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'Pops' and substance: the RPO's balancing act 

Eighteenth-century composers and writers on music used to differentiate between "music lovers" and "connoisseurs." The music lovers, it was thought, went for the simple, tuneful, dance-y stuff; the connoisseurs liked more complicated, modern music.

In their search for audiences, modern concert organizations tread a fine line between the two, trying to strike a balance that might bring people into the hall to hear old favorites and familiar composers, and those with more musical background and more adventurous ears. The Rochester Philharmonic's just-announced 2015-2016 season is building a bridge between the music lovers and the connoisseurs, constructed by new music director Ward Stare.

The programming for the RPO's Philharmonics series (the "symphonic music" concerts) features a lot of what used to be called "pops concert fare" – but pops concerts have changed a lot since Arthur Fiedler's day, so your only chance to hear live performances of colorful, short pieces like Saint-Saens' "Bacchanale" or Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice" probably is at a symphony concert. They definitely qualify as crowd-pleasers, and a good performance can make you realize why they became popular in the first place.

But that said, there is quite a lot of substantial fare coming up, including favorite symphonies by Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky. No Mahler or Bruckner this time around, though there are a few heavyweight orchestral works, including Richard Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben," Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances," and Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," that will give the RPO opportunity to show its virtuoso credentials.

While Ward Stare will have plenty of opportunities to show his prowess in music for large forces (including a rare chorus-and-orchestra work, Vaughan Williams' "Toward the Unknown Region"), he also seems to have a taste for Haydn and Mozart, a very encouraging sign.

American music seems mostly represented by Samuel Barber; his "Adagio for Strings," Violin Concerto, and First Symphony are all on the season's roster. But there is also a commissioned work by a top-rank composer – a flute concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis – and a new violin concerto for RPO concertmaster Juliana Athayde by the prolific Jeff Tyzik. And there are a couple of concert openers by composers I admit I've never heard of – Stephanie Berg and Patrick Harlin – which I consider a good sign.

The guest conductors and soloists generally fall into the "young and up-and-coming" category (Christopher Seaman and Gunther Herbig are the exceptions here, but they're always welcome). Conductor Fabien Gabel and pianist Vadym Kholodenko have happily been invited back, but the big news may be that so many of the guest artists are women – most of them, in fact, including one of the season's stars, pianist Yuja Wang, who makes her debut here not with Tchaikovsky or Chopin, but with Bartok's First Piano Concerto, a thrillingly percussive work that I don't think I have ever heard at an RPO concert. From Wang to violinist Simone Porter to Broadway star Megan Hilty, it's an impressive list of talented women.

Next season, the RPO replaces the Symphony 101 series with a new Sunday matinee series – no fewer than six 90-minute concerts whose programs feature chamber orchestra rep by Haydn, Schubert, and other favorite composers. And while I am anticipating hearing the high-powered guests the RPO has invited next year, one of the performances I'm most looking forward to is on this series: Haydn's delightful Sinfonia Concertante, conducted by Michael Butterman and with RPO first chair soloists Juliana Athayde, Lars Kirvan, Erik Behr, and Matthew McDonald.

Pianist Yuja Wang, performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.

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