Joseph Ostrow, 84, Music Teacher; Led The Orchestra At Central High

Posted: May 02, 1989

Joseph Ostrow, 84, a scholarly, soft-spoken music teacher who made the student orchestra at Central High School one of the city's best, died Sunday at Metropolitan Hospital, Central Division. He lived in Center City.

Mr. Ostrow started at Central in the mid-1930s as a teacher and chairman of the music department. An accomplished violinist, violist and pianist, he quickly turned his attention to the school orchestra.

Mr. Ostrow gave it his dedicated interest.

"His forte was conducting the orchestra, and he was a master music teacher," recalled Howard Carlisle, president at Central before Mr. Ostrow retired in 1972 and earlier a student of Mr. Ostrow's.

Mr. Ostrow's gift for music was clear to teacher Irving Rotman when Rotman joined the Central faculty in 1956. Rotman took one of his classes to the school auditorium to hear the orchestra. It was the first performance that Rotman had attended, and a memorable occasion.

"The caliber of the orchestra was so high that I made my class write thank-you notes," said Rotman. "I had no idea a public high school student orchestra could be that good."

During his career of 38 years at Central, Mr. Ostrow directed the orchestra while teaching classes in harmony, theory and composition and coaching student chamber groups. In later years he also directed the student choir.

Neatly attired and pleasant-looking, with spectacles and a ruddy complexion, Mr. Ostrow was a teacher who both encouraged students and showcased their talents. During his tenure, Central was an all-boys school.

Mr. Ostrow regularly featured student performances at high school assemblies. He was quick to notice talent.

And Mr. Ostrow's efforts helped students advance in their musical pursuits. Many went on to join the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. Some went far beyond. Among them were James DePreist, musical director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, and Jerome Lowenthal, an internationally known pianist.

Several of those Mr. Ostrow taught became members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"He was highly respected by his colleagues for his intellectual interests, and the students called him 'Uncle Joe,' " his wife, Sylvia, said. "They were fond of him, and that's how they used to refer to him."

Born in czarist Russia, Mr. Ostrow came to the United States as a boy of 4, moving with his family to Philadelphia's Northern Liberties section. He graduated from Central High School and earned a bachelor's degree in music and education at Temple University.

"He was a brilliant person," said Stuart Hughes, a fellow teacher. "He was a scholar, no question, and a great music scholar."

A voracious reader who pored through volumes of history and biography, Mr. Ostrow often regaled colleagues in the teachers' lunchroom with his quiet story-telling. He had a way of weaving what he had read into tales and punctuating them with a sharp yet subtle wit detected only by those who listened closely.

"When he opened his mouth, he always had something sparkling to say, with a lot of wit, a lot of charm," said Rotman. "He was an all-around intellect, an avid reader. He never raised his voice. . . . He demanded a lot of respect and got a lot of respect."

Outside of school, Mr. Ostrow enjoyed traveling with his wife, and the couple often made trips to London, which they would use as a base for traveling on to places such as Israel, Turkey, Italy and Spain.

While directing the Central orchestra, Mr. Ostrow also served as a co- director of the Philadelphia Symphony Club, a professional training orchestra.

Surviving are his wife of nearly 55 years, Sylvia Levit Ostrow; daughters, Evelyn Aharon and Judith Robertson, and five grandchildren.

Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at Joseph Levine & Son, 7112 N. Broad St. Interment is at Haym Salomon Cemetery, Frazer.

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