May 30, 2017

Billboard chart-topper to perform with RPO

Internationally acclaimed American pianist Simone Dinnerstein brings her talents to Hochstein Performance Hall this Sunday, June 4 to close out the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Sunday Matinee series.
Simone Dinnerstein

Dinnerstein recently reached No. 2 on the Billboard Classical Chart for her new album Mozart in Havana, but she first rose to prominence with her self-funded recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, another Billboard chart topper released in 2007. Described as an “utterly distinctive voice in the forest of Bach interpretation” by the New York Times, Dinnerstein will play two of the great composer’s lesser known piano concerti with the RPO: Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor and Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F Minor. Although she appreciates all of the Bach keyboard concerti, she considers these two to be his most profound.

She singled out the slow, second movement of the F Minor concerto as one of the most beautiful things she’s ever heard. “Playing it is the closest I get to singing,” she said. She describes a singing-like quality, too, in the D Minor concerto, which she explains is the result of its origins as part of a cantata Bach wrote for an organ accompanied by a choir. While it’s “much weightier,” than the concerto in F Minor, she notes the interactive and intimate feel both works convey. That intimacy will be ideal for performance at Hochstein, a much smaller venue than the cavernous Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, where the RPO plays the majority of its concerts.

Apart from her first performance with the RPO, Dinnerstein has a lot going on in 2017. Mozart in Havana was recorded in Cuba with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and features Mozart’s Piano Concerto Nos. 21 and 23. This summer, the HLO will travel to the United States to tour with Dinnerstein up and down the East Coast. It will be the first time an orchestra from Cuba has toured the U.S. since the Cuban Revolution. Also this year, Dinnerstein will debut a new piano concerto written for her by Philip Glass and co-commissioned by twelve orchestras around the country. She will also collaborate with choreographer Pam Tanowitz on New Work for Goldberg Variations, a piece for piano and six dancers. The collaboration translates the rhythms and structures of Bach’s Goldberg Variations into movement, and will debut at Duke University in the fall of 2017.

If you go
Bach & Stravinsky
Sunday, June 4 at 2 PM
Hochstein Performance Hall
Tickets $27 available at or by calling 454-2100

Written by Mary Rice, RPO marketing assistant

Hear Simone Dinnertein perform the two Bach concerti and other works by Bach in this playlist from her 2011 album Bach: A Strange Beauty recorded with the Staatskapelle Berlin.

May 24, 2017

Bohème behind-the-scenes: a chorus perspective

The following essay was written by Brenda Tremblay, morning host on Classical 91.5* and 90.3 FM, streaming at Tremblay will perform in the RPO's production of La Bohème with Madrigalia Chorus. We asked her to write about her experience preparing for the concerts!

Brenda Tremblay (far right) backstage at rehearsal

Rehearsal at La Bohème
"Rain glistens on new leaves. The scent of lilacs fills the air. Dogs bark. My neighbors think I’m weird. And who could blame them? For weeks, they’ve seen me prowling the tree-lined streets, muttering like a madwoman -clutching a book, chanting, and singing fragments of songs. They don’t know I’ve been preparing for this week’s semi-staged production of La Bohème.

"La Bohème is Giocomo Puccini’s four act opera based on a book about the lives of poor bohemians in 1840’s Paris. Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere in Turin in 1896, and though the first audience left puzzled, the story and its sensuous music soon enraptured listeners all over the world.

"It is one of the most-performed operas in history. Why? First, the music is gorgeous. Second, the themes are universal. We respond to a simple story of people falling in and out of love. We see that the smallest objects – a hat, a key, a candle - can glow with meaning, especially in the face of death. We know that chance encounters shape our lives.

"With my friends in Madrigalia, I’m in the chorus in the Latin Quarter scene, appearing in Act II as a generic Parisian woman and then in Act III as a tired milk-woman trudging to work with an invisible donkey. I don’t actually speak Italian, so committing about twenty minutes of music in that language to memory pushed me to invent a system of pattern recognition using emojis. My score is puckered and coffee-stained.
Brenda Tremblay explains Act II scene
via emoji on Twitter

"What’s it like onstage? It’s a completely immersive experience, like diving into a deep, warm pool. The music swirls to the back of the hall. Have you seen the documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom? It popped into my head last night when I was literally standing two feet from soprano Jacqueline Echols as she sang “Musetta’s Waltz” with full-throated glory. My real-life teenage son Gavin is a street sweeper in the chorus, and when we’re onstage together I’m buzzed with delight that we’ll share this experience. But I have to concentrate.

"I concentrate on everything our excellent chorus master Cary Ratcliff has taught us: breathe early, lift the soft palate, purse lips, sing without vibrato to produce a pure, rich unified sound free of operatic warbling. I try to remember all these things. I try not to trip. I try to remember where I am.

"Snow sparkles on the streets of Paris. The smells of butter and cinnamon and toasted almonds fill the marketplace. See the heaps of oranges and hot-roasted chestnuts? Is your mouth watering? Here comes a noisy crowd in a cacophony of joy and chaos. They have very little money but an unquenchable zest for life. Their kids are squirrely. And who can blame them?

It’s Christmas Eve in Paris!"

*The RPO’s semi-staged La Boheme is scheduled to air on WXXI-FM on July 3 and October 2 at 8 p.m. 

If you go
Puccini's La Bohème in Concert
Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, May 27 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $23

May 23, 2017

RPO's "La Bohème" is "intimate storytelling at its finest"

The following note was written by Grant Preisser, stage director for the RPO's semi-staged concert producion of Puccini 's La Bohème. Preisser is general manager and stage director for Angels & Demons Entertainment (ADE), a full-service production company focused on producing concert and semi-staged works for symphony orchestras. This is his RPO debut.
Grant Preisser

"Opera as an art form is known for its larger-than-life characters presented on a grand stage. It is the marriage of incredible music, stellar singing, and spectacular production that keeps audiences enraptured and rouses them to their feet in thunderous applause. However, more and more concert and semi-staged productions of opera are being presented by opera companies and symphony orchestras alike. This type of presentation is the full opera with reduced production elements: limited to no set, the orchestra on stage, and limited staging opportunities for the singers. On the surface this sounds static and not representative of the composer’s envisioning of the work, but with the right piece this can create a heightened and perhaps more intense dramatic experience for an audience.

"La Bohème is just such a piece that lends itself well to a semi-staged treatment. Puccini eschewed the tradition of operas being about gods and goddesses, kings and queens, focusing much of his work on more relatable characters. His self-professed intent in his compositions was to express “great sorrows in little souls.” In this semi-staged presentation, “great sorrows” are expressed by the RPO onstage and the “little souls” are brought to life by a sensitive and nuanced cast. Puccini puts real people onstage, emphasizing human relationships and the tender, tenuous route they take. This works well within the more intimate and evocative setting that a semi-staged production creates.

"Based on the Henri Murger novel and subsequent play, Puccini, with librettists Luigi Illica
and Giuseppe Giacosa, structured his La Bohème into four acts, which Puccini conceptualized
as “images.” Each image is a vignette of the bohemian life, with the plot centering around
the relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. The idea of images works well within the limitations
of a semi-staged approach in that each scene is presentational without the need for scenic
elements to aid the drama. Some strategic props and simple costume elements set the tableau,
and the audience is left to become immersed in the drama unfolding before them.

"Semi-staged productions, however, are not simply putting the singers in front of the orchestra and giving them appropriate entrances and exits. The onus in communicating Puccini’s story now rests solely on the power of each singer’s performance and the ensemble dynamic created between the characters. This is intimate storytelling at its finest as the singers must connect and emotionally engage the audience who aren’t distracted by the typical sweeping Parisian backdrop associated with other iconic productions of this work.

"What evokes the sweeping landscape intended for this band of Bohemians instead is the ability to have an expanded orchestra and chorus. Not being limited to a pit or the confines of a stage, the orchestra and chorus become characters in the piece as opposed to simple accompaniment. For Puccini this creates a glorious opportunity for the audience to bask in his lush melodic lines and rich orchestral texture, getting swept away on an emotional journey to the tearful conclusion of Rodolfo and Mimì’s relationship."

If you go
Puccini's La Bohème in Concert
Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, May 27 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $23

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