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Memorial service planned to honor David Fetler


The late David Fetler. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The late David Fetler.
David Fetler, a pioneering Rochester conductor who, with 50 years at the podium of the Rochester Chamber Orchestra, was the longest tenured music director of an American orchestra, died on April 16 from complications due to COVID. He was 96.

A memorial service for Fetler will be held on Sunday, June 4 at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Westminster Road in Rochester, where Fetler served as music director and choral director for five decades. An active member of the local classical music community, Fetler was also the music director of the Greece Symphony Orchestra, which he founded as part of the Greece Performing Arts Society.

“What is satisfying to me is that I’m able to express my feelings about the music,” Fetler told the Democrat & Chronicle in 2014. “And music gives me great joy.”

Karla Krogstad, director of the Bach Children’s Chorus and a longtime friend and collaborator of Fetler, said she loved his dedication.

When Krogstad moved to Rochester in 1981 to study piano at the Eastman School of Music, she asked a friend about local chamber orchestras with which to collaborate.

“He said, ‘Well, I think David Fetler’s is the best — you should contact him,” said Krogstad, who later played a concerto with Fetler’s ensemble.

She later founded the Bach Children’s Chorus, and Fetler gave the young musicians the opportunity to perform with his Rochester Chamber Orchestra.

“ He said, ‘We'd love to have you. It would be a great opportunity,’” Krogstad recalled. “He said ‘a great opportunity’ for his orchestra. But it was a great opportunity for the children. And thus began our almost 30 year collaboration of the Bach children's Chorus with the Rochester chamber orchestra. And he put them in two concerts a year.”

WXXI classical host Brenda Tremblay recalls singing Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” in a church choir under Fetler’s direction in 2006, when he began to have a wardrobe malfunction.

“His choir robe was literally unraveling; it was sort of drooping down in the back,” Tremblay said. “It was a danger to him, and he didn’t care that his choir robe was sort of disintegrating around him. All he cared about was the music, and you could see that focus and that intensity in his face and his conducting gestures. He was an amazing artist.”

David Fetler was born in Riga, Latvia in 1927, the son of Protestant pastor William Fetler (who later changed his name to Basil Malof) and his wife, Barbara. David began his career in music at a young age, performing with his 12 siblings as the Fetler Family Band — also known as The Rainbow Family Orchestra of Riga — in Europe. At 12 years old, he moved with his family to the United States in 1939, just before the start of World War II. They were able to stay in the country in part due to then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s help with their expiring visa. The family secured their status as permanent U.S. residents the following year.

Fetler studied music at The Juilliard School and Westminster Choir College before receiving his doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. His teachers included famed conductors Pierre Monteux and Leopold Stokowski.

He went on to teach at the Eastman School of Music and led multiple ensembles there — most notably the Eastman Collegium Chamber Orchestra and Singers. He was passionate about championing the burgeoning careers of young musicians.

In a Facebook post commemorating Fetler’s life, RCO’s former board president and treasurer Ray Grosswirth recalled that the orchestra conductor made a habit of listening outside Eastman’s practice rooms while students played their instruments. When one would catch his ear, he would later ask the musician to perform as a featured soloist with the RCO.

“Dr. Fetler had a unique knack for discovering new talent,” Grosswirth wrote, “and many musicians nationally and internationally can trace their first big break to him.”

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].