May 19, 2017

Music comes to life for kids at RPO Tiny Tots concert

This essay was written by guest blogger Maggie Symington, a Brighton resident and RPO subscriber who frequently writes about the arts and culture in Rochester for her personal blog.

The RPO's Tiny Tots concert at Browncroft Community Church
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra understands that a child who is exposed to classical music is much more likely to understand and appreciate it later. So they’ve developed a program of Tiny Tots Concerts to introduce the Orchestra to preschoolers and kindergartners in a fun and creative way. I had the privilege to attend one of these concerts, which thoughtfully paired pieces by Elgar, Strauss, and Bizet with humorous and educational compositions by the RPO’s own Jeff Tyzik, among others. Naturally, the program ended with selections from Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

More than 600 kids (and their supervisors) attended the performance Wednesday morning at the Browncroft Community Church, and it was refreshing to be among the oldest in the audience for a change! The first piece entailed three musicians playing as they walked down the aisles to the stage, waving to the kids as they danced in their seats to the beat.

Sesame Street-like signs dotted the stage (Percussion Pl., String St., Woodwind Way, and Brass Blvd.), and Principal Conductor for Education and Community Engagement Michael Butterman, in a touching analogy, described the orchestra as a neighborhood, with all of the sections working together, just as they do in society. The presentation included almost as much entertaining instruction as music. Before the Elgar’s piece for strings, violinist Shannon Nance, a “String St. resident,” explained how the violin is played, and introduced her viola “cousins,” other street neighbors -- the cellos, and the bass “grandfathers.”

The kids were generally attentive, although there was naturally a lot of fidgeting. The RPO cleverly tapped that energy by inviting the audience to participate in the music, and to engage with it, instead of sitting passively. For example, in one piece, Butterman got the kids to their feet to march and clap in time with the music. Later in the program, he invited them to stand and help the orchestra “take a bus to Percussion Place” by singing The Wheels on the Bus (“the strings on the bus go ‘plunk plunk plunk’…”).

One of the brass musicians and a percussionists came out with some homemade instruments and it was amusing and educational to hear the lovely sounds they produced. The kids were also getting a lesson in the music of physics, as the musicians explained the relationship between length and pitch (e.g., the longer the string, the lower the note).

It was delightful to watch some of the kids mimic conducting or instrument playing, and to watch them actively listening to pieces they were probably hearing for the first time. I chatted with one of the musicians on my way out, and we both remarked that, if programs like Tiny Tots are successful, these youngsters will become the RPO audience of the future. And who knows, one of them might end up in the orchestra! Kudos to the RPO and Michael Butterman for making classical music fun, approachable, and engaging to kids in our Rochester neighborhood.

Video: Watch Concertmaster Juliana Athayde, principal flute Rebecca Gilbert, and acting principal trombone David Bruestle make music come alive for little ones at Tiny Tots- playing a fun rendition of the Sesame Street theme!


May 3, 2017

Gabel and Athayde Play Debussy and Bartók

Parisian conductor Fabien Gabel first met RPO Concertmaster Juliana Athayde in 2002, when they
were both students at the Aspen Musical Festival and School. More than a decade later, Gabel came to Rochester to guest-conduct the orchestra for the first time, and was taken completely by surprise to see his old friend in the concertmaster’s chair (Athayde became concertmaster in 2005).

Since reconnecting with Athayde, Gabel has become a regular guest conductor at the RPO and a Rochester favorite. This May marks his fourth season in a row performing with the RPO, when he returns to conduct Debussy’s La mer on May 11 and 13. He will also collaborate with Athayde on Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

“I have a deep affection for both the ensemble as a whole and the individual musicians that make it up,” said Gabel, who is music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, as well as a regular guest conductor at orchestras across Europe, North America, and Asia.l

In conducting Debussy’s La mer, Gabel will lend his distinctive interpretative touch to the French composer’s orchestral masterwork. Translated as “the sea,” La mer evokes the movement and moods of the restless waves. While composing it, Debussy turned to his own experience as inspiration: his childhood memories of the sea at Cannes; a frightful storm he endured in a tiny fishing boat; paintings by Romanticist Joseph Turner; and Japanese seascapes.

Gabel connects strongly with the composition’s Gallic roots as well as its extraordinary instrumental textures. Audiences can expect Gabel to bring out the full color of the orchestra as he leads this shimmering work.

In Bartók’s second concerto, Athayde will star in a piece that has long been on what she calls her “personal bucket list.” She remembers first hearing the concerto at a concert given by the San Francisco Symphony. At the time Athayde was concertmaster of the Symphony’s Youth Orchestra, and recalls being “immediately entranced” by Bartók No. 2.

“From the simple yet mystical combination of harp and pizzicati strings opening the first movement juxtaposed with the vibrant folk style of the first solo violin melody, to the rhapsodic moments and rhythmic play between soloist and orchestra, this piece had me hooked," said Athayde. "Bartók alternates effortlessly between technically dazzling passage work and expressively lyrical writing.

"I'm thrilled to finally perform this concerto with the RPO, so many years after I first fell in love with it, and I hope our audience will feel the same excitement and intrigue I felt as a young musician hearing this music for the first time.”

The rest of the concert program is filled out by Bernard Herrmann’s Suite from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as “Fanfare” and “poème dansé” from La Péri by Paul Dukas.

If you go
Debussy's La Mer
Thursday, May 11 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, May 13 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $23

Written by Mary Rice, RPO marketing assistant

April 13, 2017

Musicians to honor local music educators'

On Thursday, April 20, the RPO musicians will honor local music teachers at the 29th annual Music Educators' Awards Night at Kodak Hall. Founded in 1988, the Awards program works to strengthen the relationship between area music educators and the musicians of the RPO.

"Music educators deserve to be commended as often as possible for deeply enriching others’ lives," said Maura McCune Corvington, a member of the RPO horn section and chair of the 2017 Awards committee.“I would not have pursued and succeeded in music without stellar classroom and private music instruction."

Administrators, educators, parents and students submit nominations that are then reviewed by a committee comprised of community educators and RPO musicians. Five outstanding local music educators' were chosen. Educators like Al Heary, who has taught vocal and general music at DeWitt Elementary School in Webster for 30 years.

"It’s rewarding to see former students in other performances or continuing in music knowing their first music experiences started in our school." said Heary. "I enjoy working with my students and creating musical experiences that will hopefully 'plant the seed' for them to continue enjoying music throughout life, whether that means singing, playing an instrument, performing on the stage, or by attending concerts and shows."

The educators will be honored prior to intermission at next Thursday's RPO concert featuring performances of Slatkin's Kinah and Mahler 5. Tickets start at $23 and are available at or by calling 454-2100.

2017 Music Educator Award Winners

Award: Instrumental Music - Band (K-12)
Jeanne Coonan of Spry Middle School in Webster

Award: Classroom Music Specialist (General Music K-12)
Al Heary of DeWitt Elementary School in Webster

Award: Instrumental Music - Band (K-12)
M. David Shemancik of Sutherland High School in Pittsford

Award: Special Award
Beverly Smoker, Professor and Department Chair at Nazareth College

Award: Choral Director (K-12)
Douglas Steves of Oliver Middle School in Brockport


April 10, 2017

From the Stage: Charles Wetherbee, guest violin

Musician and professor Charles Wetherbee will serve as guest artist on the RPO's Sunday Matinee program on April 30 at Hochstein Performance Hall. Wetherbee is first violinist of the esteemed Carpe Diem String Quartet, which plays to packed houses across the U.S. and is known for programming that includes elements of Gypsy, tango, folk, rock, pop and jazz-music alongside the classical repertoire. Wetherbee will perform a piece he commissioned himself by Carpe Diem violist/composer Korine Fujiwara called "The Storyteller."
Charles Wetherbee

"I have always loved performing that portion of the violin solo repertoire that was written by violinist/composers," said Wetherbee, who is also assistant professor of violin at the University of Colorado Boulder. "There is something exciting and fitting about a composer who plays the instrument that they are writing for, and this knowledge often translates into the way things get voiced, orchestrated, and expressed."

To compose "The Storyteller," Fujiwara drew inspiration from the beloved Japanese folk tales of her youth which were told by her father and grandfather.

"The traditions of storytelling exist in every culture, and for many families, it is a familiar bedtime ritual," said Fujiwara. "The concerto is inspired in part by the haunting sounds of Kangen, a type of instrumental Gagaku (Japanese court music), and populated by a motley cast of characters from Japanese folk tales."

So how does a violinist mimic the sounds of Japanese instruments?

“It's a challenge to get the right flavor, the right timbre, the right color of those instruments,” said Wetherbee. “At the same time all of these effects all of these characters in the stories ... it's all incorporated in a very melodic and romantic language.”

"The Storyteller" received its world premiere in 2012 by the National Gallery Orchestra.

"The work emerged as one with some very traditional elements, and some that are much more contemporary," added Wetherbee. "It is a pleasure to play, and it does also, I think, resurrect at times the use of the violin as an instrument that can mimic the qualities of the human voice."

If you go:
Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, also featuring "The Storyteller"
Sunday, April 30 at 2 PM
Hochstein Performance Hall
Tickets $27