Lillian Barbash, Long Island's "First Lady of the Arts" who transformed the Islip Arts Council into a musical powerhouse and helped create the now defunct Long Island Philharmonic, died July 4 at her home in Brightwaters after a lengthy battle with congestive heart failure. She was 92.
Barbash and her late husband, Maurice, a prominent real estate developer, were among the region's most committed arts patrons. They served together on the boards of the South Shore Symphony and the Suffolk Symphony in the 1960s; commissioned a Classical piece for Yo-Yo Ma and created the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund.
Lillian Barbash led the arts council for 31 years, building it into the region's top presenter of Classical music. Tens of thousands of Long Islanders each summer attended the council's free New York Philharmonic concert in Heckscher State Park in East Islip.
"She modeled for me that whatever I wanted to do was possible and that all avenues were open," said her eldest daughter, Cathy Barbash, of Manhattan. "She showed me that everything was achievable."
Lillian Like was born in the Bronx, the second of four children to Esther Like, a homemaker, and Benjamin Like, who worked in the garment industry. Lillian Like, who grew up playing the piano, graduated from Hunter College with a degree in chemistry and worked briefly as a high school science teacher.
In the early 1940s, Maurice Barbash was introduced to Lillian by her older brother, Irving, and the couple quickly hit it off, with Maurice bringing her Chopin and Rachmaninoff recordings.
The high school sweethearts married in 1947 and moved to Brightwaters in 1954. The couple, family members said, were inseparable until Maurice's death in 2013. They raised three children: Cathy Barbash; Susan Barbash, of Bay Shore, and Shepard Barbash, of West Islip.
"My mother was tough but fair," said Susan Barbash. "She was never a meddler or judgmental. She was supportive of our choices at all times. And I always felt that she was in my corner."
After her children left home for college, Lillian Barbash was asked by the Town of Islip in 1976 to lead the Islip Arts Council.
"She didn't want to just bring amateur musicians to the public," said Susan Barbash, adding that her mother believed there was an untapped audience for Classical music on Long Island. "She wanted to bring the very best and that's exactly what she did."
The Council's chamber music series featured world-renowned ensembles, including the Beaux Arts Trio, Juilliard String Quartet, Tashi, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Music from Marlboro.
"She became a real powerhouse and basically taught herself," Cathy Barbash said. "She didn't let anyone intimidate her and forced everyone to take her seriously."
For 31 consecutive years, Barbash brought the New York Philharmonic to Heckscher State Park, attracting crowds exceeding 20,000. The concerts, with their fireworks finales, became a summer tradition for Suffolk audiences and Philharmonic musicians.
Barbash was instrumental in making free concerts accessible to Long Islanders, including the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River and the Bay Shore Band Shell. She also thought beyond Classical music, expanding concerts to showcase different genres, from Big Band to country music.
“She was very open-minded,” said Trish Woods, a former Islip Arts Council board member. “She would listen to ideas and think about them. She never criticized anyone.”
Woods added that when Barbash ran meetings, “she ruled with an iron fist and a velvet glove.”
In 1995, the Barbashes spent $18,000 to organize a trip for 700 juniors and seniors at Bay Shore High School to see a Broadway performance of “Having Our Say.” The response from the students was so overwhelming that the couple established the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund, which in 2016 paid for 500 students to see "Hamilton" on Broadway.
“What she gave to Long Island can’t be measured monetarily,” said Holly Gordon, an artist and current council board member who knew Barbash for more than 30 years. “She had a love and boundless passion for the arts. She was sharing something that was part of her DNA. … I keep thinking of her introducing theater to all of these young people. The seeds she planted in them will be shared with new generations.”
Gordon added that “what Robert Moses did for the growth of Long Island, Lillian did for the arts.”
Lynda A. Moran, who became executive director of the Islip Arts Council after Barbash retired in 2008, said she was in awe of how much work Barbash put into everything she did. “She left huge footprints to follow,” Moran said.
Barbash, who took no salary, also became known for booking promising young musicians and bringing artist masters classes into the schools.
"She was an amazing lady," said Frank Salomon, a friend of 30 years who represented many of the artists that Barbash booked. "She was one of those wonderful enthusiasts for music and for life."
The Barbashes also were socially active, protesting the Vietnam War.
Maurice and Lillian celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by commissioning a cello and orchestra piece by composer Leon Kirchner for Yo-Yo Ma that was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1992. The piece later won a Grammy.
Lillian Barbash retired at age 81, but spent the past decade traveling and attending opera, concerts, ballet and theater.
Funeral services were held July 6 at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont.
in addition to her three children, Barbash is survived by sons-in-law Michael Riley and Eric Katz; daughter-in-law Vicki Ragan; six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Donations can be made in her name to Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund.