September 25, 2014

RPO Principal Harpist Grace Wong's musical journey

In August, Brighton Connections magazine highlighted Brighton resident and RPO Principal Harpist Grace Wong in a feature article. For the blog this week, we transcribed the article into a digital format. Special thanks to writer Terry Medina for such a wonderful profile of an outstanding musician (and neighbor) in our community. For more on Grace Wong, visit the web!

Brighton's Grace Wong is on a musical journey

By Terry Medina

It's a neat thing to discover the talents and professions of the neighbors that live and work around
Screenshot of article
you. There are doctors, lawyers, baristas and booksellers. There are homemakers, educators, artists and a host of other skilled residents in this community. One such woman is longtime Brighton resident Grace Wong, a professional harpist who has played with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since 1979.

Music has always been a major part of Wong's life since her childhood in New York City. While her father knew many musicians, her uncle opened the door to the world of classical music through a connection with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"Our families often had dinner and social gatherings together so I got to know Yo-Yo Ma," said Wong, whose uncle helped the cellist's family settle in the United States.

When Wong was a student at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, she entered as a pianist, but was assigned the cello.

"You had to pick an orchestral program, and I was assigned the cello," recalled Wong. "Having heard Yo-Yo, I thought, there was no way I could start this instrument! I asked the director if there was any room in the harp class. If I wanted to do music professionally, I knew it would have to be the harp."

Her loyalty to the harp has turned out to be a wise decision for Wong, who has been able to travel, teach and earn recognition over the years -- all opportunities she may not have gotten should she have chosen to master a different instrument.

Wong earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Oberlin Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music, respectively. She has appeared as a soloist, including a debut recital at Carnegie Recital Hall, and has performed throughout the United States, toured Canada and the Far East and has given a series of recitals in South America. She currently serves on the faculty of Hochstein School of Music and Dance and maintains a private studio.

Practice, something that one never outgrows, according to Wong, began at an early age, with lessons costing 50 cents a pop. Later, her father was able to save enough money to buy her a harp of her own.

"I was taking lessons, getting better and really enjoyed playing," she said. "Having family members who appreciated music, many of whom also played instruments, really lent itself to my continued learning."

ln 1979, Wong took a position with the RPO and has been with the orchestra ever since. She married the late writer Richard Henshaw, and the two lived together in the City of Rochester. Wanting a bigger place to grow their family, the two moved to Brighton in 1991 as Henshaw had family in
the area.

The location gave Henshaw, author of The World Encyclopedia of Soccer, the room he needed to write. It also allowed Wong to stay close to the city and not have to travel too far for work with the RPO.

Wong said when she first moved to western New York - specifically the Brighton area - she was a bit shell-shocked. Used to living in much larger New York City, she was surprised to see all the farms, especially cows. She recalled that many of the plazas in Brighton weren't there when she first moved to Rochester. "It was all farmland; so much has changed" she said.

Wong compares playing an instrument to the professional athletes on the soccer/football fields that her late husband wrote about. She said she practices at home and during rehearsals, but the payoff comes during performances.

"Like a pro sport, the work is more than what you see on the field, " she said. "On the stage you are expected to get it right every time. It can be very intense, but very rewarding."

It is the reward of finding joy in the performances - at least two a week, sometimes more - that have kept Wong behind the harp for nearly 50 years.

"It's a privilege to be working with these amazing musicians. The camaraderie and the family atmosphere, it's just very congenial. It's a great orchestra to be working with. You just can't find a more qualified orchestra. They are amazing artists."

Wong feels that playing the harp is an art form and it's one she is honored to have learned.

"I've worked with some incredible people over the years, " said Wong, who even had the opportunity to play with an old friend from her youth,Yo-Yo Ma.

"One aspect about living and working in the Rochester area is how easy it is to commute to work, and how accessible Brighton is," she said. Wong credits Brighton with being a terrific place to raise a family. Her son Sebastian graduated from Brighton High School in 2004 and now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a career in music. He is a Foley artist, a sound engineer who focuses on post-production sound for movies. She often visits him and remaining family members in New York City.

When she is not busy teaching and performing, Wong enjoys knitting scarves and sweaters. "It can get compulsive and it's hard to put down," she laughed.

It's possible that the same thing can be said about playing the harp. Wong said she is having the time of her life performing with the RPO and has no plans of retiring any time soon.

"From a certain standpoint, there are benefits and job security, but you have to keep your skills up and you're being reviewed and judged every time you play, if not by conductors, then by yourself and your colleagues, even your audience," said Wong. "You never want to let anyone down. It's intense and gratifying, being a part of a wall of sound being produced on stage. There are times when I am simply blown away by our performances. That's what keeps me doing this. There are peaks and valleys, but I wouldn't change it for the world."

Brighton Connections Magazine
Colleen Farley, Publisher
Terri Reid Medina, Editor / Content Coordinator

September 11, 2014

Meet the artist: Doug LaBrecque

Doug LaBrecque
Whether your musical tastes lean toward the classic melodies of Cole Porter and George Gershwin or the contemporary showstoppers of Marvin Hamlisch and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the RPO’s first Pops concert of the season this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. is guaranteed to please the palate of any Broadway fan.

On Tuesday, we introduced you to one of two featured guest artists, soprano Lisa Vroman, who starred in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, among many other accolades. Today, we introduce you to tenor Doug LaBrecque, a Michigan native who now lives in Manhattan. Like Vroman, LaBrecque is also known for his work in The Phantom of the Opera, where he played both Raoul and the title role. Other major credits include a starring role in the original cast of the Harold Prince Broadway revival of Showboat and the national tour of Les Misérables. He has appeared with more than 125 orchestras worldwide and most major pops orchestras in America including the Philly Pops, the Boston Pops, and the New York Pops.

For tickets and more information, visit!

Q and A with Doug LaBrecque

My favorite Broadway show:
Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince's original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd.

If I had to perform one role for the rest of my life, it would be:
Loyal brother, trusted friend, and avid gardener.

Proudest moment of my career:
When my family came to Toronto for my first Saturday night performance playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Their support (and rousing ovation!) was extraordinary.

Your favorite song from this weekend’s program:
All of them! I will be singing Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Arlen, Lerner and Loewe, and more with the RPO this weekend. How could I possibly choose just one?

What’s your pre-performance ritual?
Two hours before a performance, I review my music and patter for the evening while I iron my dress shirt and tuxedo.

My favorite person to collaborate with is:
There are a number of colleagues that I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to work with. Jeff Tyzik of the RPO is a very supportive and creative collaborator. He is the real deal and Rochester audiences are very fortunate to have him! Lisa Vroman is one of the most respected singers of her generation and I adore working with her.

When I’m not onstage, you can find me:
Golfing! For me, the craft of singing and golf have many similarities. They are both extraordinarily technical, have strong elements of required mental focus, and both take a lifetime to even begin to scratch the surface of mastering. The perfectly placed breath moves through the vocal folds in much the same way the ideal swing passes through and connects with the golf ball. Posture, rhythm, follow through, and focus are required at each step along the way. I also am an avid gardener, a passionate locavore and I cook whenever I have the time away from my touring schedule.

Advice to young people interested in a performance career:
Don't let the naysayers hold you back. If you are truly passionate about it, hone your craft, study, and learn all that you can. If a performance career is not for you, you will learn that fairly quickly. I don't go out of my way to wildly encourage people to "go for it" but a lifetime of regret can bankrupt your life.

September 9, 2014

Meet the artist: Lisa Vroman

On Friday and Saturday night, Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre will light up like the Great White Way with two stars of Broadway at the helm. Under the direction of Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik, the RPO’s first Pops concert of the season features Broadway classics by noted composers such as Cole Porter, Marvin Hamlisch, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

This week on the blog, we plan to introduce you to our guest vocalists, starting with soprano Lisa Vroman, who last performed with the RPO for an evening of Bernstein and Sondheim in April 2013. Vroman starred on Broadway, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as ingénue Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera, performed as Mary Poppins opposite Dick Van Dyke for Disney’s 75th anniversary, and was the first to perform both Cosette and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway, among many other performance credits and accolades. Though she lives in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Patrick, and dog, Romeo, she is originally from upstate New York.

Stay tuned for our profile on Doug LaBrecque this Thursday!

Q and A with Lisa Vroman:

Favorite Broadway show:
I have many favorites for many different reasons, but I think West Side Story is one of the world's greatest shows!

Lisa Vroman
Credit: Michael Blank
If I had to perform one role for the rest of my life, it would be:
I have had many favorite roles, such as Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella (with the NYC Opera) and recently played Maria Callas in Terence McNally’s play, “Master Class.”

I played Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera somewhere around 2,750 times! I am so happy to be doing more concert work now, where I can sing different songs from many shows in any given performance. A performer really needs to keep the creative flow/energy fresh not only for themselves, but for the audience, too.

Proudest moment of my career:
There are many, but anytime my family members are able to see me sing, it’s a great night! My mom grew up in Fairport, so I am looking forward to seeing friends and family at the performances this weekend!

Your favorite song from this weekend’s program:
All of them! Who can choose?

What’s your pre-performance ritual?
Not so much a ritual, as just getting ready for work. To sing and perform, you have to be rested, fed/hydrated, healthy, then deal with the performance day details, steaming/ironing gowns, makeup, and then time for a good vocal/physical warm up. I have a busy schedule, but I have to make sure my concert gowns are maintained and ready to go. You become very good at packing the perfect suitcase!

My favorite person to collaborate with is:
I have worked with many different singers and conductors who are all fantastic, including Jeff Tyzik and Doug LaBrecque, who are two of the very best!

When I’m not onstage, you can find me:
Learning music and packing for the next trip. I love being at home with my husband, Patrick, and our dog, Romeo, every chance I can!

Advice to young people interested in a performance career:
Keep training! Learn to read music, and study vocally. Too many students do not properly train their voice in a classically based technique. The more you know about your voice, the longer it will serve you, no matter what style you sing.

For more information or to purchase tickets to Broadway’s Golden Age and Beyond, visit

September 6, 2014

Back to school reading with the RPO staff

One of the great things about working on the RPO's staff is getting to be around a bunch of people who are super passionate about the arts. There is something energizing about coming to work every day surrounded by people who have some connection to the arts, whether they are musicians, actors, dancers, artists, or frequent patrons at arts events in the community and beyond.

One of our goals for the RPO blog this year is to turn the spotlight on some of our dedicated staff members. We plan to feature individuals in fun Q and A interviews, video profiles, and whatever other crazy ideas we drum up (pun intended) at our East Avenue office. Since it’s back to school season, we asked a few staff members with music backgrounds to share the one book that left a lasting impression on them as performers and professionals.

P.S. We’d love to hear about your favorite books that impacted your life as a performer/musician/arts aficionado! Please join the conversation with a blog comment or a Facebook post.
Happy reading!

Pavel Sullivan
Associate Director of Annual Giving and Donor Relations

Pavel Sullivan
Musical training: Eastman School of Music: Degree in Music Education, Piano Primary, Secondary Voice. I also played violin until high school.

Favorite book with music connection: Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot:Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential by Richard Restak, M.D.

What makes this book special? Early in high school, we were tasked with coming up with topics for our senior thesis. I decided to write about music and the mind. While I did a lot of analysis of different studies, parts of the brain that are enlarged due to musical exposure, etc., I also picked up this book from Richard Restak (who at the time, was at the forefront of this research).

This book was 28 chapters designed to help you focus and maximize your brain’s potential (which, being a kid with ADHD, was something I found very interesting and helpful). Ironically, I took a lot of these tips and tricks to help me focus on writing the 20-page paper itself, but it has helped me immensely in the rest of my career.

Kara Aymerich
Office Administrator

Kara Aymerich
Musical training: I earned a degree in vocal performance from Roberts Wesleyan College. 

Favorite book with music connection: The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

What makes this book special? This book was recommended to me by my voice teacher. Though it is about tennis, the principles that are outlined by Gallwey are surprisingly relevant to performers. So often, performers and athletes have thoughts in their mind that impede their own progress or concentration. Gallwey focuses on having the player feel what is happening within their body. He explains how to identify success or failure without creating either a crippling sense of anxiety due to a mistake or the almost greater anxiety that one will not be able to repeat the same positive action.

Many of his anecdotes, especially relating to his days as a young competitive player, reminded me of the struggles that my peers and I face every day when practicing or performing. The same occasionally irrational and nonconstructive criticism that performers can give themselves is also a trait of professional athletes, and for that reason, I highly recommend this book for any performer.

Katy Judd

Marketing Manager

Katy Judd
Musical training: I studied violin and trombone, and minored in music in college.

Favorite book with music connection:
The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein

What makes this book special? One of my favorite books about music is Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, which I first came across in college. The book is a transcript of a series of lectures that Bernstein gave at Harvard in the 1970s. Throughout the talks, Bernstein encompasses many genres—from classical to pop—relating this music to outside disciplines like linguistics, poetry, and philosophy, and focusing on music’s capacity to express a universal “language.” A celebrated conductor and composer, Bernstein also had a tremendous gift for music education, and these lectures are a great example of his talent for presenting musical subjects in an engaging, thought-provoking way.