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Commentary: RPO's 2020-21 season has talented guests, lacks diversity 

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's 2020-21 season — Ward Stare's final season as music director — was made public last Tuesday, but there's still a lot to say about the forthcoming programs (the Philharmonics series in particular). WXXI-FM Classical 91.5 hosts Julia Figueras, Mona Seghatoleslami, and Brenda Tremblay give their takes on next season's guest conductors, featured soloists, and the scarcity of black and female composers on the programs.
click to enlarge Ward Stare's final season as the music director of the RPO will celebrate Beethoven in a big way, but largely ignores composers who are female or not white. - PHOTO BY ERICH CAMPING
  • Ward Stare's final season as the music director of the RPO will celebrate Beethoven in a big way, but largely ignores composers who are female or not white.
Julia Figueras, Classical 91.5 midday host and music director

The RPO 2020 season is notable not just for all those Beethoven symphonies, but also for all those guest conductors. RPO Music Director Ward Stare steps down at the end of the season, leaving us to wonder which of those guest conductors is vying for the job. Fan favorites Andreas Delfs, Rossen Milanov, and Michael Francis are all back, but Francis just extended his Florida tenure through 2024 and has picked up a gig in Europe, so he may be out of the mix. Tantalizing first appearances: Vinay Parameswaran, currently Assistant Conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra; Lina Gonzalez-Granados, a mentee of Marin Alsop and Bernard Haitink and the only woman on the RPO podium this season; and Matthew Kraemer, who has spent time with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. A prominent change of pace: Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman is not on the regular Philharmonics schedule, but will be back to lead the RPO through Handel’s glorious “Messiah.”

Mona Seghatoleslami, Classical 91.5 afternoon host and producer

The Sunday matinee concerts are oft-overlooked treasures of the RPO season. They are in a new space next season: Beston Hall at the Glazer Music Performance Center at Nazareth College. All of the programs are charming; the one that stands out is the January 10th concert with guest conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados leading the RPO in music by Gabriela Lena Frank, Beethoven, and Schubert.

We also get to hear a nice mix of soloists over the season. Pianists and violinists usually get the spotlight (and several wonderful ones are in the lineup), but I’m excited that other instruments will be featured in solo roles. Percussionist Colin Currie will play a monumental concerto (Kalevi Aho’s Sieidi), Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto features Lisa Albrecht, Jeffrey Gray, and Craig Sutherland, and Eric Behr is the soloist in the Oboe Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Brenda Tremblay, Classical 91.5 morning host and producer

Human nature. We SAY we like kale, but most nights find us cuddled up with potato chips and a glass of wine. Likewise, orchestras across the country are feeling the tension between what audiences SAY they want versus what they’ll actually buy tickets to hear. That might explain the conservative swing in programming in the RPO’s 2020-21 season. With only two women composers (Gabriela Lena Frank and Jennifer Higdon) and one black composer (Aaron Diehl) in the Philharmonics season, the orchestra is betting that Rochester audiences are really hungry for beloved old classics: Haydn, Brahms, and Beethoven. Lots of Beethoven. Braver and richer ensembles in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and New York may be feeding their crowds composers from underrepresented heritages, but the RPO is playing it safe in Smugtown.

Revision: This article has been updated to reflect that RPO Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman will be conducting the orchestra in a performance of Handel's "Messiah." A previous version of the article had incorrectly stated that Seaman was not conducting the RPO during the 2020-21 season at all.

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