Joe Rabbai—A Man of Talent & Decency

Joe Rabbai

On Tuesday, 8/11/20, the world of music lost Joseph Rabbai. Joe was one of the finest clarinetists, musicians, and people I have ever met. A musician’s musician who exuded an “old world” approach to treating people and respecting the art of music-making, he never lost his love for playing the clarinet, practicing, or listening to music during the 17 years after his retirement from his job as principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 2003. And never once in the years that I knew him did he ever speak of himself or the many important positions that he had held with a sense of ego. Rather, he understood the role of a musician who was there to service the music in the best way possible. And he was totally devoted to his talented and loving daughter, Debbie Rabbai, throughout the years that I knew him.

A New York City native, Joe studied clarinet at Temple University as an undergraduate and received his Masters from The Juilliard School. His teachers during those formative years included Joseph Gigliotti, Anthony Gigliotti and Bernard Portnoy. Soon after graduation, he became principal clarinet of the Israel Philharmonic. Upon his return to the U.S., Joe embarked upon a successful free-lance career in New York playing chamber music, subbing in a variety of orchestras, making the occasional recording, and teaching. He became principal clarinet of the newly created American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in the late 1960s and principal clarinet of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at its inception in 1971. He was also principal clarinet of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Caramoor Festival Orchestra, as well as a member of the New York City Opera Orchestra prior to his appointment as principal clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera in 1980. He had a long association with The New York Philomusica Chamber Ensemble and collaborated with them on many recordings in addition to work with the Aeolian Chamber Players. As a teacher, he was associated with Queens College, Brooklyn College, The Graduate School of CUNY, State University at Purchase, and New Jersey City University.

I first heard Joe Rabbai perform when I was an undergraduate student at Queens College. He played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with a pianist at a mid-day faculty concert in the mid-1970s and I remember being very impressed with his performance. A decade later, I heard the Met’s revival of Porgy and Bess and Joe Rabbai was now their principal clarinet. I was totally knocked out by Joe’s playing that evening but this time I decided to act. I called him up and explained to him that I wanted to study with him, not because I was looking to audition for an orchestral gig but because his approach to the instrument and music had touched me and I wanted to improve my musical expression. We soon began what became a 35-year relationship, one that I will always cherish. Joe became my friend, colleague as well as a mentor. And I gained insight into his approach to music and wanted to emulate that approach as best as I could.

Joe emphasized musical expression and playing with an opinion in his teaching. To study works such as the Rose Etudes, Mozart Concerto, Saint-Saens Sonata, Stravinsky Three Pieces, or Miklos Rozsa’s Sonata with Joe was eye opening and gave an insight into his ability to extract the maximum expression from any phrase. He always talked about playing so that one’s sound could be heard in the back of the hall, as you would expect from someone who played principal clarinet with so many orchestras. He abhorred the current trend of what he referred to as “the marshmallow” sound, nice up close but can’t be heard beyond the concertmaster’s chair. His affinity for his job was evident to me when I went to his apartment for a lesson one afternoon in between a 3-hour rehearsal earlier that day and a performance that night at the Met. There was Joe listening to a variety of opera recordings when I arrived—he couldn’t get enough of it!

And Joe was the most generous person. As a teacher, the extra time he spent in a lesson and his willingness to share equipment that he thought might benefit you was a natural extension of his being. That generosity went beyond the practice room and stage. He loved to go out with friends to his favorite Italian Restaurants and he always insisted on picking up the check. I literally had to threaten him a few years ago at the end of a meal that unless he let me pay for the check this one time, I would never go out to dinner with him again.

He also had a funny sense of humor. Flutist Tom Nyfenger told me of a situation that occurred in an airport many years ago when both he and Joe were touring with an ensemble. The ticket agent at the gate needed to confirm Joe’s ticket reservation and seeing his name on her sheet spelled “Rabbai, Joseph” announced: “Will the Rabbai Joseph come to the check-in counter at the gate.” Not flinching an ounce, Joe went up and played along: “Yes, I am the Rabbai Joseph…..”As a result of being a religious dignitary, Joe received a first-class seat.

Reedman Lawrence Feldman related another nice story involving Joe. Frank Sinatra was playing a concert at Carnegie Hall in the 1980s and the 1st clarinetist hired for the gig couldn’t make one of the rehearsals. Joe was asked to sub for him. On the Gordon Jenkins arrangement of It was A Very Good Year, there is a very lovely clarinet solo that begins the song. When Joe played the solo, members of the sax section and orchestra were so moved by the beauty that Joe had played it that they turned around to see who was playing. Yet another story told to me by clarinetist Tony Brackett concerned Joe’s performance of the famous clarinet solo from the 3rd Act of Tosca, “E Lucevan le Stelle.” The actor Tony Randall was an opera buff and huge Joe Rabbai fan. Whenever Tosca was performed at the Met in the 1980s/90s, he went knowing that Joe was likely to be the solo clarinetist. Mr. Randall typically came down to the pit at the end of the opera to speak with Joe and to tell him how much he loved Joe’s interpretation of that magnificent solo.

Finally, it gave me great pleasure to have Joe as part of the woodwind adjunct faculty at New Jersey City University, where I headed up the woodwind area. During that time, I assigned him the most advanced graduate students and they all loved him. He participated in faculty recitals and we played the Sonata for Two Clarinets and Piano by Gary Schocker at one of those recitals. The rehearsals and performance were a highlight for me and ones that I still remember fondly. Here’s a list of some of my favorite solo recordings by Joe. They are all still available and I hope that you will spend the time listening to this great clarinet artist.

  • Ned Rorem—Ariel: Five Poems of Sylvia Plath for Soprano, Clarinet & Piano (with Phyllis Curtin)
  • Saint-Saens—Sonata for Clarinet; Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs
  • Messiaen—Quartet for the End of Time (with New York Philomusica)
  • Mozart—The Complete Divertimentos (with New York Philomusica)