Batavia’s Irrera brothers are bound for Carnegie Hall — again!

By Scott DeSmit

Saturday, March 3, 2012 3:00 am

Here’s how it was in the Irrera household when John and Joseph were young boys:

Mom Judy would play music, mainly ’80s rock. Van Halen. Aerosmith. She had a drum set and would pound away while her sons marched.

“Surprisingly we got into music from our mother,” Joseph Irrera, 29, said. “Neither of our parents are musicians. She loves rock and roll and always had that on. She would make games with us, even as babies marching to the beat.”

What that did was give John and Joseph a sense of rhythm and “innate musicality.” The brothers have put that to good use.

For the second time in three years both Irrera boys will be performing at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Both performed there in 2009 after winning the American Protégé International Piano and Violin Competition, the first brothers ever to be first-place winners.

They performed separately in 2009, with John on violin and Joseph on piano. Joseph did accompany his brother John for his piece. This year the brothers entered the contest as a duo. And won.

“It’s the same thing but a different division,” Joseph said. “The last time it was a total coincidence that we both won.”

Both brothers are Batavia High School graduates and alumni of the Eastman School of Music’s Collegiate Division and also the Conservatory’s Community Education Division, a pre-college program for musicians. Both now teach at the school.

Their 2009 performance at Carnegie was the first time either Irrera played the famed concert hall. In the concert, Joseph went on first, playing Chopin’s Ballade No. 4. He then joined John, 23, for Grieg’s Violin Sonata in C Minor, a piece that requires piano accompaniment.

After, both said they would love to go back. “It’s an honor,” John, 26, said. “It comes with an expectation of quality of performance. I wouldn’t say I was nervous. I would say going back with my brother and performing as a duo makes it more special.”

John discovered violin at an early age. “I chose it in first grade at John Kennedy,” he said. “Cindy Baldwin (longtime school music instructor) gave a demonstration to our class and that sounded fun.”

Baldwin didn’t have room for John to take lessons that fall semester, however. She did tell him to talk to her after Christmas, when many students drop out of lessons.

That’s just what happened. Baldwin called the Irrera home, telling his mother there was an opening and “that’s how it started,” John said.

Joseph began taking piano lessons at 5. “The turning point for me was when I was 11 and began taking classes at Eastman,” he said. “I liked to play the occasional classic, but mostly I was playing jazz or pop until I went to Eastman.” He studied under Russian pianist Alla Kuznetsov, “She’s as strict as anyone can imagine but warm as a mother,” Joseph said. “She started my formal classical education and got me on that path.”

He is now good friends with Kuznetsov and “she is very much a part of my personal life.”

John’s main mentor was, and is, Zvi Zeitlin, a distinguished professor of violin at Eastman who, at age 11, became the youngest scholarship student in the history of the Julliard School. He has taught at Eastman since 1967 and is now 90 years old.

“He’s magnificent,” John said. “His influence has been extraordinary. He’s very excited for me. When you can impress your teacher, it’s uplifting.”

Zeitlin has coached the Irreras on the piece they are performing at Carnegie Hall: Prokofiev’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Major.

“They are both very fine boys,” he said. “To be able to get this privilege of playing at Carnegie Hall is very special and of course I’m proud of them. They are two gifted boys.”

John has studied for seven years under Zeitlin and is currently in his second year of doctoral studies while also acting as Zeitlin’s teaching assistant.

The Irreras are scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. on March 11th in Weill Recital Hall. Their parents, Dr. Joseph and Judy Irrera will be attending, along with Joseph’s wife, Gillian, and John’s girlfriend.

“We’re just as excited as the first time,” Joseph said. “It feels as invigorating as if it was the first time.”