Next stop … Carnegie Hall

By Roger Muehlig

Saturday, April 11, 2009 6:16 AM EDT

ROCHESTER  Brothers Joseph and John Irrera have both been to Carnegie Hall before.

“In the audience, though,” said Joseph.

That will change on Easter Sunday when the Batavia natives perform in the Winners’ Recital of American Protégé Competition at the famed New York City music theater.

Joseph, 26, plays the piano. John, 23, plays the violin. Both teach at the Eastman School of Music’s Community School in Rochester.

The two entered CDs of their work in the international piano and strings competition that is open to students and adults and, this year, vocalists as well. Both were chosen as winners by different sets of judges who knew them only by the number that was attached to their entries, rather than by their names.

That’s a sibling selection rarity, according to an official of the American Protégé Organizational Committee.

“In our experience, we never got two brothers winning first place in one competition, so it is, in fact, a rare event,” committee Administrative Director Alexander Agaian said in an e-mail advisory to The Daily News.

The judges don’t have access to the participants’ biographies, according to Agaian. Only the competition’s chairwoman recognized the two are siblings and recommended the brothers perform one after the other in the Winners’ Recital, she said.

The brothers are sons of Dr. Joseph and Judy Irrera of Batavia. Both graduated from Batavia High School; Joseph in 2000, and John in 2003.

Both developed a musical interest at an early age. Joseph said he started out on an electric keyboard when he was 5 years old. He moved up to an electric piano in about six months, he said, studied method books and started classical training in the Prep program at the Eastman Community School when he was 11 years old.

His parents had to get him a real piano by then. “The electric wouldn’t do,” he said during a joint interview at a coffee shop near the Gibbs Street school.

John said he got involved with the violin after Cindy Baldwin, music teacher at John Kennedy School, staged a promotion to spark interest in stringed instruments when he

was in second grade.

He took to the violin. “I guess I just had a natural affinity for it,” he said.

Both studied for years at Eastman Community that serves high school and younger age students, and went on to the college-level Eastman School of Music.

Joe, who also played tenor saxophone in his high school band and jazz band, has a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School and a master’s degree in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

He plans to begin work on a doctorate at Eastman in the fall.

John, who also played in the BHS orchestra, said he got serious about music as a career during his middle school and early high school years.

He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance from the Eastman School and teaches violin at the Community School.

Joseph teaches piano there and also teaches at Hochstein School of Music in Rochester and at Hochstein’s Canandaigua campus. He is also experienced on the double bass, having played the stringed instrument in high school and with the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

Although the brothers live together in Greece, neither knew at first that the other had entered the Protégé competition. When they found out, neither one thought the other had a better chance of winning.

“When you enter, you hope. You just wait and see,” said John.

They didn’t know how many others entered. “I’m sure there were hundreds,” said John, who has also played with the RPYO.

The brothers wanted to credit their teachers.

In Joseph’s case, that’s Alla Kuznetsov, during his Prep time  middle school and high school years; Anne Koscielny, for undergraduate school at Eastman, and Alexander Shtarkman, for his master’s work at Peabody.

For John, they are Boris Zapesochny, for Prep work, and Zvi Zeitlin for undergraduate and master’s degrees.

The brothers lean mostly toward classical music. Joe favors Chopin and Beethoven. John has a more open field.

“It changes,” he said. “It isn’t one composer… They’re all great for their own reasons.”

Joseph will be playing Chopin Sunday. When John’s turn comes, his brother will be joining in.

That’s because John’s selection, Grieg’s “Violin Sonata in C Minor,” requires piano accompaniment.

The two have practiced a lot, usually at home, they said. They will be playing in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall rather than the main auditorium.

They are looking forward to the occasion, they said. The Weill chamber seats 268, according to the Carnegie Hall Web site, and their parents will be in the audience.

Mom and dad are “very, very proud” of their sons, their father said in a telephone interview.

Both of them worked very hard over the years to succeed in music, he said.

Did he expect them to play Carnegie Hall some day? “I was hoping for it,” he said.

The brothers plan to fly to New York Friday for a rehearsal. John will be playing the made-in-Buffalo violin that he’s had for the past 15 years.

“They feel better with age,” he said.

Joseph will be playing a piano he’s never sat at before. But he expects it will be a Steinway.

“That’s like the Porsche (of pianos),” he said.

It’s not an expense-paid trip for the brothers and they don’t know what’s in it for them if they win.

“The main thing,” said Joseph, “is the Carnegie Hall performance.”