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Batavia music prodigies to perform at GCC Sunday

For John and Joseph Irrera, it all started with an owl who liked to play the saxophone and a little boy who signed up to play the violin without telling his parents.

Joseph and John graduated from Batavia High School in 2000 and 2003, respectively, and since then they have had a quite successful run as a piano-violin duo. On Sunday, they will kick off the "Irrera Brothers Chamber Music Series" at GCC.

The piano is Joseph's instrument of choice. He has been playing since he was 5 years old, and his love for the piano began with, of all things, the saxophone.

"I always watched 'Sesame Street,' " he said, "and there was an owl character who played the saxophone. So I wanted to play the saxophone, too."

Joseph's parents took him to Roxy's Music Store for lessons, only to learn that he was too young for wind instrument lessons.

"(The teachers at Roxy's) suggested starting with the piano," Joseph said. "I wasn't interested. But my parents -- especially my dad -- convinced me. They said that if I started with the piano I would have a good foundation, learn how to read music and get to know rhythm. And then when I actually started to learn the saxophone, it would be much easier."

And he never looked back.

"I started to play the saxophone in fourth grade and continued through high school," he said, "but it never felt like the piano did to me."

Five years later, his little brother John, a first-grader at John Kennedy Elementary School, signed up to play a string instrument.

"(He did it) on his own," Joseph said.

After Christmas, John's mother got a surprise call from string instructor Cindy Baldwin, who said that a spot had opened up for the violin.

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Joseph and John are both currently studying for their doctorates in Piano Performance and Violin Performance, respectively, at the Eastman School of Music.

They have an impressive repertoire as a performing piano-violin duo that includes frequent performances on the radio station WXXI 91.5 (they will be featured in a noon performance on Wednesday), two performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City (one in 2009, the other in March 2012) and a 10-day tour in Costa Rica in August.

According to Joseph, the piano and violin are "the best pair you can have."

"The great thing about the piano is that it can provide both melody and harmony underneath," he said. "And then the violin is one of the most vocal instruments. It can emote a lot. So they complement each other very nicely. It has been a very popular arrangement to compose for over the centuries and has an extensive repertoire."

More after the jump (click on the headline):

The public is invited to watch the Irreras perform at GCC's Stuart Steiner Theatre, at 1 College Road in Batavia, on Sunday at 4 p.m. Cost of admission is $20 for adults and $10 for students, and tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance at the Genesee Symphony Orchestra's Web site, Roxy's Music Store or GoArt! Seating capacity for the theatre is 328 people.

In its first year, the "Irrera Brothers Chamber Music Series" is a branch of the Genesee Symphony Orchestra that offers "a more intimate and sociable setting" for concertgoers.

"It's not just 'listen and leave,' " Joseph said. "The whole idea is that people get to interact with the performers."

Sunday's performance is the first of five bi-monthly concerts, each featuring performers who are in some way associated with either the Genesee Symphony Orchestra or the Eastman School of Music.

Each concert will last about an hour and a half, and this time frame will include the performances themselves, an intermission with refreshments and beverages available, and a "meet the artists" session at the end.

For the first half of their performance on Sunday, the Irreras will play two pieces -- one by Robert Schumann and one by his wife, Clara Schumann.

"We chose these because two brothers started this series," Joseph said, "and that family relationship parallels nicely with the husband/wife relationship."

In the second half, they will perform "Chaconne in G minor" by Vitali and "Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Opus 94A" by Prokofiev.

Listeners are in for a treat, because the Irrera brothers' talents were years in the making.

They began studying at Eastman's pre-college division as children. Joseph was 11, John was 8.

Before even making it to college, they received coaching from such prestigious performers as the Ying Quartet -- a world-famous, Grammy-winning string quartet.

Joseph and John both stayed at Eastman for their undergraduate degrees. John earned his master's there as well; Joseph went to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore for his master's before returning to Eastman for his doctorate.

Among John's violin instructors was hugely renowned violinist Zvi Zeitlin, who passed away in May at age 90.

"He wasn't your typical 90-year-old," Joseph said. "He was very agile, very with it. John was very fortunate to have studied with him for all three degrees."

If you were to ask the Irrera brothers what has most contributed to their success, they would probably both attribute it to two things:

  • Dedication to their craft; and
  • The support of their parents.

"Our parents never pushed or forced us," Joseph said. "They just wanted us to enjoy it and have fun. The hours of practice came from John and me."

"But we still did all the normal things kids do -- sports, after-school activities, etc. We found our way through positive reinforcement from our parents."

Eastman faculty were also hugely influential to them -- especially Alla Kuznetsod, with whom Joseph studied from age 11 to 18, and Boris Zapesochny, with whom John studied from age eight to 18.

For more information on the Irrera brothers, visit www.irrerabrothers.com or Joseph's personal Web site, www.josephirrera.com.

For more information on the "Irrera Brothers Chamber Music Series," e-mail Patricia Hawley at [email protected].

Note: John was unavailable for an interview, which is why Joseph alone is quoted in the article.

Photos courtesy of www.irrerabrothers.com.

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