Obituary: Joel Lish, Founder and Conductor of Palisades Symphony Since 1966

Joel Lish, the founder and conductor of Palisades Symphony for 58 years, passed away on March 5, just shy of his 89th birthday.

He was born March 11, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York, to Iola and Harold, a musician. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1944. Joel and his brother Merrill were given music lessons.

Joel attended Verdugo Hills High School and wanted to play in the string quartet. There were already three violinists, so a teacher persuaded him to try the viola, an instrument on which he excelled.

He graduated from high school when he was 16 and enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Later he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, with the promise he could join the Air Force Symphony.

While stationed in Denver, Joel played with an orchestra. During his last two years in the Air Force, he was stationed in Okinawa. At the request of some of the local musicians, he started a small group of string players and taught himself to conduct.

They played several concerts for the locals and the service members. When Joel left Okinawa, another service member continued his work. Joel was surprised to learn many years later that this group eventually evolved into the Okinawa Symphony and that he was considered the founder of that orchestra.

After his honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1957, Joel attended Cal State Northridge and earned a master’s degree in teaching. He taught music at Nobel Junior High School in Northridge for several years, and then in 1965 he was invited to teach music at Palisades High School, which had opened only four years earlier. In 1970 Joel became Chair of the Music Department at PaliHi, where he remained until he retired from teaching in 1995.

The Palisades Symphony was founded by Joel as an evening adult-school class at Palisades High in 1966 and became incorporated as a nonprofit in 1972. He was incredibly fortunate to meet Eva Holberg, a Pacific Palisades music-lover and volunteer, who eventually became the President of the orchestra and ran it successfully for more than 50 years until her death at age 91 in 2022.

The Palisades Symphony continues to thrive in the community. The orchestra presents seven concerts every year which are always free and open to the public. Two of these concerts are in collaboration with the Brentwood-Palisades Chorale, and one is a showcase for young local artists.

Joel’s retirement from full-time teaching allowed him to devote more time to his other career as a professional violist. For many years he was an entertainer at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Reseda. He sometimes worked on cruise ships as a solo violist, taking requests from passengers as they enjoyed dinner.

He especially enjoyed his work with Murray Korda’s Monseigneur Strings – a group of musicians who were renowned in the Los Angeles area for playing for high-end society functions for presidents and Hollywood royalty. Joel was an expert at hearing the harmony and creating his own inner lines on the viola, weaving in and out of the music as the other string players played the melody. Joel also participated in many studio recordings and films for motion picture and television.

For several years Joel conducted the Los Angeles Mandolin Orchestra, producing a recording of that group. He also mentored student groups at Crossroads School for several years.

He loved conducting the Floating Strings, a group of musicians, both amateur and professional, who enjoyed the chance to gather in various locations during the summers to read through music for string ensembles.

In early June of 2011 Joel received an unexpected call. The Casa Italiana Opera Company desperately needed him to conduct its performance of “Pagliacci” the next day.

 Joel had never conducted that opera before. He spent that evening studying the score. The next day, with only a minimum amount of time for a quick run-through of the music with the orchestra, he led a very successful performance of the opera. He continued as the conductor for Casa Italiana Opera Company for several years.

Additionally, Joel created Middle Fiddle Music, a small music publishing company, that sold his arrangements of classical works for small string ensembles – duets, trios and quartets.

Joel leaves behind his wife, cellist Jan Kelley-Lish. Their paths had crossed probably hundreds of times over the last 60 years, and they married almost 10 years ago. Joel was her perfect partner. Together they played duets, worked on Joel’s arrangements, and enjoyed spending time and playing chamber music with their friends. During Covid they collaborated with their close friends Judy, Jeff and Denisa and new friend Josh, and as the “DJs” they presented more than 40 patio concerts in Studio City. Joel is also survived by his sons – Dr. Benjamin Lish (wife Gigi) of Ventura and Michael Lish (Kristin) of Bend, Oregon. He also leaves one grandchild, Noa Lish, of Olancha, his sister-in-law Marganit Lish, and three nieces – Dina Reisman, Tamar/Tammy Lish Spencer, and Etsuko Yoshida. Joel was predeceased by first wife, Kyoko Lish.

A memorial service will be held for Joel in the next few weeks. Details will be posted on the orchestra website: palisadessymphony.org.

Contributions in Joel’s honor can be sent to the Palisades Symphony, P.O. Box 214, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.

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2 Responses to Obituary: Joel Lish, Founder and Conductor of Palisades Symphony Since 1966

  1. CC Fischer says:

    You were wonderful, Mr. Lish. Sorry to have been such an ass in your class.

  2. Tamar S says:

    Sue, thank you for this beautiful tribute to Joel. he worked on many projects with my dad. He was a lovely man. Condolences to his family and friends.

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