be accomplished musicians. If a student confides in her that he or she doesn’t enjoy the lessons, she will speak to the parents on the child’s behalf.
Rosenberg scaled back her teaching in recent years. She once taught 20 students weekly. Today she only has six and is wary of accepting any more.
She admits retiring from teaching has crossed her mind, especially when her husband of six decades,
Max, died last year. But her own children, Jan, Paul and Shelly, have encouraged her to continue.
“I thought it [was] time for me to stop, and I just couldn’t do it,” she says. “When I teach these children, it means a lot to me because I know [music] will be very valuable to them in the future.”