Genesee Symphony Orchestra celebrates 75 years of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow this weekend
As the 75th anniversary of Genesee Symphony Orchestra quickly approaches, the planning of its concert this weekend has been anything but rushed.
In fact, Conductor Shade Zajac has been thinking about the event for the last few years.
“I’ve been so looking forward to this particular season for so long, not for any personal reason. I just want the orchestra to be celebrated, for people to know that this incredible thing exists,” Zajac said during an interview with the Batavian. “I am not the same guy I was when we started … and the orchestra is not the same. GSO will always be part of my history and part of my family.”
The 75th celebration concert titled Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow is set for 4 p.m. Saturday at Genesee Community College’s Stuart Steiner Theatre, 1 College Rd., Batavia.
Years in the making ...
Zajac, whose first season was in 2016, has been mulling the 2021 musical season “for a lot of years now,” he said. He had discussed it with Co-President Roxie Choate and had several ideas amidst a pandemic that had canceled many public events.
“It was touch and go whether or not we would actually be having a season,” he said.
Once venues began opening up, Zajac and staff plunged ahead with mapping out an agenda of nostalgic and meaningful pieces. History has been the focus of the orchestra’s return to the stage, exactly 75 years to the date it first debuted as Batavia Civic Orchestra.
A letter in Richmond Memorial Library’s archives demonstrates just how delicate GSO’s formation really was. Zajac stumbled upon it, he said, while scouring the vast relics for concert ideas. It was fairly early on after the orchestra’s 1947 founding, and it was an ominous musing about whether it was worth it to carry on.
“Do you want the Civic Orchestra to continue? If so, will you work for it?” the letter began. “It will be a sad loss to the community to end the orchestra. It seems better, though, to end it quickly than to drag on to a slow death.”
Written by then-President Virginia Trietly, the letter ended with a hopeful encouragement to “muster up enthusiasm — lasting enthusiasm” that would allow the group to survive longer than 11 years. It’s safe to say that community members rallied to carry on and endure the next several decades.
“And here we are 75 seasons later. Yeah, through this horrible pandemic where many orchestras haven't been able to do a thing, and we've been fortunate enough to continue to make music. That's a really incredible thing,” Zajac said. “And it's a testament to the musicians, of course, to all the people that have worked on the board of directors and also to this community that continues to support us through tough times, and through great times. Without all of these components … we wouldn't be having this conversation.”
As for the music, a concert lineup is chock full of classical compositions, a guest performance, and a piece of freshly crafted work. Mikhail Glinka’s “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla” is not unfamiliar to orchestras, as it has been performed “many, many, many times” by GSO and others, Zajac said.
“Because it's just a complete fireworks spectacular showcase for the orchestra,” he said. “It’s breakneck fast, and then it gets even faster at the end. It’s a statement to start a program with that piece.”
“Prelude to Act III, Dance of the Apprentices, Final Prelude and Intermezzo,” from Cavalleria, was featured in the very first orchestra performance. Zajac discovered the musical score in library archives labeled with the group's original name. Considered a “classical repertoire,” the prelude is “just gorgeous,” he said.
“I really wanted to do something different, something from the very early season … the librarian gave me the score. And the coolest thing is, stamped on the cover is the Batavia Civic Orchestra, which is, of course, the name before,” he said. “So that is a cool find. And that's a really great piece.”
Then and Now ...
Guest soloist Mia Fasanello will also become part of the orchestra’s history by performing a concerto 75 years after her own grandfather, Sebastian Fasanello, played one during the first concert. No stranger to the GSO, Fasanello won its Young Artist competition for her oboe performance and was a featured soloist with the group for “Concerto for Oboe and Strings” in 2017. Currently studying with the Juilliard School, Fasanello’s talent prickled the judges’ ears from the very first tuning note.
“Oboe is a really tricky instrument to play. And for such a young person to have such a mature sound, it was a no-brainer that she had to be the winner,” Zajac said. “So it's really great for us to have her come and perform, and to work with us in this collaboration. And it just plays into the whole idea that this is a generational thing.”
From the past of a musician’s grandfather, the concert also includes the present with a “world premiere” of Nancy Pettersen Strelau’s original piece, “A Simple Beautiful Idea.”
Zajac wanted someone connected to the orchestra to compose a piece for the celebration but wasn’t initially sure who that should be. He chose Strelau for her role as his teacher, mentor, and sounding board throughout his education at Nazareth College School of Music. She even nudged him into applying for the conductor position when it became vacant in 2015.
“I owe so much to her, she’s an incredible human being; she’s always been there,” he said. “It’s a really beautiful piece … the idea of back when they first wanted this orchestra, how daunting it must have been. It’s a very special piece to me.”
A majestic and lively “Hungarian Rhapsodies no. 2” ends the lineup with a melody often heard during popular cartoons Tom and Jerry, and Bugs Bunny. Don’t be surprised if your mind conjures up a sneaky little rodent wreaking havoc during portions of the song, Zajac said.
The program includes proclamations from state Assemblyman Steve Hawley and Genesee County Legislator Rochelle Stein; and a display that highlights “certain aspects of our history,” said GSO librarian and second chair clarinet Joanne Tumminello. A GSO calendar will be available for purchase to support the orchestra and provide a cherished collection of photos across the decades, she said.
A member since 1995, Tumminello has been in charge of gathering and preserving tidbits of time in the form of news articles, photos, videos and other materials. This year has brought with it a sense of celebration to the wide assortment of members young and old and from all walks of life, she said.
“It’s definitely brought excitement to the orchestra,” Tumminello said. “It has brought us together.”
Shirts with the new GSO logo — selected from entries of a prior logo contest — have been made for members to wear during rehearsal, she said, noting that the 75th will be removed for next season and beyond. That’s a sign that “we can endure anything,” she said.
“The community has a love of history and enjoys supporting us, and that tells us to keep going,” she said.
Zajac emphasized that although he may be the “face” of the orchestra, it takes the whole body of musicians, board of directors and community support to make a concert, and this celebration, happen. One musician in particular has become part of the 27-year-old conductor’s future: his wife Nicole. Before they were married, she filled in as a pinch-hitter for a vacant French horn seat. The late Bob Knipe, heavily active in the GSO and local music scene, had also “invited her to come and play” in the group. She eventually became a permanent member of GSO.
“I was in the thick of my first season with GSO and knew I needed a sub for Horn. And she turned me down, and we kind of kept talking,” he Zajac said. “And then as that particular concert approached, we needed an extra horn player last minute. So she stepped up, played, and then they kept inviting her back.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Tickets are $15 adults, $10 seniors and free to students with a student identification card, and may be purchased at Holland Land Office Museum, YNGodess or online at www.geneseesymphony.com.
Photos: File photos from previous seasons' rehearsals. All photos by Howard Owens. Top photo, S. Shade Zajac in 2019. Videos below from 2019.