Old meets new in chamber music season finale

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Juliana Athayde and Erik Behr

If you attend a Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert, you see Juliana Athayde and Erik Behr from the very beginning. As RPO concertmaster, violinist Athayde sits front and center to lead the orchestra’s string section. And as principal oboe, Behr strikes up the note “A” for the orchestra’s tuning.

In 20 years as stalwarts of the RPO, these married musicians have performed the grandest works in the orchestral repertoire, from Beethoven to Mahler to Stravinsky. (The night before our interview, they’d performed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.) They also find fulfillment in the more intimate world of chamber music, as artistic directors of the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester, which presents the final concert of its 47th season Sunday afternoon at Nazareth University.

Athayde and Behr joined the society in 2013 but were long familiar with it.

“In 2005 I’d just arrived at the RPO,” says Athayde, “and was invited to perform on the series by its former directors, Stefan Reuss and Joe Werner (former cellist and keyboard player with the RPO). I was very complimented.”

She was also impressed by the other musicians—who were often her RPO cohorts.

When Athayde and Behr assumed leadership, the society had already had a long history, and the new directors were interested in a fresh approach. They knew they had to examine the past first.

“Luckily, we have a wonderful, very organized board,” says Behr, “who had compiled the complete list of all our programming, back to 1977-78. As we expected, the society had presented most of the standard chamber works. But we now know there is much more meat on this bone, so we decided to present more varied, diverse repertoire—unfamiliar works, unusual combinations of instruments, women composers, composers of color, and so on.”

Athayde adds: “So many people have come up to me after a concert and said, ‘I had never heard this!’ It wasn’t super off-the-wall repertoire, just music a lot of people hadn’t heard before.”

For both of them, presenting contemporary music is vital.

“We have to support today’s composers,” says Behr. “In the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s there were many important composers—Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók—whose music was mostly ignored here in Rochester. We don’t want to make that mistake again.” 

The society has a young composers’ competition, and recently commissioned a new work from Daniel Pesca, who recently joined the Eastman faculty. It will commission other composers for its upcoming 50th season.

“That’s only two years from now,” says Behr, “so we need to get going!”

Along with showcasing underrepresented composers, the society has experimented with thematic concerts, incorporating jazz with the classics in “Baroque and Blue” concerts, and other unusual approaches to programming. Next season’s guests include the Rochester City Ballet, and featured composers include Rochester’s David Liptak and Octavio Vasquez. (More information on the 2024-2025 season is available here.)

“Thinking about our programming,” says Athayde, “it occurred to me: ‘Why should there be only one kind of concert? Why not a different experience each time? Why not branch out?” So far, she adds, audiences seem to enjoy traveling down different musical paths.

This year, the society’s audience has also taken a different path to its concerts. After several different performance venues over the years, the society’s new home is Nazareth University’s Beston Hall. The directors find the new location convenient and accessible, with ample parking.

“We want to make it easy to go to our concerts,” says Athayde.

The June 9 concert, titled “Old and New,” is an eclectic potpourri that, true to the society’s aims, offers music you probably haven’t heard before.

“Old” is represented by 18th century sonatas by Leclair, Boismortier, and Telemann; “new” (or at least 20th century) by music of Korngold, Prokofiev, and the Polish female composer Graznya Bacewicz. Musicians are husband-and-wife violinists Janelle and James Thompson, cellist Beilang Zhu, pianist Jacob Ertl, and RPO principal bassoonist Matthew McDonald.

With a program like this, which choices come first: the musicians or the music?

“A little bit of both,” says Athayde. “I think of it in terms of looking through the pantry, to see what delicious ingredients are available for dinner. We’ll have a few players in mind, and they’ll sometimes have pieces in mind that they’ve always wanted to play.”  If this leads to unusual results, so much the better.  “As the choices for this one evolved, the music was either baroque or 20th century, and we thought, that will be an interesting interplay of styles.”

The society continues to offer many RPO musicians like Janelle Thompson and Matthew McDonald relatively rare opportunities to play chamber music.

“Playing in the orchestra is a powerful, collective, communal experience—of course, it’s under the control of a conductor,” says Athayde. “Chamber music is more of a democracy. In preparing a piece, each person’s voice is considered. We’re all creating this together. There is a great camaraderie, and you can see all your fellow musicians.”

Adds Behr: “Each type of playing develops skills that you can bring to the other. Playing in a great orchestra can be like performing in a big chamber group.”

“Other orchestral musicians will tell me, ‘Oh, I would love to have the opportunity to play more chamber music!’” says Athayde. “Others who mostly play chamber music say, ‘Man, I would love the chance to play in a big Mahler symphony!’ We are very lucky: we get to do both.”

The Society for Chamber Music in Rochester presents “Old and New” on June 9 at 4 p.m. in Beston Hall, Glazer Music Performance Center at Nazareth University.

David Raymond is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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