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Sounds unexpected 

The 2018-19 classical-music season has no shortage of big-name artists with top-tier talent performing beloved works from the classical canon. But there are also plenty of surprising performances, with fresh programming featuring cutting-edge musicians and contemporary compositions you should definitely know. The balance between familiar fare and underperformed gems is what makes this season compelling.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will open its season on September 13 and 15, with music director Ward Stare conducting a first-rate pianist, Yefim Bronfman, in Prokofiev's barn-burning Second Concerto.

click to enlarge The RPO will record Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto in concert on September 20 and 22 - PHOTO BY ERICH CAMPING
  • The RPO will record Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto in concert on September 20 and 22

Even more interesting is the concert the following week, a varied all-American affair on September 20 and 22: a repeat of Jennifer Higdon's delightful harp concerto, which the RPO premiered last spring with soloist Yolanda Kondonassis, and will be recording both nights; Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1 and Patrick Harlin's "Rapture," both of which made a very good impression when Stare conducted them in 2017; and Aaron Copland's "Rodeo." That concert will be rounded out by Leonard Bernstein's spoofy "Divertimento," one of three entries this fall in the RPO's continuing salute to Lenny's 100th birthday (the others will be music from "On the Town" and the "Chichester Psalms").

The RPO's programming for 2018-19 contains many other goodies. In October, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will join Stare for an all-Gershwin concert, and in the spring Stare will conduct two large-scale symphonies not heard much in Rochester – Mahler's Seventh and Shostakovich's Tenth – along with a concert performance of Mozart's fascinating opera "Così fan tutte." $24-$106 single tickets. 454-2100.

click to enlarge Pegasus Early Music turns to opera on May 5 with Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.” - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Pegasus Early Music turns to opera on May 5 with Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.”

Pegasus Early Music will start out its season festively on September 16 with a Baroque Miscellany bringing back many favorite performers, but its November 4 concert really sounds like something special – a salute to Venetian baroque composers, with an emphasis on the remarkable vocal music of Barbara Strozzi. As it did a couple of years ago, Pegasus will conclude its season with a short Baroque-era opera sung in English, Handel's "Acis and Galatea." $28, seniors $22, students $10. 703-3990.

click to enlarge Publick Musick’s season opener on October 13 features cellist Beiliang Zhu. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Publick Musick’s season opener on October 13 features cellist Beiliang Zhu.

Rochester is lucky to have not just one but two early-music series, the other being the long-established Publick Musick. For its first concert on October 13, RPO cellist Chris Haritatos, Publick Musick's artistic co-director (along with his wife Boel Gidholm) promises "a cello-centric program" with up-and-coming cellist Beiliang Zhu joined by Haritatos himself. Spring will bring guest soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez in a program of Neapolitan cantatas and concerti, and a Third Thursday concert at the Memorial Art Gallery. $20, student/low income $10, 17 and under free. 244-5835.

The Society for Chamber Music in Rochester furthers its reputation for engaging programming from the get-go. Its opening concert on October 21 will include three luscious pieces: string sextets by Richard Strauss and Antonin Dvoràk, along with the Oboe Quintet by British composer Sir Arnold Bax, featuring one of the Society's co-directors, RPO Principal Oboe Erik Behr. The season will also include salutes to "Mozart in Paris" and the SCMR's traditional and very popular Baroque/jazz concert. $35. 624-1301.

Through sheer scope alone, Eastman School of Music's numerous series are impressive. That variety will be accentuated by a seemingly endless lineup of dynamic performers. Below are just a handful of the highlights for this season.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw is a singular titan of vocal music. Throughout her nearly 35-year career, the singer has both interpreted canonical roles by the likes of Mozart and created roles in influential operas by living composers such as John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, John Harbison, and Osvaldo Golijov. She'll bring that tremendous experience to Eastman School of Music's Kilbourn Hall on October 9.

Eastman Opera Theatre continues to be a bastion for contemporary opera in Rochester. This season, the troupe will present Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing" November 1 through 4 in Kilbourn Hall, in what amounts to a staged, Buddhist oratorio about the steps the soul takes after death. The chamber opera may be a departure for audiences looking for more of the historical repertoire, but if Eastman Opera's past productions are any indication, this will be a beautiful, thought-provoking presentation.

Renowned international violin soloist Leila Josefowicz will be joined by pianist John Novacek in Kilbourn Hall on November 13. The recital will include Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, a second sonata from edgy 20th century composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, plus music by Sibelius, Mahler, and Saariaho.

What do you get when you combine the sounds of two quintessential instruments from very different yet hallowed musical traditions? In the case of Yumi Kurosawa's Japanese koto and Anubrata Chatterjee's India tabla, the result is mesmerizing. The plucked strings of the koto create an exotic, almost ambient quality, complemented beautifully by the intricate, pitter-patter rhythms of the percussive tabla. If you like world music featuring unlikely instrument pairings, this February 8 performance of Yumi Kurosawa and Anubrata Chatterjee in Kilbourn Hall is for you.

For those concertgoers seeking unadorned yet evocative piano music, Eastman's Fernando Laires Piano Series in Kilbourn Hall will have plenty to offer this season. The February 21 performance featuring Lilya Zilberstein may turn out to be the most electrifying in the series. In addition to Zilberstein's decisive technical precision, it's the piano soloist's charismatic energy that makes her concerts so dynamic.

Joshua Bell is one of the most recognized and beloved American violinists today. Bell will return to Rochester and Eastman Theatre's Kodak Hall on April 12 to collaborate with the Eastman Philharmonia and visiting conductor David Zinman. Together, they will present a prominent showpiece in the violin virtuoso's repertoire: Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. A technically demanding, even athletic concerto, th performance is sure to be a thrilling highlight of the season.

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