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Maestro David Fetler
David Fetler, founder of the Rochester Chamber Orchestra and a mentor to many young musicians in the area for more than half a century, died April 16, 2023.
He was 96, and died of complications after Covid-19.
Fetler founded and conducted the Rochester Chamber Orchestra from 1964 until his retirement in 2015. He also founded and conducted the Greece Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 2020, and was the music director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Avenue for fifty years.
He received a master’s in conducting from Westminster Choir College and a doctorate in composition from the Eastman School of Music. He was recruited by renowned American composer Howard Hanson to the Eastman faculty, teaching for eight years while directing the Eastman Collegium Ensemble and the Eastman Singers.
He also served as assistant conductor to Leopold Stokowski, and studied conducting under Pierre Monteaux. Among his favorite recollections of his long professional life, he recalled Monteaux asking him to come to class in folk costume illustrating a musical work Fetler admired. He arrived dressed as a shepherd, to illustrate Schubert’s lied “Shepherd on the Rock.”
Fetler was known for discovering new talent. He would roam Eastman’s halls listening to students practicing their instruments, and would occasionally ask one to perform as a soloist with the Rochester Chamber Orchestra, giving them their first professional opportunity before moving on to national and international acclaim.
Over the years, many Eastman faculty performed with the RCO, including Barry Snyder, Zvi Zeitlin, Kenny Grant and Bonita Boyd.
Fetler composed numerous musical works as well, and arrangements of orchestral works. Performances included everything from Mozart and Beethoven to popular works from the 20th century, and he introduced audiences to many styles of music from different cultures.
For RCO performances, Fetler often collaborated with the Bach Children’s Chorus of Rochester, directed by Karla Krogstad. A signature arrangement performed with them was “Happy Trails.” Their annual Messiah performance was considered a highlight of the musical season.
Fetler was born in Riga, Latvia on March, 4, 1927, the son of the well-known evangelist and pastor, William Fetler, and his wife Barbara (Kovalevskaya) Fetler. David was one of 13 children of a musically inclined family that formed a family band in Latvia called “The Rainbow Orchestra” in the early 1930s. At the age of 6, the young David was made the group’s first conductor. “Conducting just felt very natural to me,” he told a family member recently in describing picking up a conductor’s baton as a child. He would continue conducting and performing music for the next 87 years.
With the rise of fascism, the father denounced anti-Semitism from the pulpit. Threats followed and he left Latvia with the family in 1934. They settled first in the Netherlands, and then Sweden. While the father continued his missionary work, the family supported themselves by giving performances in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Switzerland, usually before church audiences. In July 1939 they came to the United States for a religious conference. When World War II broke out in Europe, they were permitted to stay as refugees. The family band continued performing in the United States.
In a family that distinguished itself in music and other creative areas, David was the last surviving member. A YouTube video on the history of the Fetler family band can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7I91sKmFRQ
He is survived by many nieces and nephews and their children.
The family wishes to thank his colleague and good friend Karla Krogstad for being his primary caregiver in the last years of his life.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Greece Performing Arts Society.