It was a beginning right out of a sitcom: I was the ultimate WASP, fresh from a stint in the buttoned-down corridors of Time Inc. when I went to work for Omus Hirshbein, director of performing arts at the 92nd Street Y, on October 3, 1983. I was equal parts eager and nervous: As far as I was concerned, the Y was the pre-eminent cultural center of New York City, presenter of some of the world’s finest musical and literary talents. My guess was that the working atmosphere would be vaguely academic. I could not have been more wrong.
From my first day to my last, in 1988, Omus — who died on December 31 at age 77 — was a study in perpetual motion. He was an electrifying bundle of creative energy, full of astonishing musical insights, who endlessly probed and questioned aesthetic matters. He was, to borrow one of Dorothy Fields’s lyrics from the musical “Seesaw,” a “lovable lunatic.” He was the most democratic of classical music presenters, someone who would stop to talk with anyone who sought him out on the street or in a hallway. But he also had an aristocratic sensibility. He never pandered to the public; rather, he quietly educated the audiences at the Y by pitching his programming up, not down. I do not remember the word “elitist” — these days tossed around as a pejorative in so many descriptions of high culture — ever being mentioned during my years at the Y.
Later, when he headed the music, opera and theater program of the National Endowment for the Arts, his belief in excellence, not reputation or presumption, underpinned his tenure.
At the 92nd Street Y, his programming was marked by distinctiveness and individuality. Omus had no interest in following popular tastes, in presenting the same tired concerts offered by everyone else around the country. He constantly wanted to be surprised and to take his audience by surprise — to reveal something that they might not have encountered previously. I can remember the thrill of hearing Shura Cherkassky, a living link to the great Romantic tradition of pianists. (Cherkassky had even played for the Taft administration!) He was so musical that at times the piano seemed actually to be singing.
I heard an impressive range of new music, because Omus was the contemporary composer’s best friend. The Y Chamber Symphony premiered works by Ned Rorem, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Harold Shapero, David Diamond, Joseph Schwantner, Stephen Albert and Bright Sheng, along with many others. And I have an indelible memory of sitting in the Kaufmann Concert Hall, listening to my literary idol, Eudora Welty, read from her great short story “The Wide Net.” Omus stood behind me throughout the reading, squeezing my shoulder every now and then to show me that he knew just how much the experience meant to me.
The Y also gave me a wonderful introduction to Jewish culture, something about which I had previously known next to nothing. Omus’s own family pedigree was a distinguished one. His father was celebrated Yiddish playwright Peretz Hirshbein, while his mother was the venerable poet Esther Shumiatcher. He tried, with little success, to teach me a bit of Yiddish.
Omus’s love of Jewish art and traditions was never something exclusive or insular. It was something he wanted to share with all of us. He was a born sharer, and an eternal optimist, someone who sought the best in everything, and most of all in himself.
Brian Kellow is the features editor of Opera News magazine. His latest book, “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” (Viking, 2011), was chosen by The New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year.