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Julian Schwarz

Cellist Julian Schwarz is the guest artist with the String Orchestra of the Rockies, which opens its season with a Sunday concert, "From Russia With Strings."

The String Orchestra of the Rockies is turning to its core strength this season: its professional-caliber string section.

"We're going back to the basics and focusing on strings" over guest artists on other instruments, said Maria Larionioff.

Sunday's concert, titled "From Russia with Strings," marks the premiere of the 15-member ensemble's new artistic director, Larionoff, a critically praised violinist and former concertmaster for the Seattle Symphony. The orchestra is a conductor-less ensemble comprising professional players from Missoula, Montana and the broader region.

This weekend's guest soloist is Julian Schwarz, who Larionoff said is building "a spectacular career as an up-and-coming cellist."

Schwarz's playing is exuberant, romantic and larger than life, she said. He will be featured on Ernest Bloch's Meditation Hebraique for solo cello and strings, which she described as a soulful Jewish composition, and Victor Herbert's "flashy" salon-style work, Three Pieces for solo cello and strings.

Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violincellos and Strings will pair Schwarz with Fern Glass Boyd, who led the SOR for decades before retiring last spring.

In November, the "Montana Seasons" concert will feature Larionoff and violinist Margaret Baldridge. The latter will bring on stage students from the University of Montana School of Music, where she teaches.

The concert's centerpiece is a new work, "Muse," by Christopher Theofanidis. The "seasons" in the title comes in the form of the winter portion of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," rounded out by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla's tango-inspired "Invierno Porteno." Larionoff and Baldridge will join forces for a double concerto by Bach.

In February, the orchestra will take the spotlight in lieu of a guest. The Valentine's Day-themed concert, "Ravel and Romance," features works by Rossini and Bizet.

In April, violinist Jorja Feleezanis will bring her "powerhouse" talent for "Heroines of the Violin." She's served as the concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra for more than 20 years. The other heroine in question is Polish composer and violinist Grazyna Bacewics, a major figure in the violin world. They'll perform her work, Concerto for Strings, and Brahms' Viola Quintet in G major.

Heading into its 34th season, Larionoff said that the board told her subscriptions are "way up" and that fundraising is strong. She said that's a "pretty extraordinary" feat in the classical world, where many symphonies are major cities struggle with declining audiences.

Concertgoers in Missoula, where's she's performed as a guest with the SOR, are "open to all kinds of repertoire and all kinds of experiences," she said. In that spirit, she's mingled classics alongside newer works this year. When planning a program, she wants to surround a new piece with complementary works and avoid any jarring transitions. At their concerts, members of the orchestra introduce each piece.

"If somebody has never been to a classical music concert, it's nothing to be intimidated by," she said.

The city has a "wealth of classic music," Larionoff said, adding that the SOR offers an experience unto itself.

"It's not really chamber music, and it's not going to the Missoula Symphony," she said.

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