January 18, 1982 12:00 PM

It is a very old-fashioned American story. Seventeen-year-old Rohan Joseph comes to New York from the island nation of Sri Lanka, where he is an accomplished pianist. With the confidence of the child prodigy, he is ready to take America by storm. Alas, he languishes in obscurity. In order to eat, he becomes a computer programmer. The dream of a career in music will not die, but it does assume a different shape. Today, at 28, Rohan Joseph has that career as conductor of his own orchestra at Lincoln Center. Persistence and courage have paid off: That’s the old-fashioned part.

Of his decision to found the American Philharmonic in a country where 1,500 orchestras were already struggling to survive, Joseph says, “You had to be a madman to even consider it.” But he was moved by a sudden vision. On July 16, 1977, at exactly 2:06 p.m., Rohan happened to put the Berlin Philharmonic’s recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on his phonograph. “As soon as I heard the timpani of the entrance,” he recalls, “I knew what my calling was—conducting.”

He studied for 16 months with Carl Bamberger, the eminent professor of conducting, who considered Joseph’s “sense of style extraordinary for one so young. His gifts were astonishing.” Yet Rohan was rejected by all 15 orchestras he applied to. “I received a postcard from Lukas Foss, who is with the Brooklyn Philharmonia,” he recalls. “He challenged me by saying that, if I were indeed the conductor I thought I was, I should be able to form my own orchestra.”

With three friends—his New York dentist, a Cleveland pilot and a French businessman—Joseph formed a board of directors (which was later to be joined by model Cheryl Tiegs, who had heard about Rohan through friends). Next, he tacked up “Help wanted” notices at the leading music schools around New York, offering long hours and no pay, but also “an opportunity of a lifetime to get in on the ground floor!”

“When I first heard we were to play without a paycheck,” says violist Allyn Ostrow, 30, “I thought I should scream my head off to the union. But once you listen to Rohan talk about his dreams, you want to get on his wavelength. He could charm the pants off Jordache.” Adds Joseph Russo, 27, who has a master’s in music from Yale: “There aren’t enough opportunities for bass players with orchestras. When I went down for an audition, I looked on it as an investment.”

On Oct. 16, 1979 the 89 musicians picked by Joseph met at Martin Luther King High School near Lincoln Center for their first rehearsal. Little did they know as they warmed up that Rohan Joseph had never stood before a full-scale orchestra. “Learning to conduct is not like learning to play the piano,” explains Rohan. “You can’t run down to your neighborhood music store and buy an orchestra for practicing. I had no idea that evening whether I would make it or whether I would fall on my face.”

Nor was he sure even after the rehearsal. None of the musicians bothered to come up and tell him how he had done. Worse, no one called him during the following week. “I had the sinking sensation,” Joseph says, “that my name was mud all around town.”

He need not have worried. On Jan. 27, 1980 the by-now 108 musicians of the American Philharmonic Orchestra (median age: 29) gave their inaugural concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The New York Post was there to praise the Philharmonic’s enthusiasm, adding, “orchestras, like trees, can be born in Brooklyn.”

In the whirlwind that followed, the Philharmonic gave four successful concerts at Carnegie Hall (“Mr. Joseph clearly has a deep feeling for Bruckner, and he communicated it through his orchestra of young musicians,” noted the New York Times) and another to raves at the Kennedy Center in Washington. “I knew we would never survive unless we started at the top,” Joseph says. “But people warned me it was suicide.”

At this point Rohan quit his night-shift job as a computer programmer for Gulf + Western and induced that company to become a sponsor, along with United Airlines, American Can and Mobil. Last September the Philharmonic began a Monday night subscription series at Lincoln Center. The orchestra was also invited back to Kennedy Center, where it will play this week. A Far East tour is planned for this summer.

Rohan Joseph’s triumph has been at a certain cost. Founding an orchestra did not leave enough time for his wife, Ingeborg, 40, and their marriage has ended after six and a half years. Last October Rohan moved out of their Central Park West apartment. In the divorce settlement, he is giving his wife everything—apartment, furniture, cat. He retains only some savings, music scores and records—but, of course, he has his orchestra, which he regards as priceless. His feeling is reciprocated by the musicians themselves. Says 24-year-old violinist Claudia Bloom: “If he asked, I’d play for him at the bottom of an ocean.”

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