Skip to main content

GSO's musical director balances what audiences know and what is unfamiliar in planning new season

By Howard B. Owens
Shade Zajac 2019 file photo
S. Shade Zajac conducting the Genesee Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal in 2018.
Photo by Howard Owens.

Audiences can be unpredictable, suggested Genesee Symphony Orchestra Music Director S. Shade Zajac while discussing how he's programmed the 2023-24 season and especially the season's opening show next Sunday, Oct. 22.

"Sometimes you think something is really going to connect with people, and it receives a lukewarm reaction," Zajac told The Batavian. "And sometimes you think, oh, boy, this is going to be tough for people to grasp, and then they go wild for it. You never really know."

The lineup for the opener for next Sunday's concert:

  • Romanian Dances, by Béla Bartók
  • Háry János Suite, by Zoltán Kodály
  • Trail of Tears Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra, by Michael Dougherty
  • Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A Major, by George Enesco

Zajac thinks audience members will find the music of the concert both challenging -- because some of the selections might be unfamiliar to many people -- or engaging -- either because of the dynamics or sheer beauty of the selections. 

"I'm always trying to bring things that the audience really will connect to and also maybe give them something a little new," Zajac said.

The program selection is built around the Trail of Tears Concerto, which will feature Rebecca Gilbert, principal flutist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Composed by Dougherty in 1989, the piece commemorated the 150th anniversary of the forced march in 1838-39 of Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and the Seminoles off their land in the Southeastern U.S. more than 1,500 miles to what is now part of Oklahoma.

"It's a very, very interesting piece," Zajac said. "It's got some really beautiful and emotional moments in it. And it's got some unbelievable virtuosic playing for the solo flute. He (Dougherty) asks her to do a lot of different kinds of techniques to sound like a traditional Native American flute, so what we call breath tones and pitch bends and slides. It sounds very, very authentic, ethnic, which then kind of ties the rest of the program together."

The ethenic theme of the program is set up by the Bartók and Kodály (pronounced co-die) pieces.  Both Bartók and Kodály were composers, but they were also ethnomusicologists, perhaps the first ethnomusicologists, something that wasn't really possible before the invention of machines that record voices and music. They both traveled to Transylvania with a Thomas Edison invention, a wax cylinder recorder and recorded the music of the towns and villages in that part of Romania. They then incorporated the unique musical elements of those songs into their own compositions.

"The Kodály is a really wild piece of music," Zajac said. "Again, I've never conducted it before. And it calls for a very large orchestra, I think, like six trumpets and a smattering of percussion. We're just we're having tons of fun doing it. And it's a very colorful, colorful piece of music."

The final piece of the program returns to a Romanian setting. 

Enescu, born in Romania in 1881, building his fame as a composer in the early 20th Century, was often compared to Mozart.  This piece was composed in 1901 and is perhaps his most famous work.

"It's really virtuosic and showy for the orchestra features a lot of people," Zajac said. "After our last two seasons with the 75th season, which was two seasons ago, and then last season, you know, doing all this Brahms and all this heavy dramatic music, I kind of wanted to go in a completely different direction. When you finish a monumental project like that, you're like, 'Okay, what do we do next?' And this seemed like a different way to go. And the orchestra is really enjoying it. I think the audience will really like this program."

Earlier in the conversation, discussing the challenges of selecting pieces for an orchestra concert, Zajac compared some pieces of music to "comfort food."

"It is called comfort food for a reason because, you know, mom's chicken pot pies always gonna taste good," Zajac said. "So if she asked someone what they want to eat, they're gonna say, chicken pot pie. It's scarier to go out and try something new. You're gonna take a chance. There's a chance you really like it, and you find something that you really like, and there's a chance that this is going to be terrible. And now you feel like you've just wasted dinner. So I think there's a human need to feel comfort. I know how this is gonna go. I'm not going to be surprised."

Zajac said comfort food on a program helps the less familiar pieces go down a little easier for audiences.

“Romanian Rhapsody” is perhaps the comfort food on the first program, Zajac said.

"Whether or not you know, if you sit down and you listen to this piece, there is no way, if we do our job, and the GSO always does its job, there's no way you're gonna be in your seat because it's just, it's one of those pieces. It's a showpiece. There's fireworks and fast playing and all sorts of things. So that's probably the comfort food, but the Bartok and the Kodály, even though they may be unfamiliar, they're just excellent pieces of music, and they're wild."

After Sunday's concert, the GSO has five more performances this season -- three concerts as part of its regular season and a performance at the GCC Foundation's annual Encore event.

The holiday concert will, of course, include the ultimate in comfort foods, "Sleigh Ride," by Leroy Anderson. 

The program will also feature a solo by GSO's concertmaster, Julia Plato, on the winter movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

"She's a wonderful, wonderful leader and an excellent musician, so we're excited to feature her," Zajack said.

The Dec. 15 Encore event will also be filled with holiday music but not all the same pieces as the GSO's annual Holiday Concert.

In February, the GSO's theme turns British, with English composers being featured, including Sir Paul McCartney.  The former Beatle has written -- even some of his biggest fans aren't aware of this -- a number of classical pieces.

Zajac predicts his mom will especially like the concert.

"My mom is like the world's biggest Paul McCartney fan," Zajac said. "I know every fan says that they're the biggest Paul McCartney fan. My mom is like the biggest Paul McCartney fan. In fact, when she met my father, she goes, 'Well, just so you know, there is one other man, and that man is Paul McCartney.'"

The anchor piece of the program is Elgar's “Enigma Variations.” 

"It's one of my favorite pieces in the entire literature," Zajac said. "It's a very special piece. I've conducted only one movement from it (previously). It's a remarkable piece of music. Every note, every bar sounds like English music, which is incredible because you can trace every note to some other composer. You can hear the influences of Beethoven and Bach and Wagner. But somehow, he makes it all sound like English music."

The GSO will close out the season with a concert comprised entirely of works by American composers.

"I'm a sucker for American music," Zajac said. "I wish we did more American music here in America, aside from, you know, Copeland, and there's nothing wrong with Copeland. Indeed, we're doing Copeland's Appalachian Spring, which is a great piece of music, but there's so many other things.”

The program will include pieces by David Diamond, a contemporary of Copeland's, and is from Rochester, along with an often overlooked black female composer, Florence Beatrice Price.

"Her music has been enjoying a revival these days," Zajac said. "A lot of people have been doing her first symphony and those big pieces. I decided to program this little piece called Dances in the Canebrakes. It's just really fun, beautiful. It just reeks of America. You hear it, and it's like, yes, that is an American sound."

Also on the program is William Grant Still, another black American composer with ties to Rochester. The orchestra will perform “Summerland.”

And just like an American program probably must include Copeland, it will also include Gershwin's Piano Concerto, featuring the winner of GSO's Young Artists competition.

Perhaps the most familiar piece on the program is Appalachian Spring.

"I've never had a chance to do the piece before though I've known it for many years," Zajac said. "I've studied it. The orchestra hasn't played it in a very long time. It's a beautiful piece, and it ends quietly. Sometimes I like to end programs quietly. It's great to end with fireworks and huge standing ovations and sometimes it is really meaningful and really poignant to end a concert quietly, and indeed ending the season quietly."

That ending, Zajac said, will be a tribute to Roxanne Choate, the former GSO board president who passed away this past week at age 80.

On the topic of performing American composers, The Batavian asked Zajac if he would consider Duke Ellington. 

"I've been thinking about doing a jazz-inspired program at some point because there's some really great pieces," Zajac said. "Of course, there's Gershwin, An American in Paris. I'd love to do it with the orchestra. I've only gotten to do the piece once. But Duke Ellington, I'm so glad you said something because I know there are things that we can do, but I haven't really thought about him. That might be an excellent addition if I ever get around to doing this program. That would be really cool."

All of GCC's concerts this season are at GCC:

  • Sunday, Oct. 22, 4 p.m.
  • Sunday, Dec. 3, 4 p.m.
  • Saturday, February 10th, 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, May 5, 4 p.m.

Authentically Local