Not naming all of the musical line-up ahead of time is not to be punitive, says conductor S. Shade Zajac.
But rather, it’s similar to how Christmas operates: there’s usually an element of surprise by not opening the gift until it’s time.
“The idea was, normally, we put all the pieces we're playing on the poster, or at least most of them, so people kind of know what to expect. But you know, I've been thinking that it's, it's really easy sometimes to fall into the trap of just doing the same things over and over again, especially for holiday concerts,” Zajac said about his orchestra’s upcoming concert. “And, you know, it'll just have to wait until Sunday when you come to the concert to see or to hear exactly what we're doing, just so that there's a little bit of mystery, kind of like getting a gift or something you can't open until the day of. ”
The gift of Genesee Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonic Holiday Surprise will be opened at 4 p.m. Sunday at Genesee Community College, 1 College Road, Batavia.
To be sure, there will be plenty of holiday favorites tucked into some new, and perhaps less familiar songs, he said. Zajac, now in his seventh season with GSO, takes his time to develop a concert menu and does so well in advance.
“I’m always looking ahead to what’s next, logistically and practically. We start planning things now for next year, especially when working with soloists,” he said, adding that next year’s soloist has been booked since 2020.
“There are a lot of different holiday pieces with different arrangements of the same piece. So, it always makes things a little difficult. I had this realization this is my seventh season. And I try to always change it up a little bit each year,” he said. “We are always exploring different music and sometimes in different avenues, and always wanting to bring a new experience and bring pieces that people haven't maybe heard before, or maybe the orchestra hasn't played before.”
After asking the orchestra how many have played a particular piece that he was considering, only a few hands went up, which meant the number would not only introduce a new melody to patrons but also create a challenge for versed musicians.
And they have earned it.
“I just feel us getting better and better. I can certainly feel it, and I know the orchestra is starting to feel it as well,” he said. “There are so many things I still want us to do together. This orchestra really has a special place in my heart.”
Zajac continues to strengthen his own professional chops by performing with other groups and, for a week in January, working with Baltimore Orchestra.
This concert also features a promising violinist, Hilton High School senior Luke Pisani, recipient of GSO’s Young Artist Competition award, among many others.
Pisani, whose LinkedIn account states that he is a motivated, straight-A student who demonstrates a strong work ethic and creative ability, put that hard work on display for the competition, Zajac said. Pisani had competed previously, and, although he did not win that time, his musical prowess was a teaser of what was to come.
When Zajac heard him this time around, he couldn’t believe it was the same person playing.
“Some years, it’s really, really challenging to pick a winner, the talent is so vast. And some years you have someone who comes in, and that’s it,” he said. “He blew us all away; he stood out from the rest of the competition. The Concerto (for violin and orchestra in D major) is a very well-known, very challenging piece of music. He's playing the first movement, and so our audience will absolutely recognize some of the tunes and will just be blown away by his playing, I'm sure.”
Pisani also won competitions with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Violin, Hochstein Youth Symphony Orchestra, Finger Lakes Symphony Orchestra and the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. His versatility spreads over to jazz piano, basketball and serving at his church. His list of accomplishments is quite lengthy, and his performance for the GSO competition demonstrated that his “amount of growth is incredible,” Zajac said,
“He is very technically advanced, you have to be to be playing Tchaikovsky,” he said. “He has that little something extra that makes people pay attention. And that's, of course, something that we look for in these competitions. A lot of people can play the notes. And then there are people who can actually play the music and just kind of give it that little extra something that grabs your attention. And he did that for us, and we were engaged his entire audition.”
As for the remaining concert, there will be “plenty of holiday cheer,” Zajac said. It will include works by Tchaikovsky, Anderson, Rimsky Korsakov and Vaughan Williams.
“Of course, there's holiday favorites that everyone loves that I'm sure we'll be playing. And maybe a couple of other little pieces that people wouldn't expect," he said.
Click HERE for a sample of Pisani on violin.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, and free for students with an ID, and are available at YNGodess, Holland Land Office Museum, The Coffee Press, from any board member or at GSO.
Top Photo: Conductor S. Shade Zajac leads the Genesee Symphony Orchestra through rehearsal for its upcoming holiday concert. Photos by Howard Owens.