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June 1, 2022Stephen Laifer -
Premiering a new piece of music, as with any new work of art, is an awesome responsibility involving creativity and imagination—and sheer hard work. This month, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) Concertmaster Juliana Athayde of Local 66 (Rochester, NY) gave the world premiere of a new violin concerto by acclaimed Grammy-winning composer Roberto Sierra, who recently retired after nearly 30 years as composition professor at Cornell University. The International Musician sat down with Athayde to discuss the process of preparing and performing the new piece.
International Musician: When you were a young violinist just starting out, did you ever envision yourself in the position of being responsible for bringing a major new concert work to life?
Juliana Athayde: It was always thrilling to be part of orchestral premieres, but as a young violinist, I never guessed I would be responsible for something like this. Turns out, it’s now my third concerto premiere, with the latest one before this being a jazz violin concerto by composer and pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, who is also a Local 66 member.
IM: Taking a step way back, you have been the RPO’s concertmaster since 2005, and were the youngest person ever appointed to that position, at 24. Did you always want to be a concertmaster?
JA: Yeah, I kind of did. I started playing violin when I was 2 years old, and I came from a very musically active family. My dad plays trumpet and jazz piano, and he was a public school music teacher for 40 years. My brother and sister also play, and my mom is a violinist and pianist. With that atmosphere, I was always encouraged. I became concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra at 16. I remember thinking, this is the life! Concertos, lots of solos, and I’d get to live in one place, not having to move all over the place for other jobs.
IM: Talk us through the preliminary steps, from the new concerto’s conception. How involved were you in the piece’s actual creation?
JA: To start, Roberto sent me the completed first movement on a MIDI file. We got together on Zoom and discussed possible changes. Typically, this stage is done in person, with the composer at the piano, but it was in the middle of the pandemic. I felt very involved in the evolution of the concerto from the moment Roberto put his thoughts down on paper.
IM: How early did you have the music? And what changes in your mindset from preparing, say, the Mendelssohn violin concerto, as opposed to premiering a brand-new piece?
JA: The completed concerto finally came to me in December, just before Christmas. That gave me about six months to learn it. Roberto and I worked together on a few revisions and settled on the final final version in February. There are some key differences between preparing something like this, versus an existing concerto already in the repertoire. Most obvious, nobody else has ever played it. You’re starting from scratch. The responsibility inherent in coming to something new can be intimidating, but it’s also exhilarating and inspiring.
IM: How deeply involved were the composer and the conductor?
JA: All three of us met in January to talk through ideas before the final revisions. Then, I worked with RPO Music Director Andreas Delfs in March, with him playing the score in a piano reduction. Both Roberto and Andreas encouraged me to find my own voice. Not that there weren’t a few disagreements, which is really to be expected with a brand-new piece. Everyone is hearing it in their own way. Ultimately, all our ideas meshed, and what came out in the premiere reflected how my horizons were broadened through close collaboration.
IM: While all this was going on, you were teaching full-time at the Eastman School of Music, as well as your usual concertmaster duties. How did you balance your practice and preparation time with being an orchestra musician, teacher, and mom to two young girls?
JA: Not gonna lie, it was rough! I had a full weekly load of 17 hours of teaching. Nine students, lessons, rep classes, etc. There were definitely moments where I had to just lock myself in my studio and woodshed on the concerto. But I’m very goal-oriented. Instead of a “slow burn” approach, I like to amp it up as I get closer to a performance. Two weeks before the premiere is when I did the most work. My husband Erik Behr, the RPO’s principal oboe [and a Local 66 member], took over 98% of the duties of keeping our family going so that I could get this done. Also, I forgot to mention, the week before the concerto we both were involved in another premiere. After the final concert of the Sierra concerto, Erik said, “Yay, I get my partner back!”
IM: What was your favorite part of the whole process?
JA: You spend so much time working on the technical aspects so that you can nail it, that when you finally get to the point where you can really just speak through the music, it’s incredibly rewarding. Plus, we had three performances to polish it.
IM: What’s your next challenge after some downtime?
JA: I’m performing the Bach double concerto with Erik for the RPO, and then we have this season’s final performance of the Chamber Music Society of Rochester, where we share artistic director duties. And then we’re both off to teach this summer at the National Orchestral Institute + Festival, followed by more teaching for the National Youth Orchestra. Downtime? What’s that?