September 30, 2016

Ray Charles protegé Ellis Hall returns to the RPO

Ellis Hall is a rare breed. A soul musician in the truest sense of the word, Hall brims with joy and seemingly limitless positivity. Even just speaking with him becomes somewhat of a musical experience in itself, as he waxes poetic and frequently cracks himself up when recanting his long, storied career.

It’s no small wonder that he’s been dubbed the “ambassador of soul”—a title given to him right here in Rochester by RPO Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik.

 “Jeff was the first person to ever give me the title,” Hall said. “I love him to pieces! The first time we met was when I played trumpet for the Rochester Symphony Orchestra back in the 70s, and immediately we were like brothers joined at the hip.”

This season, Hall and Tyzik are bringing a fiercely unique blend of soul, orchestral, and pop music to the RPO with “Soul Unlimited”. The show takes standards from all sides of the soul and R&B spectrum, from Stevie Wonder to Marvin Gaye and beyond, and injects them with Hall’s soaring vocals and Tyzik with the RPO.

For Hall, performing in any capacity is a pleasure unlike any other, but performing with a whole orchestra feels almost too good to be true.

“I tell folks all the time, I’m in the middle of it but I still don’t believe it!”, Hall laughed. “When I sing and play, the gates of heaven open up and I walk on through. The orchestra just enhances that. It’s a delicious thing, and I get to share my box of crayons. I have so many musical colors, and we’re all painting pictures with sound.”

A protegé and signee of Ray Charles (or “Papa Ray” as Hall calls him), it’s safe to say that Hall studied his craft with the best. Their time together is something Hall holds near and dear to his heart, and the lessons he learned from Charles‘ tutelage are things he hopes to pass on through his music.

“Working with Ray for the last few years of his life was just amazing,” Hall said. “If you were bringing it like you were supposed to be bringing it from the heart, he was in his true glory. We had a lot of things in common, our sight, our love for our Mothers, and living in the great state of Georgia. Even up until the end of his life he was fascinated with helping me get my music out there.”

With “Soul Unlimited”, Hall is continuing to do just that. For Hall, music and the joy it brings is a gift to be shared, and he has no plans to stop sharing it any time soon.

“Jeff and I are getting ready to bring our shows all around the world,” Hall said. “Right now I’m just too blessed to be stressed!”

If you go
Soul Unlimited with Ellis Hall
Friday, October 21 at 8 PM
Saturday, October 22 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $23

Written by Alexander Jones, a graduate of RIT's journalism program and recent marketing and communications intern at the RPO.

Learn more about Ellis and his career in this promo reel.

September 26, 2016

Series Spotlight: RPO Around the Town

Serving the Rochester community is a top priority for the RPO. The RPO’s free semi-annual Around the Town Concert Series serves as a way to reach communities who might not otherwise attend concerts at the Eastman Theatre. The RPO's next Around the Town series will be held in three different locations October 6 through 8 under the baton of guest conductor Steven Byess. Orchestral and symphonic music may not be readily available to everyone who’s interested in it, so it’s important to bring it out of the concert halls and into new neighborhoods. Finding specific spaces in these neighborhoods to host concerts can be quite a challenge, but RPO Director of Education Barbara Brown is more than up for the task.

“I have worked with churches, schools, recreation centers, and hospitals, so the types of venues we perform in can vary quite a bit,” Brown said. “I act as the RPO’s liaison to the venue—the venues we have worked with have been incredible and want to get every detail just right. If it is a venue we are going to for the first time, there can be a lot of questions to answer.”

For Brown, bringing the RPO to new areas and communities around Rochester has been an inspiring experience.

“One of my favorite Around the Town experiences was when we played a concert at Monroe Community Hospital,” Brown continued. “The auditorium was packed with patients and their families. For those patients in more serious condition not able to leave their rooms, we were able to send a live feed of the concert directly to the TVs in their hospital room. I believe we were able to bring a sense of peace and normalcy to the patients and families who were going through a tough time.”

Beyond the task of organizing the concerts and finding spaces to host them in, creating a program for the Around the Town series is its own separate challenge. Around the Town concert programs must be simultaneously accessible enough for new audiences while still representative of what the RPO has to offer across the board. This is something that RPO Vice President of Artistic Administration Richard Decker recognizes, and this year the Around the Town program he helped put together is truly one-of-a-kind.

“The program was selected to serve as a kind of preview concert to the upcoming American Music Festival that RPO Music Director Ward Stare programmed, with the additional hope that the program would be experienced positively as both an educational and entertaining event,” said Decker. All of the works featured on the Around the Town program are by American composers, as is the repertoire that will be performed in Stare's American Music Festival later that month as part of the RPO's 2016-17 season. The Around the Town programming includes familiar tunes from West Side Story (composer Leonard Bernstein) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (composer John Williams) juxtaposed with Howard Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony No. 2 and Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" from Rodeo.

“We work very hard to create concert experiences where the audience will always walk away with the sentiment that they have not only heard a well-played concert, but that they heard engaging music that hopefully resonated with them in some personal way.”

Despite the organization and time commitment that goes into the Around the Town series, it’s still largely a grassroots effort. Beyond that, it’s truly a labor of love for those involved.

“We do what we can by advertising on our website, social media, sending out a press release, and creating fliers for the use of each venue to promote the concert,” said Brown. “When we have the chance to play a concert that is free to the public, we want everyone to take advantage of the opportunity and see those seats full of people!”

If you go:
What: Around the Town community concert series
When: Thursday-Saturday, October 6-8
Where: See below
Time: All concerts at 7:30 p.m.
$$$: Free

Thursday, October 6
Eastridge High School
2350 East Ridge Rd., Rochester, NY 14622

, October 7
Fairport High School
1 Dave Paddock Way, Rochester, NY 14450

Saturday, October 8

Churchville-Chili High School
5786 Buffalo Rd., Churchville, NY 14428

Written by Alexander Jones, a graduate of RIT's journalism program and recent marketing and communications intern at the RPO.

September 12, 2016

From the Stage: RPO Principal Cellist Ahrim Kim

The RPO presents the first Sunday Matinee concert of the 2016-17 season on Sunday, October 2 at Hochstein Performance Hall at 2 PM. This concert features principal cellist Ahrim Kim’s RPO solo debut; Kim joined the RPO at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. Kim will perform Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major. Haydn wrote the piece in 1783 for cellist Anton Kraft, and it’s a complex piece that requires a lot of the performer.

We caught up with Ahrim Kim to learn more about her personal history with the piece, as well as why she is looking forward to performing it with the RPO!

Ahrim Kim, cellist
The Clara and Edwin Strasenburgh Chair

"It's an honor to play this magnificent piece with the RPO! It's a required concerto for many major orchestra auditions, and it's quite terrifying to play it in those settings. It's technically quite challenging and exposed—often musically delicate and elegant. Therefore, I'm so excited that I’ll get to fully enjoy the piece with the proper accompaniment and support this time! I played it as a soloist with my school orchestra back when I was still in Korea, but revisiting it this time will feel very different since I'm more mature (hopefully) and will have more things to say.

"I can't wait to share this beautiful piece with everyone, and I wish that they might cherish the beauty and joy it brings"

Learn more about Ahrim Kim in this Q and A.

If you go:
Beethoven & Haydn
Sunday, October 2 at 2 PM
Hochstein Performance Hall
Tickets are $27
Visit for more details

September 5, 2016

Meet Una Gong, new cellist

Una Gong
c Jee Eun Jang
The RPO welcomes new fifth chair cellist Una Gong, a New York City native. As a young woman, she attended the Juilliard Pre-College Division on full scholarship and served as principal cellist of Juilliard's school concert orchestra. She also has had the opportunity to perform as a soloist at Carnegie Hall through the Perlman Music Program. Most recently, she performed as a substitute musician with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In addition to performing with the RPO this season, she is concurrently pursuing her artist's diploma as a fellow of the San Francisco Academy Orchestra.

When and why did you choose your instrument?
I started off playing the piano when I was five years old. I started playing the cello in 1995 when I was thirteen years old. My friend had just started playing the cello, and she began playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" for us. That changed my whole life! I fell in love with the cello at first sight. I thought it was the most beautiful sound I'd heard and it just grasped my heart. When I got home, I begged my mom to switch my instrument!

Why are you looking forward to coming to Rochester?
My teacher highly recommended the RPO because the level of the orchestra is very good and it would be a great experience for me to start my career!

What fascinates you besides music?
I am interested in helping people who are facing poverty and disease all around the world. I want to make the world a better place. And, I think I am a good cook.

Favorite piece you are looking forward to playing this season at the RPO and why?
It's hard to choose one. It's a tie between Haydn's Cello Concerto in D (Oct. 2) and The Nutcracker! Haydn in D is one of my favorite cello concertos that has brought me success whenever I used it for auditions. I am so excited to hear our Principal Cellist Ahrim Kim play my favorite cello concerto beautifully. As for The Nutcracker, I used to listen to it when I grew up. It's just so playful, uplifting, and signifies Christmas!

Any advice would you give to a young performer who wants to pursue an orchestral career?
Love the music, feel your heart, and be thankful for being able to produce the most beautiful sound. That's what I had in my mind when I auditioned for RPO.

Anything else to share? I am looking forward to joining this season at RPO!

Look for Una onstage this fall, and read more about her on

Meet Nikolette LaBonte, new associate/assistant/utility horn

Nikolette LaBonte grew up in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and joins the RPO this season as associate/assistant/utility horn. She also will be returning to the Eastman School of Music to finish her degree in horn performance under the direction of RPO Principal Horn W. Peter Kurau (The Cricket and Frank Luellen Chair). In 2015, she was appointed acting assistant principal horn of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, and also served as associate principal horn of the Hawaii Opera Theater and Oahu Choral Society.
Nikolette LaBonte
c Nadine Sherman

When and why did you choose your instrument?
When I was nine years old, my mom enrolled me in band class. We went to the music store to pick out an instrument and I remember my band director had said that he’d like some new horn or oboe players. No offense to the oboe, but the French horn was just more visually appealing to my fourth-grade self. Only later, did I fall in love with all the characteristic traits that everyone comes to know and love about the instrument.

What is the role of the associate/assistant/utility horn?
It’s actually one of the more unique positions in the orchestra because of the strenuous nature of the first horn parts of the major symphonic repertoire. In almost every orchestral masterwork, the principal horn has a taxing part made up of solos, soft delicate passages, and expansive brass chorales. In order to ensure that he or she has enough stamina and strength to play all of these roles, the principal will call upon an assistant/associate horn to help out. Often times, I’ll be playing principal on one of the pieces on the first half and will be sitting next to the principal on the other pieces, taking over during parts of the piece that are particularly taxing. The “utility” portion of the job comes into play when another member of the section must take a week off. During those concerts, I’ll still take over principal duties when necessary but will be filling in on the other missing part in their absence. All in all, it makes for a varied job description that will certainly keep me on my toes this season!

You are the co-founder of a program called “Olympic Overtures” that ties Olympic athletes in with classical music. Tell me more about that.
Olympic Overtures was founded in 2014 by myself and a former Eastman colleague of mine, Carly Gordon, who is currently studying at McGill University. Carly and I both love the Olympics and see a lot of connections between the world of competitive sports and the world of professional music.  We work with athletes who are also classical musicians or music lovers and ask them to create a short video of them talking about their favorite classical piece: how they discovered it, if they use it to train/relax, what inspires them about it, etc. And it's been amazing to hear their answers and hear how the greatest athletes in the world derive inspiration from what I do, just as I draw inspiration from their performances!  Needless to say, every two years you'll find me squarely planted in front of my TV in red, white, and blue garb for the duration of the Games!

Favorite piece you are looking forward to playing this season at the RPO and why?
This is a tough one, but I’ll say Mahler 5 (April 20 & 22). It features one of the most prominent horn parts in the repertoire and there are six horn parts instead of the usual four. There are so many layers to the piece that it’s always fun to discover something new in a work that you think you know so well.

What advice would you give to a young performer who wants to pursue an orchestral career?
Unabashedly, be yourself. In any situation—audition, interview, college essay, rehearsal, performance--if you are able to let go, be vulnerable, and openly say ‘this is who I am and what I have to offer,’ you will be free to take risks, push your limits, and make confident decisions. The honesty that you project will be noticed. And often times, that honesty is what will win you that job, get you that acceptance letter, and allow you to connect with your audience resulting in a really powerful performance. It may seem simple, but that’s the best advice I can offer at this point. That or just practice your scales!

Anything else to share? I have one pet, a fish named John Gilliams!

Look for Nikolette onstage this fall, and read more about her on!

September 2, 2016

Meet Hanna Landrum, new principal second violin

Hanna Landrum
c Alex Cooke Studios
A native of Frontenac, Minnesota, Hanna Landrum joins the RPO this season as principal second violin. She is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music and most recently served as acting concertmaster for the Canton Symphony (Ohio). From 2011 to 2014, she was associate concertmaster of the Firelands Symphony (Ohio), and has spent several summers as a substitute violinist with The Cleveland Orchestra.

When and why did you choose your instrument?
When I was six, I remember my mom asking me if I’d rather take violin lessons or dance. Somewhere within those six years I must have come across a photo of a ballerina’s feet, because I remember thinking very seriously about those two options and deciding that anything that made your feet look like that couldn’t possibly be healthy! I announced that I would be a violinist, and that next Christmas I got a tiny violin. I’m lucky no one told me about the myriad of injuries that can befall a string player!

Why are you looking forward to coming to Rochester?
Everyone I’ve spoken with in the orchestra has been so incredibly warm and welcoming. I feel fortunate to have this opportunity and I can’t imagine a better place to begin this next chapter!

What fascinates you besides music?
I grew up on a farm, so I’ve always been naturally drawn to geology and botany. I’ve also recently become fascinated by linguistics, particularly Chomsky’s theories of syntax and the evolution of modern language, and I spend a lot of time reading and writing.

What are you reading right now?
The Recognitions by William Gaddis, Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson-I’m always reading at least three things at once!

Favorite piece you are looking forward to playing this season at the RPO and why?
I’m really excited to play Sean Shepherd’s Magiya (Mar. 9 and 11). It’s a short piece, but it’s filled with a vast array of colors and rich orchestration! I’m also looking forward to performing The Nutcracker for the first time. I was obsessed with it when I was little. Someone gave me a cassette tape of the full ballet and I listened to it over and over until the tape broke and unspooled everywhere.

What advice would you give to a young performer who wants to pursue an orchestral career?

Never turn down an opportunity to hear a new performance, live or recorded. We spend so much time alone in practice rooms, agonizing over etudes and excerpts, that it’s easy to forget what made us fall in love with this career in the first place. It’s incredibly important to keep perspective, and remember that what audiences want to hear is music.

Anything else to share? I got married last year, to an incredibly talented composer!

Look for Hanna onstage this fall, and read more about her on!