May 27, 2016

Preparing to sing with the RPO

The Rochester Oratorio Society will join the RPO's Philharmonics Season Finale concert weekend on Thursday June 2, and Saturday June 4, performing Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" from Prince Igor and Daphis and ChloƩ Suite. No. 2. This concert also features Van Cliburn winner Olga Kern on Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. ROS is an audition-based choral group with a 70 year history in the Rochester community. Led by artistic director Eric Townell, the Rochester Oratorio Society is a frequent guest to the RPO, having performed Carmina Burana at the 2015 Season Finale most recently.

“ROS is a great opportunity to sing in a high quality choral group,” said Henrietta resident Barbara Bissell-Erway, who sings second soprano. “When I moved to Rochester in 1995 I became interested through family and friends who were participating in ROS/RPO concerts. Handel's Messiah
ROS sings with the RPO
particularly drew me to the experience of performing.”

As artistic director, Eric Townell strives to educate the choir on the cultural and historical context of the pieces they perform to help them connect with the music on an emotional level.

“We have a text to convey in ‘Polovtsian Dances,’ and are immediately immersed in a cultural element," said Townell. "What is a Polovtsian anyway, and how do we sing it?”

Townell learned that the Polovtsians were warrior clans that invaded Russia in the 12th century. "Polovtsian Dances" concerns a conflict between Prince Igor, a Russian prince, and Konchak, leader of the Polovtsians.

“We are actually singing in Russian,” said Townell, who invited a Russian speaker to coach the chorus on the text. “She explained that many of the words have fallen out of use since Borodin's day, but she still helped us master the unique Russian vowel colors and guttural consonants that convey character so richly and allow the chorus to assert an energetic presence through the lush orchestral texture.”
Eric Townell

Eric Logan joined the chorus last year, and is enjoying preparing for the RPO season finale.

“Eric Townell models excellence in his own preparation and execution,” said Logan, who lives in the city’s South Wedge neighborhood and sings bass. “His expansive understanding of subtle differences in tonality, pronunciation, and dynamics across a wide range of composers and periods allows ROS to demonstrate a professional level of excellence and flexibility.”

As for Ravel’s Daphis and ChloĆ©, the composer may be French but the text is not nearly as complex as "Polovtsian Dances."

“It’s one word,” said Townell. “‘Ah!’ in French!”

Still, the piece comes with its own challenges.

“The challenge to Ravel's sweeping sounds is to know when to make entrances with our ‘Ah’ vocalizations, as an orchestral instrument,” said Bissell-Erway. “We look forward to Ward Stare leading the way as RPO and ROS crescendo in uplifting rapturous sound!”

If you go
Olga Kern plays Rachmaninoff
Thursday, June 2 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, May 28 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $22
Visit for more details

May 26, 2016

Outstanding volunteers recognized at annual event

On Monday May 16, the RPO honored 12 individuals and one community partner at the 24th Annual Volunteer Recognition Awards at Hochstein Performance Hall. Honorees received a certificate of achievement and framed photograph of the Orchestra, signed by Music Director Ward Stare. The RPO is pleased to have more than 600 individuals in our volunteer base. Check out a photo gallery from the event on the RPO's Facebook page.

Congratulations to the following outstanding volunteers!

2016 Honorees:
Volunteer Award winners with RPO leadership
c Erich Camping

Brianna Nance, Youth Volunteer
Volunteer since 2014

High school student Brianna is a volunteer for the RPO's OrKIDStra concert series. She is also the daughter of RPO musicians Wes and Shannon Nance. Brianna has volunteered her time at every OrKIDStra concert this season, helping out at the pre-concert activities. Brianna arrives early to set up, helps runs the activities, and stays after to clean up.

Sigrun Miller, Youth Orchestra
Volunteer since 2014

Sigrun's daughter is in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Sigrun has been particularly resourceful in two major RPYO fundraising activities: soliciting program ads for concert program books and securing donations from businesses for the annual gala fundraiser. She is also a leader to other RPYO parents, and served as chair of the gala committee this season.

Barbara DiFiore, General Office
(L to R) Music Director Ward Stare,
Board of Directors Chairman Jules Smith, and
Interim President & CEO Ralph Craviso presented the awards.
c Erich Camping

Volunteer since 1999

Barbara has worn many hats as an RPO volunteer, from usher and rear guard attendee to special events and general office support. She frequently covers the front desk for our office administrator. She has been a dependable part of the team, and her disposition at the front desk creates a welcoming image for visitors.

Cheri Emler, Special Projects
Guests enjoyed a dessert reception after the awards
c Erich Camping

Volunteer since 2010

This past holiday season, Cheri spearheaded an initiative to replace the Nutcracker figurines in the Eastman Theatre Oval Lobby, which had been damaged after years of display in the bustling lobby. Cheri successfully organized a fundraiser to replace the cost of new Nutcrackers by selling glass roses at RPO concerts in February and March. Cheri and her team of recruits helped raise $1600.00 to offset the cost of seven new nutcracker figurines.

Allison Barkowski, Theatre
Volunteer since 2005

As a Gibbs Street Assistant, Allison is responsible for helping patrons attending concerts in and out of the theatre safely. Many of the patrons arriving at the entrance to the theatre at Gibbs Street require assistance due to medical conditions or simply are elderly. Allison takes great pride in assisting any patron assuring their escort that they have been left in good hands. She is also a leader to other volunteers.

Carol Shulman, Rochester Philharmonic League
Volunteer since 2005

Carol served as League President for three years, from 2011 to 2014, and also served two terms on the board of directors. She brought her dedication and talents as an educator and natural leader to RPL volunteer efforts, where she served as chair of the Young Artist Auditions and the Orchestra and Staff Appreciation Luncheon, escorted thousands of children into the Theatre for the elementary school concerts, helped coordinate the Music, Munch, & Mingle Series with RPO musicians, and assisted in organizing the League’s annual excursion to see the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Christopher Pipa, Fundraiser
Joined RPO Board of Directors in 2014

Chris Pipa has been committed to finding new and innovative ways to increase revenue for this organization. Last summer, he and his wife Elaine hosted a special event at Penfield Country Club that featured cocktails, dinner, and a special performance by our orchestra. That event has since evolved into an annual “Concert on the Green Series,” which will feature similar events at area country clubs this summer.

Dr. Stephen Rosenfeld, Board of Directors
Joined RPO Board of Directors in 2013

Dr. Rosenfeld is retired from the University of Rochester Medical Center, where he now holds the title of professor emeritus. While he and his wife Elise have been involved with the RPO for a number of years as subscribers and volunteers, Dr. Rosenfeld officially joined the Board of Directors in 2013. When the board is charged with an important task, Dr. Rosenfeld is often the first one to volunteer. He energizes the board and our donors to take more active roles in the organization and leads by example. He is past chair of the governance committee and also a member of the Patron Services and Marketing committee.

Mark Siwiec, Ambassador
Joined RPO Board of Directors in 2012

As a realtor with over 25 years of experience, Mark brings his talents as a relationship-builder to the RPO, where he serves as board secretary and is a member of the governance committee. He has a special interest in outreach, and is always spreading the good word to the community. In Mark’s own words, the RPO is the cultural jewel of the Rochester region. His favorite RPO memory is hearing Juliana Athayde performing Arvo Part's Fratres at a fundraising event several years ago. He considers it a privilege to work on the RPO Board, creating a more solid platform from which the musicians can share their world class talent.

Constellation Brands, Community Partner
Longtime supporter of the RPO

Constellation Brands has been a longtime supporter of the RPO, primarily on the summer concert series. They will serve as official sponsor for the annual CMAC concert on Saturday, July 9. They have also committed serving as an associate sponsor for the American Music Festival in the 2016-17 season.

Anna Steltenpohl, Education
Joined the RPO in 2008

A member of the orchestra since 2008, oboe and English horn player Anna Steltenpohl is also making her mark as a volunteer for the RPO’s education department. This season, she served as chair of the 28th annual RPO Musicians’ Awards for Outstanding Music Educators, which commends local teachers for their dedication to the arts and commitment to their students. Anna also regularly visits the education department during her free time between orchestra rehearsals and teaching at Eastman, among many other roles, to see if there is anything she can do to help.

Juliana Athayde, RPO Musician
The Caroline W. Gannett & Clayla Ward Chair
Joined the RPO in 2005

Juliana works tirelessly to promote the orchestra and our city in any way she can. Whenever possible, she and her husband Principal Oboe Erik Behr (The Dr. Jacques M. Lipson Chair) spend time with RPO guest artists and conductors to make sure they have a wonderful experience in Rochester and want to come back again.

She also meets and forges relationships with community leaders and current and potential board members to advocate for the power of music and to highlight what the RPO offers to our community. This season, she volunteered to play an integral role in an annual appeal, personally reaching out to current and potential donors to demonstrate her passion for the RPO.

Joanna Bassett, Baton of Distinction
Joined the RPO in 1984

The Baton of Distinction is given to an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty, and has only been given three times previously. RPO flutist Joanna Bassett has served the orchestra and staff, as well as the board of directors, the Rochester Philharmonic League, and worked tirelessly to elevate the enrichment, recognition and engagement of our volunteers. As a musician, she has rallied her colleagues to take a more active role in the many facets of the RPO. Joanna has said that she remains committed to volunteering because of the wonderful RPO volunteers she has met over the years, whose generosity and dedication she finds awe-inspiring. She built the Volunteer Enrichment Committee from the ground up in 1991, and has worked to present our volunteers with three programs each year since that time ranging from behind-the-scenes events to a musical game show!

Interested in learning more about Volunteer opportunities at the RPO? Contact Kathy Miller, Administrative and Volunteer Coordinator: or (585) 454-7311 X243.

May 3, 2016

'Alien Encounter' introduces young kids to classical music

Introducing young kids to classical music can be a challenge. How do you get three- to six-year-olds excited about music that sounds so alien to them? RPO conductor Michael Butterman has a solution. Bring in an extraterrestrial whose natural curiosity about the music will mimic what a young audience might feel.

On May 17-19, the RPO will visit three Rochester area locations to present the annual Tiny Tots concert series. Tiny Tots was designed to introduce pre-school and kindergarten students to the instruments of the orchestra, as well as basic musical concepts. Butterman will be joined onstage by “Schnoodle,” a friendly alien (and aspiring bass player) from the planet “Schnarp,” played by Eastman School of Music professor James VanDemark.
Schnoodle (James Van De Mark),
Michael Butterman and the RPO
c: Janice Hanson

“The concept for ‘Alien Encounter’ was born in Rochester about 13 years ago,” said Butterman, the RPO's principal conductor for education and community engagement. “Schnoodle comes to Earth to investigate exactly what a symphony orchestra is all about, since he heard the RPO is the best orchestra in the universe He tries his hand at playing various instrument, usually with comical results. He is mischievous, but also genuinely curious. He is a proxy for the kids―asking the questions they might ask and getting into the sort of trouble they might get into if were able to “run wild” at a concert.”

VanDemark is excited to reprise the role of Schnoodle, having played the part at the last ‘Alien Encounter’ concert series in 2012.

“I am wearing a remarkable, colorful costume and get to rebound off a trampoline as I play the bass drum in the Borodin Polovtsian Dances,” said VanDemark, a frequent guest narrator for the RPO. “The piece is hilarious to perform. I love the exchange with Michael Butterman and the musicians. The improv element is both wildly funny and extremely touching. Most of the kids believe that I really am an alien, and are extremely sad to see me return to Schnarp at the end.”

Butterman has continued developing ‘Alien Encounter’ over the years, even removing Schnoodle’s final bow to maintain belief.

“We found that the final bow confused the kids, since they really believed he was returning home,” said Butterman. “I’ve seen a few kids get choked up when he leaves. The show is funny, but also very touching.”

The Tiny Tots concert series draws more than 2,700 pre-school and kindergarten students annually. They are performed at different venues around the Rochester area and are open to 3-6 year olds. Pre-registration is required online. The 2016 Tiny Tots concerts are sponsored by Manning & Napier.

May 2, 2016

RPO Pops finale pays tribute to 1920s Harlem

Picture this scene. It’s the 1920s in Harlem. Despite the racial divide, the uptown crowd is flocking to a primarily black neighborhood to hear the talents of top entertainers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and more. The scene is The Cotton Club, a whites-only establishment that showcased black entertainers. Broadway composers and other songwriters congregated at the club, and what they heard influenced their own writing, changing the face of popular music and ushering in the Jazz Era.

The RPO is pleased to celebrate the 2015-16 Pops Series finale with an ode to The Cotton Club, featuring trumpeter Byron Stripling, vocalist Miche Braden, tap dancer Ted Louis Levy, and percussionist Robert Breithaupt. Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik conducts A Night at the Cotton Club II on Friday, May 27 and Saturday, May 28 at Kodak Hall.

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith
 (performance photo from "The Devil's Music" in 2012)

“For me, this is real music— it has a story,” said Miche (pronounced "Mickey") Braden, a vocalist whose credits include portraying 1920s blues legend Bessie Smith off-Broadway. “The Cotton Club shows always featured ‘the girl singer,’ which is me; the ‘headliner musician,’ which is Byron; and a tap dancer, which is Ted. The RPO show brings us back to that era.”

For trumpeter Byron Stripling, a frequent guest to the RPO, the opportunity to collaborate with Jeff Tyzik again is pure joy.

“He has been a huge influence for me, and his musicality is second to none,” said Stripling, who is currently artistic director and conductor of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra in Ohio. Stripling met Tyzik when he was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music and Jeff asked him to join his big band. Since then, the two have performed for more than 40 symphonies around the world in pops concerts. “Jeff taught me to be an entrepreneur as a musician. Young musicians can look to his example of how to forage a career in the 21st century.”
Byron Stripling

Stripling also had the honor of performing as Louis Armstrong in an off-Broadway musical based on the performer’s life. While he is an accredited actor, Stripling and Co. won’t be performing “in character” for Cotton Club.

“This concert will give you the spirit of what it was like in this time period,” said Stripling. “This music was the saving grace for people during the Prohibition era and the Depression. It brought people together and let them know everything was going to be all right.”

A Night at the Cotton Club II is the sequel to an earlier show the RPO performed in 2012. This new edition features more songs by the artists who left their mark on the 1920s sound.

“I love the opportunity to improvise on this music,” said Stripling. “It’s like watching somebody think on their feet and it makes it new every time I get to perform it.”

If you go
A Night at the Cotton Club II
Friday, May 27 at 8 PM
Saturday, May 28 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $22
Visit for more details

Three performers from A Night at the Cotton Club II: Jeff Tyzik, Byron Stripling, and Robert Breithaupt perform a tribute to Louis Armstrong with the Malaysian Philharmonic in 2013.

May 1, 2016

From the Stage: RPO violinist Thomas Rodgers

The RPO presents the last Sunday Matinee concert of the 2015-16 season on Sunday, May 29, at Hochstein Performance Hall at 2 PM. You might consider the program an ode to spring, opening with Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, featuring a solo violin emulating a skylark in flight, and closing with Beethoven's light and playful eighth symphony. Filling the middle of the program is a piece for solo flute by the late Jon Lord, an English composer known as the keyboard player from the rock band Deep Purple. The RPO is pleased to highlight musicians Thomas Rodgers (violin), and Rebecca Gilbert (flute, The Charlotte Whitney Allen Chair) on this program, conducted by Michael Butterman (The Louise and Henry Epstein Family Chair).

We caught up with Thomas Rodgers to learn more about his reactions toward the The Lark Ascending, which British journalist Simon Heffer once called "pastoral romance for orchestra."
Vaughan Williams wrote the piece based on a 19th century poem by English poet George Meredith.

Thomas Rodgers, violin
Thomas Rodgers
credit Roger Mastroianni

"I am very much looking forward to my first-ever performance (and, hopefully many more) of Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, as I unfortunately never studied the piece during my student days. Much of Vaughan Williams' music is influenced by English folk songs and evokes a certain nostalgia for his homeland. The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (one of Vaughan Williams' most popular works that the RPO just performed in March) are great examples. His works often convey vivid emotions, therefore making his music very accessible and popular among both performers and audiences.

"Whenever I listen to or play The Lark Ascending, I cannot help but feel moved and invigorated by the sheer beauty of this work. I have an affinity for slower, more intimate music, and The Lark Ascending is one of the works near the top of my list. The lark's melodies imitated by the solo violin combined with the magical, velvet-like texture of the orchestra just rip my heart out.  I am excited to get to perform and share such gorgeous music!"  

If you go:
Vaughan Williams and Beethoven
Sunday, May 29 at 2 PM
Hochstein Performance Hall
Tickets are $25
Visit for more details

Preview The Lark Ascending as performed by the London Philharmonic with David Nolan on violin.