Irrera named GSO concertmaster

Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:08 pm, Tue Sep 11, 2012.

By Ben Beagle

Genesee Symphony Orchestra Conductor Raffaele Ponti had always hoped violinist and Batavia native John Irrera could play more with his hometown orchestra.

This season, Ponti gets his wish.

Irrera, 27, was introduced Monday night as the GSO’s new first violinist and concertmaster, the most significant position in an orchestra next to the conductor. It’s a position that will see Irrera work alongside Ponti in preparing the orchestra for each concert this season — and, with an open-ended appointment, possibly longer.

We’re very excited,” Ponti said, “since John is not only a Batavia native, but also a renowned musician in his own right. This is like a new beginning for the GSO.”

Irrera, a 2003 graduate of Batavia High School, has been building a musical resume of concerts both locally and internationally for several years. Last month, he and his brother, Joseph, a pianist, performed several concerts in Costa Rica. They released their first CD in July, and have professionally toured France, Italy and Germany.

John Irrera, who began studying violin when he was about 7 years old, has won top prizes in numerous competitions, including two that led to appearances at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall. He spent several seasons as a teen with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, which included a stint as the RPYO’s concertmaster in 2003. He has performed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and twice appeared with the GSO.

The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is working with Raffaele and the other musicians,” said Irrera, who now lives in Greece. “They present a musical and fun performance. There’s a nice vibe with them. It’s relaxed, but accomplished. I enjoy the atmosphere every time I come back to Batavia to perform.”

Irrera, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastman School of Music, Rochester, is also taking the role of personnel manager for the orchestra. He will help fill open musicians’ seats as needed for each concert.

To audiences, the concertmaster is most visible at the beginning of each concert. He stands in front of the orchestra, tuning its players to the proper pitch before the conductor enters. During the concert, the concertmaster is usually seated in the front row by the

conductor’s left.

But the role is much more complex. It requires extensive knowledge of music and instrumentation.

The concertmaster decides how the string instruments will play the music. In a process known as “bowing” the concertmaster determines how the string musicians will position their bow for each note; whether they will play “upbow,” from the bow’s tip to heel, or “downbow,” from heel to tip.

There’s some personal style in creating that sound,” Ponti said. “John’s presence will redefine the sound of the GSO.

The other players tend to model their sound on the concertmaster. John tends to bring a heavier, weightier sound. It’s husky, wonderfully warm,” Ponti said. “We could have 10 great concertmasters come in, and every time you’d hear something different.”

The concertmaster position opened up in the spring when Lisa Toth of Avon retired from the orchestra at the end of the 2011-12 season. She had served 10 seasons as the GSO’s concertmaster, but, Ponti said, faced increasing demands of her own music career, which includes a growing strings studio and frequent solo performances.

Ponti and Irrera, who is pursuing a doctorate from Eastman School of Music, began talking during the summer.

We had a fine concertmaster for many years, and when the position came open I thought it would be great to bring John in,” Ponti said. “He’s from Batavia. He’s achieved a great amount of success in his young career. And I kept bumping in to him at Eastman where my 12-year-old daughter is studying strings. I think this will be a real feather for the GSO.”