NY’s Little Orchestra mourns Joanne, 73

NY’s Little Orchestra mourns Joanne, 73


norman lebrecht

August 10, 2021

Joanne Bernstein was a leader at Little Orchestra, ArtsConnection and New York Young Audiences.

Message received:


Dear Members of The Little Orchestra Society Family,

It is with profound sadness that we share with you about the passing of our friend, mentor, and colleague, Joanne Bernstein-Cohen. Joanne recently and successfully overcame heart surgery and a diagnosis of leukemia but died due to complications of a virus (adenovirus) that attacked her new immune system. Joanne was a fighter. She never backed down from a challenge. And we will always remember her strong, passionate, and nurturing spirit. Our deepest sympathies go to her family and friends who cherished her quick wit, thoughtful perspectives, impeccable taste, and her appreciation and love for those around her.

Joanne had a deep love for music, the arts, and education. Joanne believed in uniting communities through the power of “the three C’s”—creativity, communication, and collaboration—and spent much of her career advocating for and implementing innovative music education programs in under-resourced neighborhoods. When NYC public schools forgot about music education, Joanne was there to help fill the void. She spearheaded thrilling, critically acclaimed concert series in NYC, often ahead of their time (and for those who know her, and because of her keen negotiating skills, always under budget!). Joanne’s contributions to our field are incalculable.

At The Little Orchestra Society, and for nearly 15 years as Executive Director, Joanne continued a 75-year tradition of premiering music and connecting it to other art forms, such as dance, theatre, and visual arts. Joanne made a name for L.O.S. in its programs for children and families and took the work of the Orchestra beyond the concert hall, right into classrooms at public schools and community spaces, and into the hands of young people. Not only was music a thing to be enjoyed, but Joanne created programs in which music was to be felt and touched. The level of ownership of the students and their own work was the guiding force that made Joanne’s programs unique. She always said: “Music is for everyone. Every child should feel like music is for them.” Joanne never wanted to hear a student say, “No, I can’t.” She made it her business to make sure every child could say, “Yes, I can.”

Joanne was never the center of attention, but she was always at the center of the action. She didn’t seek a life on stage, but she described her job as pushing others into the spotlight. Joanne saw in all of us the very best that we could accomplish: the great people we could be, where our interests lay, and where we might make the biggest difference, together. Second and third generations of families saw the delight of bringing their children and grandchildren to incredible programming they could trust, concerts that inspire, and experiences that transform lives. All of this came together to create a lifelong love for music, a spark of creativity in a child’s eyes, and a different way of listening. Joanne wanted the joy of music to be like hearing from an old friend.

Joanne was steadfast in working to gain support for the things she believed in. When talking about support for the Orchestra, there were only two answers, “Yes, or no for now.” And if the answer was “no for now,” you can be sure she would follow up.

Joanne’s legacy will live on in L.O.S.’s robust partnerships with a dozen schools, community centers, museums, and beyond. It will live in the hearts of students who may never have known who she was but who delight in the music all the same. It will live on in concerts that continue to be heralded by kids, parents, and critics, alike. Her vision for the future of the Orchestra is right here for us to listen to, as we celebrate three-quarters-of-a-century strong, and as we return to the concert hall, in person, just the way she would have wanted.

We are so grateful for all your heartfelt support, and for being a part of Joanne’s vision. And, we encourage you to be a part of our next chapter, and help continue Joanne’s life-work. This would be music to her ears.

Many Thanks,

All of us at The Little Orchestra Society


  • I met Joanne years ago when I worked for Alix B. Williamson who represented The Little Orchestra Society. Not many like her, she was a treasure and will be missed. Baruch dayan emess.

  • drummerman says:

    Very sad news indeed. I was a staff member at Little Orchestra Society for almost five years, before Joanne started there but I met her many times during that period.