Isaiah's Resilience

Tom Shipka

Imagine a health affliction that ends a career but not a life: a surgeon contracts Parkinson's disease, a NASCAR driver goes blind, a world class sprinter acquires rheumatoid arthritis, or an orchestra conductor goes deaf. My last example is not hypothetical. It happened to Dr. Isaiah Jackson, music director of the Youngstown Symphony from 1996 to 2006. Isaiah, as he likes to be called, came to the Mahoning Valley with impressive credentials:

  • He had studied music since the age of four.
  • He had earned degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and the Juilliard School.
  • His mentors included Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein.
  • He had served conducting apprenticeships in major orchestras in the United States and Europe.
  • He had been guest conductor of celebrated orchestras in Toronto, New York, Rome, Los Angeles, Taiwan, Dallas, Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Vienna, Geneva, Australia, the Soviet Union, Prague, Stockholm, Berlin, Hong Kong, Cape Town, and Israel; and
  • He had served as music director of the University of Rochester Symphony, the Flint Symphony, The Royal Ballet in London, and the Dayton Philharmonic. Audiences at Powers Auditorium found Isaiah to be a Renaissance man at once erudite, witty, charming, and charismatic, who wielded the baton with grace, confidence, and energy. As is often the case with conductors, however, Isaiah's support within the organization faded as time passed due in part to personnel decisions that he made and critiques that he delivered during rehearsals, so that he had to move on before he wanted to.Isaiah's hearing loss came in two stages. In September 1995 he lost hearing in is right ear and in June 2004 he lost hearing in his left ear, a victim of what is called Sudden Sensory-Neural Hearing Loss. Thus, for years he led two orchestras, the Youngstown Symphony and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, with partial or total hearing loss, thanks to his resilience and to state-of-the-art hearing devices. His final performance as maestro was a concert in Boston in January 2007 which featured Yo-Yo Ma as guest artist.

A lesser person would be depressed and bitter after being wrenched from the podium by a hearing loss. This is not the case with Isaiah. He remains upbeat and engaged. His spouse Helen and their three children have been remarkably supportive, he finds strength in prayer, and he maintains a demanding professional schedule in the Boston area where he lives. He is president of a family music education enterprise called "Rhythm, Rhyme, Results" which produces innovative hip-hop and rap tracks to teach math, science, social studies, and language arts to middle school students. He also teaches a course entitled The Future of Music at Harvard, he teaches conducting classes at the Berklee College of Music and the Longy School, and he offers private conducting lessons to undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students.

Isaiah has enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of young and old over a career spanning four decades. Perhaps the most important contribution that he has made, though, is showing us how to cope with personal tragedy.


© 2009 Tom Shipka

Note: The sources of information for this commentary are Dr. Jackson in a recent online interview, a Wikipedia article about Dr. Jackson, several musicians who worked with Dr. Jackson, and the commentator's own experience as coordinator of Dr. Jackson's appointment as Scholar-in-Residence in the College of Arts and Sciences at Youngstown State University from 2002 to 2006.