Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli brings music of Paul McCartney to Grand Rapids Symphony

Jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli has played and recorded with such luminaries as Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Frigo and Buddy DeFranco. He was the opening act on Frank Sinatra’s last tour.

But Pizzarelli, age 58, grew up listening to The Beatles, and eight years ago, he collaborated with Paul McCartney on his album Kisses on the Bottom, which was released in February 2012.

“It was quite an experience listening to him talk about the Beatles and how they made records,” Pizzarelli said to MLive in October 2012.

Two years later, the English singer/songwriter unexpectedly got in touch with the American jazz guitarist with “this crazy idea to run by you.” The idea was for Pizzarelli to make an album of McCartney’s post-Beatles songs in his own jazzy style.

“He said if I liked the idea maybe I could call the record Midnight McCartney and include a dishy little picture of me against the Manhattan skyline,” Pizzarelli recalled with a laugh.

It didn’t take much to sell him on the idea, said Pizzarelli who performed McCartney’s song My Valentine with Sir Paul on TV for the 54th annual Grammy Awards in 2012.

“He’s a fine musician with amazing musical instincts and has done pretty much everything you could possibly imagine,” Pizzarelli said to Guitar World in August 2015.

Pizzarelli joins the Grand Rapids Symphony for McCartney and More at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday September 21-22 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, September 23, the opening concerts of the 2018-19 Fox Motors Pops series.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leads the Grand Rapids Pops in songs by Paul McCartney, performed by Pizzarelli and his band with the Grand Rapids Symphony in the jazzy style of the Great American Songbook.

Midnight McCartney, which won the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, includes lesser known tunes such as Junk, Warm and Beautiful and, of course, My Valentine. The New Yorker declared it “may be the best collection of McCartney covers ever recorded.”

“The material is still very good. Paul is such a smart songwriter and these songs are so well written,” Pizzarelli said. “When you have strong hooks and great melodies that are really pliable, you’re able to reinterpret them in an interesting way.”

In addition to being a solo artist with some 20 recordings of his own, Pizzarelli has been a special guest on more than 40 recordings for such pop artists as James Taylor, Natalie Cole, Kristin Chenoweth and Rickie Lee Jones. He collaborated with Donna Summer and Robert Flack on the Grammy Award-winning CD, Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mr. Rogers in 2005.

Not long after recording “Kisses from the Bottom,” Pizzarelli was in the studio recording Double Exposure, featuring music of Bill Joel, Michael McDonald and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

“They were the pop stars of the 1970s and 80s, and they were the people I enjoyed listening to,” Pizzarelli said in 2012. “I thought it would be great to find ideas from their songs and play them as jazz songs.”

He took a similar approach with Midnight McCartney, which All Music.com describes as music that’s “designed for play in the smoky late-night hours, when everything turns sweet and mellow.”

Working on the project, which also featured such legendary artists as Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and Diana Krall, a great opportunity, said Pizzarelli, prior to his appearance in Grand Rapids in November 2012 at St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium as its 2012 Great Artist.

Naturally, McCartney came into the studio with ideas about how he would record a particular song. But Sir Paul was open to suggestions from the rest of the musicians, Pizzarelli said to MLive.

While recording More I Cannot Wish You with McCartney singing the song written by Frank Loesser, Pizzarelli tossed out his own ideas.

“I played these little harmonic notes. He’d sing, standing there, and I’d answer,” Pizzarelli recalled in 2012. “He’d point at me and say, ‘Yeah, look what you’re doing there!”

“If you did something he liked,” Pizzarelli said, “he’d really let you know.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony says farewell to Rich DeVos and opens season with bold, beautiful music by Bernstein, Barber and Beethoven

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The Grand Rapids Symphony would not be the orchestra it is today were it not for Rich and Helen DeVos.

Forty-five years ago, the DeVoses funded the first five full-time musicians in the Grand Rapids Symphony – two violins, a viola, a cello and a double bass – for a mere $40,000. It was the beginning of the transformation of the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra to a professional ensemble.

A few years later, they were major contributors to the former Grand Center Convention Center and DeVos Hall, which became the Grand Rapids Symphony’s home when it opened in 1980. For decades, Rich and Helen DeVos were stalwart supporters and dear friends of the orchestra.

“I think it is safe to say that in the modern history of the Grand Rapids Symphony, no one has had a deeper or more profound effect on this orchestra than Rich and Helen DeVos,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau, speaking to the opening night audience on Friday, Sept. 14.

The Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 89th season with a tribute to Rich DeVos, who died on Sept. 6, a little more than 10 months after Helen DeVos passed away last October. In his memory, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a poignant performance of Maurice Ravel’s eloquent Pavane. It was a performance that left the audience in complete silence afterward.

GR Symphony's Beethoven's 7th

But the evening began in grand fashion with the traditional season-opening performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the audience singing along.

Opening his second season at the helm of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Lehninger led the orchestra in a colorful evening of music by Bernstein, Barber and Beethoven. The concert titled Beethoven's 7th repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday Sept. 15. Tickets remain available.

Violinist Karen Gomyo and her exquisite Stradivarius violin joined the orchestra for a magnificent performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It’s a shrewd bit of programming to show off the French-Canadian and Japanese violinist who studied at The Juilliard School under Dorothy Delay, who taught Itzhak Perlman, Midori Goto, Sarah Chang, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Nigel Kennedy, and a long list of great violinist.

The neo-romantic concert work demands a luscious, liquid tone and a tuneful approach to melody in the first two movements. It asks for heroic feats of technical bravado in the finale. We could spend all night arguing which is her greater strength, but it wouldn’t matter in the end because Gomyo is brilliant at both. Her violin playing sings and sizzles at the same time.

Principal Oboist Ellen Sherman contributed a lovely melancholy solo in the slow movement. We’ll hear more from her next month at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Baroque Concert on Oct. 12.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the capstone for the evening. Though it’s slightly overshadowed by some of his other symphonies, it’s no less brilliant. It also clips right along. The slow movements aren’t slow at all. The fast movements are a Formula One race in the concert hall.

Lehninger led a bubbly, buoyant performance, clearly happy to back on the podium with the Grand Rapids Symphony. He deftly handled the overlapping themes of the first movement.

The allegretto was featured in the climactic scene of “The King’s Speech,” which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s the very definition of musical gravitas, and Lehninger delivered the solemnity and seriousness with hymn-like radiance.

The finale is a full-bore, full-throated march. Lehninger pushed the musicians, and the Grand Rapids Symphony played with vivacious vitality.

The evening opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a piece he composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1980s. It’s quintessential Bernstein – angular and ambitious with clever nods to the work of other composers and creative departures that border on the outrageous.

Lehninger led an aggressive, extroverted performance. Friday’s audience chuckled at the wit of the movement titled “Turkey Trot,” marveled at the energy of the “Samba” and enjoyed roller coaster of a ride that is the Sousa-flavored finale, titled, naturally, “The BSO Forever.”

In 2012, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched its Legacy of Excellence Campaign to raise $40 million to build a permanent endowment to secure the orchestra’s future. Rich and Helen DeVos provided a $20 million lead gift to open the campaign that concluded in 2016. Though they no longer will be seen at Grand Rapids Symphony concerts – and they were seen often – their presence will continue to be felt forever.

“I can’t think of any other person than Rich DeVos who was so in love with “his community” and who was so dedicated to lifting up and improving this community,” Varineau told the Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience on Friday. “He was a visionary. Everywhere we look, there is evidence of Rich’s love for Grand Rapids. We will miss him terribly.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, September 15, 2018

Violinist Karen Gomyo and her Stradivarius violin open Grand Rapids Symphony 2018-19 season

Classically trained musicians have a close, intimate relationship with their musical instruments. They have to.

When violinist Karen Gomyo first was introduced to her Stradivarius violin, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But it was close.

“I’m incredibly attached to it,” she told San Francisco Classical Voice prior to a performance in 2012.

Gomyo performs on a Stradivarius violin titled the “Aurora, exFoulis,” which was built in 1703. When she first began playing it, it hadn’t been played much for decades.

“It felt to me that it was a well-behaved, polite instrument that had a lot of potential, she said. “Over the next few years, the more it was played on, the more it started to shine from within.”

Gomyo will join the Grand Rapids Symphony to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto to open the orchestra’s 2018-19 season on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14-15 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 for the opening of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

Tickets for Beethoven’s 7th  start at $18 for adults, $5 students. Tickets are available from the Grand Rapids Symphony box office at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or by going online at GRSymphony.org.

In memory of philanthropist Rich DeVos, who died last week at age 92, the Grand Rapids Symphony will remember its stalwart support with remarks and special music. 

Associate Conductor John Varineau, who is in his 34th season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, will offer brief remarks on the second half of the concert. Afterward, Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Maurice Ravel's Pavane, a brief, beautiful work that lies somewhere between a hymn and a folk song.

A moment of silence will follow, leading to the performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, a piece that accompanied the climactic scene of the 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” As actor Colin Firth, as King George VI, overcomes the stammer he's had since childhood to announce to the British people on radio that his country was now at war with Nazi Germany, the allegretto movement from Beethoven's symphony lends gravitas to the moment.

“It’s such a wonderful way to start a season,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. “Not only with Beethoven, but with that Beethoven Symphony.”

Lehninger also will lead the orchestra in Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a cheeky work full of nods to other composers, inside jokes and extraverted humor was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1980.

Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a French-Canadian father, Gomyo moved to Canada with her family at age 2 and lived in Montreal. When the world-famous violin teacher Dorothy DeLay accepted Gomyo at The Juilliard School at age 11, Gomyo and her mother moved to New York City.

At 15, she became the youngest violinist ever accepted on the management roster of Young Concert Artists. In 2008 at age 26, she was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Gomyo has performed with top American orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra in the United States as well as with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony, and Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

Gomyo, who served as violinist, host and narrator for a documentary about Antonio Stradivarius titled The Mysteries of the Supreme Violin, performs on a Stradivarius violin that was bought for her exclusive use by a private sponsor.

“I would describe my violin as having a very pure tone. That doesn’t mean quiet; it certainly carries very well in a hall. But it’s a silvery tone. It has a lot of warmth,” she told San Francisco Classical Voice

Unlike many Stradivari, the instrument never was owned previously by a renowned violinist. Through the entire 20th century, it only had three owners, which also is rare for an instrument of this caliber.

Gomyo said it took her years to get acquainted with the instrument because an instrument such as a Stradivarius has its own character.

“It comes with a strong personality and you can’t impose yourself on it,” Gomyo told Utah based classical music writer Edward Reichel in October 2015. “You have to let it speak.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony mourns the death of Rich DeVos

Rich DeVos, businessman and community leaders, philanthropist and patron of the arts, was a dear friend and stalwart support of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

With a heavy heart and great sadness, the Grand Rapids Symphony mourns the passing of DeVos, who was associated with the Grand Rapids Symphony for nearly 50 years.

Richard M. DeVos, co-founder of Amway, died Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. He was 92 years old.

Both Rich DeVos and his wife, Helen DeVos, who died in October 2017, believed in the power of music to sustain and nurture the soul.

“Rich and Helen DeVos’s vision for the Grand Rapids Symphony gave us the orchestra we have today,” said Peter Perez, President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony. “Their guidance and support truly was transformational.”

“The orchestra that traveled to New York City in April for a critically acclaimed concert in Carnegie Hall simply would not exist without their support,” Perez said.

In 1974, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation provided the initial funds to hire five full-time musicians – two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a double bassist, beginning the process of transforming the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra into a professional orchestra. Four of the five were organized as the DeVos String Quartet. Today, the four principal players of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first and second violins, viola and cello sections continue to perform as the DeVos String Quartet.

The couple was instrumental in building DeVos Performance Hall, the orchestra’s principal performance venue, which opened in October 1980 as part of the former Grand Center Convention Center.

Significantly, the DeVos Foundation also funded the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first full-time development director to raise money for the orchestra.

Today, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 10-concert classical series is known as the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

In 2001, the Grand Rapids Symphony presented a Bravo Award, its highest honor, to Rich DeVos.

Rich and Helen DeVos guaranteed that their vision for the future growth and success of the Grand Rapids Symphony would live on into the future. In 2012, the orchestra launched its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign to build a permanent endowment to secure its future.

The DeVoses led the campaign with a $20 million leadership gift. Within four years, the Grand Rapids Symphony met its goal, securing an additional $20 million in cash, gifts, ongoing pledges and estate plans from more than 150 individuals, couples, corporations and foundations.

“Helen’s love of music drew us into the organization, and we’ve experienced the Symphony’s growth into an orchestra recognized nationally for the quality of its concerts and educational programs,” said Richard DeVos at the conclusion of the campaign in April 2016. “We’re glad to help preserve and sustain our orchestra, which helps create a positive atmosphere for growth in our community.”

Rich and Helen DeVos often were seen in the audience at Grand Rapids Symphony concerts. They were together at a concert in DeVos Performance Hall just a couple weeks before Helen’s death.

Music director Marcelo Lehninger first met and had dinner with Rich and Helen DeVos shortly after he was appointed Music Director in 2016. Both were keenly interested in his career and his background.

“They were very kind, both of them,” Lehninger recalled. “And they were people of such great faith. That was very powerful.”

“We talked about the power of perseverance,” Lehninger said. “Rich said he accomplished all he did because he was perseverant.”

“They loved this community, and they invested in this community,” Lehninger said. “The fact that they invested in the Grand Rapids Symphony made it possible to have the symphony orchestra we have today.”

Rich DeVos will be remembered next week when the Grand Rapids Symphony opens its 2018-19 season with Beethoven’s 7th on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14 and 15 under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.


Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, September 6, 2018

Plenty of great music coming to Grand Rapids Symphony's stage in 2018-19

At the climax of the 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” King George VI overcomes the stutter he’s had since childhood to announce that Great Britain was at war with Nazi Germany.

As Colin Firth, who portrays King George, addresses the British people throughout the world, the gravitas of the moment is supplied by music from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Grand Rapids Symphony performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 to open its 2018-19 season on Sept. 14-15 in DeVos Performance Hall.

“It’s such a wonderful way to start a season,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. “Not only with Beethoven, but with that Beethoven Symphony.”

Karen Gomyo and her Stradivarius violin also will be on stage to perform Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin for the opening concerts of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

GR Symphony's 2018-19 season

The 2018-19 season includes Marcelo Lehninger leading such musical masterpieces as Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s 89th season also features four full-length films with live music including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in February and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in March 2019.

Jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli returns to Grand Rapids to open the Fox Motors Pops Series on Sept. 21-23 with McCartney and More, featuring songs of Paul McCartney.  Pizzarelli, who was St. Cecilia Music Center’s Great Artist in 2012, was personally invited by Sir Paul to perform and record McCartney’s post-Beatles music in the classic jazz style of the Great American Songbook. Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leads the concerts.

In September, the Grand Rapids Symphony returns to ArtPrize with new, cutting-edge music by four young composers all of whom are competing in the $500,000 exhibition and competition. Music by the four will be performed in nine free mini-concerts Sept. 28-29 at The Morton on Monroe Center during the annual event that turns downtown Grand Rapids into a strolling indoor/outdoor art gallery.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season includes world-class stars such as cellist Andrei Ioniță, Gold Medalist at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, performing in an all-Tchaikovsky concert in February 2019.

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet  featured prominently in such film soundtracks as the 2005 film “Pride & Prejudice” starring Keira Knightly, comes to Grand Rapids in October for a concert that also features Rimsky-Korsakov’s popular Scheherazade.

Later in the season, Grand Rapids’ own Michelle DeYoung, a three-time Grammy Award winner who attended Calvin College, joins the singers from the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus for Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

The Grand Rapids Pops concerts continue in November with songs made famous by Frank Sinatra starring pianist and singerTony DeSare. In January, trumpeter and singer Byron Stripling returns for a program of ragtime, blues and jazz including music made famous by Louis Armstrong.

The Gerber SymphonicBoom series opens in October with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas with the full-length 1993 film plus live music led by Associate Conductor John Varineau. Grand Rapids Symphony’s principal oboist Ellen Sherman is soloist for The Baroque Concert – Bach and Beyond, which opens the PwC Great Eras Series and Porter Hills Coffee Classics series in October in both St. Cecilia Music Center and in Hope College’s Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts in Holland.

Four popular holiday programs include screenings of the award-winning animated short The Snowman and of Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin, both in November. In December, the Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops welcomes baritone Justin Hopkins and Embellish handbell ensemble for old favorites and holiday cheer. The acrobatic troupe Cirque de la Symphonie returns for its 10th anniversary performance of Cirque de Noël.

Special events in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season include the annual Symphony with Soul show with the hip-hop, classical crossover duo Black Violin in February 2019.

The biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival  returns in March 2019 for a week’s worth of music in churches and other venues in the city all under the leadership of conductor, organist and composer Julian Wachner, who will make his debut as Artistic Director.

Both season tickets and single tickets are available from the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or online at GRSymphony.org

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Return to Carnegie Hall on Sunday with the Grand Rapids Symphony in TV special

Nearly 13 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony traveled to New York City to make its Carnegie Hall debut, a major milestone in the history of the orchestra.

WOOD TV8 traveled to the Big Apple with the Grand Rapids Symphony and captured the highlights for a special-event broadcast that aired in June.

If you missed it, you can see at again on Sunday. “Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall” airs at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 2 on WXSP-TV. In affiliate of WOOD-TV can be found on Channel 15 on Comcast, Channel 16 on Charter Cable, and Channel 6 on U-Verse TV. Consult your channel guide for more information.

GR Symphony at Carnegie Hall 2018

In April, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, who previously led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, led the orchestra and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in an exciting evening of Brazilian and Spanish music, some of which hadn’t been heard in Carnegie Hall since 1959.

Guest pianist Nelson Freire, who made his fifth appearance in the 127-year-old auditorium, joined the orchestra to perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, whose director, Pearl Shangkuan, had conducted and sung previously in Carnegie Hall, made its debut singing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears your Heart).

The 134-voice chorus also joined the orchestra to sing Gabriel Faure’s Pavane in F-sharp minor as an encore for the audience of over 2,300.

Eva Aguirre Cooper, Community Affairs Director at WOOD TV8, accompanied the Grand Rapids Symphony to New York City for the two-day trip, taking viewers behind the scenes from rehearsals to receptions, including interviews with musicians, conductors, audience members and a brief appearance by members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus on NBC-TV’s “Today Show” with Hoda Kotb.

Hundreds of supporters, patrons and fans traveled from Grand Rapids to New York City for the Carnegie Hall performance on Friday, April 20. Hundreds more from the New York City area were special guests of the Grand Rapids Symphony thanks to its Symphony Scorecard program.

Special guests also included Mauro Vieira, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations, and Frederico S. Duque Estrada Meyer, Deputy Permanent Representative, both based in New York City.

Follow the Grand Rapids Symphony on WOOD TV8’s Connecting with Community page.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, August 30, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony inaugurates Neighborhood Concert Series with "Symphony on the West Side"

The natural mission of an orchestra such as the Grand Rapids Symphony is to make music.

In recent times, the job of every American performing arts organization also has been to inspire, motivate, educate and nurture its audience.

Today, it’s also the duty of an orchestra to connect, not only with its usual audience, but with everyone in its community.

“A symphony orchestra in the 21st century has become a service organization,” said Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. “We’re here not only to entertain our audience but also to serve our community.”

For the debut of its new Neighborhood Concert Series, the Grand Rapids Symphony did both.

The Grand Rapids Symphony launched its brand new series with a free concert, “Symphony on the West Side,” on Saturday, July 21, in John Ball Park.

GRS Symphony on the West Side

Underwritten in part by the Wege Foundation, it was the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first outdoor performance in the city in 20 years.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Symphony in music including Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme,” John Williams’ theme for “Jurassic Park,” and Johann Strauss Jr.’s well known “Blue Danube Waltz” for the concert that drew music lovers from throughout the city.

Huntington Bank was the Consort Sponsor, and additional support for “Symphony on the West Side” was provided by Premiere Sponsors Dykstra Excavating and Beatrice A. Idema.

Music including Jose Pablo Moncayo’s spicy, “Huapango” was performed on a temporary stage for an audience that brought lawn chairs and blankets for the early evening concert.

Grand Rapids’ own Edye Evans Hyde and the Terry Lower Trio joined the orchestra for popular as well as classical music.

Preconcert entertainment was provided by members of Grand Rapids’ Anishinabek community of Native Americans, whose largest tribe in the greater Grand Rapids area is the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians.

Though rain forced the concert to end earlier than expected, symphony organizers called the event a big success.

“Symphony on the West Side” was the first event in the new initiative launched with help from the Wege Foundation, which earlier this year awarded the Grand Rapids Symphony a $1 million grant to enhance initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion to engage a broader audience and share live orchestral music with everyone in its community.

Planning is underway to develop a series of community events that organizers hope will broaden the Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience and expose more people in the community to the power and beauty of classical music experienced live and in person.

“I have a passion and a mission to reach the hearts and souls of everyone in this community,” Lehninger said. “Sometimes people feel they don’t belong. We’re trying to show them that, yes, they do belong. Hopefully, they’ll understand that’s it’s their orchestra too.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Recap: Ben Folds ends Grand Rapids Pops summer season with evening of surprises

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

An evening with Ben Folds is full of surprises.

The surprise at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops for the first-timers was when Folds’ fans sang along him. Not in the sense of singing along, word for word, as any fan might. But on songs such as “So There” and “One Angry Dwarf,” singing in tandem, as if they were at “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and everyone knows the audience-participation routine.

Yet even for the Folds fanatics, there were surprises. Best of all, the Ben Folds Five became the Ben Folds Sixty Five, thanks to the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, Aug. 3 at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

Guest conductor Jacomo Bairos, a regular collaborator with Folds as well as a frequent collaborator with the Grand Rapids Symphony, brought the two together for the one-night only special event to close the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.

GRS Picnic Pops with Ben Folds

Bairos and the orchestra opened the show was a flamboyant romp through George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” Suite.

The frequent fans who have followed Folds’ career from fronting the alt-rock group Ben Folds Five to appearing as a judge for several season on NBC’s The Sing Off” likely were surprised to learn Folds is a huge fan and big supporter of symphony orchestras. For the past year, he’s been on staff with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as an artistic advisor.

With Bairos and the Grand Rapids Symphony, Folds played a movement from his 21-minute Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a 2015 piece that several years ago topped the Billboard Classical and Billboard Classical Crossover charts at the same time. The piece isn’t an ultra-serious work but it is substantial with repeated melodic figures and fiery rhythms for soloist and for the orchestra as well.

Most fans, of course, came for the hits, including the cheeky “Effington,” which wound up the audience, and “So There,” which wound up the orchestra.

It sure sounded like the orchestra was having fun as much as the audience.

Along the way, the North Carolina native told the audience, early in his career, he had a regular gig with a band at Northern Michigan’s Schuss Mountain.

“The band was called ‘The Schussy Cats,’” he said.

The biggest surprise, though not entirely a surprise, was Folds’ improvisational create-a-song –on-the-spot with a symphony orchestra. It wasn’t entirely a surprise because it’s been a staple of Folds shows for years.  He did it the first time he appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Performance Hall in October 2014.

It still was a bit of a surprise because it wasn’t slotted into the show. In the second half, fans because shouting for it, and Folds went for it.

For the next 12 minutes or so, Folds played and sang fragments of music to the audience, called out instructions what to do or not do. In the end, with Folds singing “Rock This Bitch at the Picnic Pops,” co-conspirators Bairos led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a startlingly spectacular musical moment that ended in a standing ovation.

Before the night was over, the plain-spoken, shoot-from-the-hip entertainer told the audience they were lucky to have “one of the best orchestras in the country” in their community.

“There are two kinds of cities,” he said. “There are cities with great orchestras, and then there are cities that are crap.”

The concert as well as the entire 2018 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops season ended in semi-darkness, the stage bathed in deep shades of indigo and magenta, with couples cuddling as Folds sang “The Luckiest.”

A perfect ending for “Symphony under the Sky” at Cannonsburg.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Recap: Tito Puente Jr., Grand Rapids Pops, turn Cannonsburg into ‘mambo mountain’ at D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Few people know the difference between mambo and salsa. Once the music starts, even fewer care.

No matter which style percussionist Tito Puente Jr. and the Grand Rapids Symphony played, the audience simply couldn’t sit still at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops on Thursday, Aug. 2.

I’ve been at the Picnic Pops for every year for its 24-year-history, and I don’t ever remember seeing so many people dancing at Cannonsburg.

“This is mambo mountain here tonight!” Puente Jr. told the cheering audience, and he was right.

Tito Puente Jr., son of the legendary Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente Sr., joined the Grand Rapids Pops for a hot and spicy evening of mambo, merengue and more made famous by the elder Puente Sr. who was known as “The King” or “El Rey.”

Whether that meant “The King of the Timbales” or “The King of Latin Jazz” or one of any number of possible titles bestowed on the elder musician from El Barrio in Spanish Harlem, Puente Sr. was a pioneering bandleader who not only bought Afro-Cuban jazz to mainstream America, he helped invent the genre.

Tito Puente Sr. died in 2000, but his music did not. Beginning with Mambo Gozon, Puente Jr. pounded out the same energetic, high-voltage entertainment from his timbales that his father once did.

GRS Picnic Pops with Tito Puente Jr.

Aside from a few departures, such as Cuando Calienta el Sol, made famous by Luis Miguel, the special-event concert at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops took audiences back to the days of the Palladium in New York City.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Pops in more than 90 minutes of energetic music full of percussion dogfights on tunes such as Ran Kan Kan, and blazing brass and sultry saxophones, including plenty of solos in the orchestra, on tunes such as Babarabatiri, another of Puente Sr.’s biggest hits.

Back in the day, Puente Sr. had such famous Cuban singers as Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymon, better known as “La Lupe,” and Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa,” on stage with him. Puente Jr. had Puerto Rican-born Melina Almodovar.

The singer known as “La Muñeca de la Salsa” or “The Doll of Salsa” was a sensation all her own, belting out Quimbara with all the fire and sass of Celia Cruz while lighting up the stage in a glamorous gown.

Oye Como Va was made famous by guitarist Carlos Santana’s 1971 recording, but Puente Sr. wrote it and recorded it a decade later. It was the final number of the night, and it brought the house down.

Puente Jr. told the audience at Cannonsburg he was inspired to carry on the work of his father who earned seven Grammy Awards, garnered 14 nominations, and played on hundreds of recordings.

Puente Sr.’s his final concert in April 2000 was with the Músicos de la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico in San Juan just a few weeks before his death.  

“I’m going to take it to the maximum level,” Puente Jr. recalled his father saying. “The symphonic level.”

That’s exactly what the Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops audience got at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Sunday, August 5, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Pops and Mickey Thomas rock Cannonsburg with '80s Rewind'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

When Mickey Thomas of Jefferson Starship first sang We Built This City in the 1980s, he was referring to rock 'n roll in San Francisco. When Thomas joined the Grand Rapids Pops for 80s Rewind, he was singing about orchestral pops as well as rock 'n roll for the community of West Michigan gathered at Canonsburg Ski Area.

Either way, Thomas and the Grand Rapids Pops were a big hit for the second concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.

The Grand Rapids Symphony remembered the 1980s, with music by George Michael, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, the Scorpions, and, of course, Jefferson Starship. Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in plenty of big hits by some of the biggest acts of the 1980s.

Thomas was the star of the show, but his backing band did a great job of rocking the hills at Canonsburg for an audience that was on its feet by the end of the night on both Thursday and Friday, July 19 and 20.

80s Rewind! at the GR Symphony Picnic Pops

Certainly, a celebration of music of the 80s could last for days, but in the 110-minute show on Thursday (a little shorter on Friday due to rain), the Grand Rapids Symphony and special guests served up plenty of the best of the 1980s with songs that had the audience singing along most of the night.

The funny thing about the show was that the performers singing songs of the 1980s were too young to remember the 1980s. In fact, vocalist Benjamin Caron told the audience he was born in 1987, which was good for a laugh. Nevertheless, it just goes to show that the best songs from that era are timeless and embraced by listeners spanning many generations.

Perhaps the most important skill for singers leading tribute shows is their ability to be musical chameleons, covering a wide range of singers. Christine LaFond especially was convincing with her interpretation of singers as diverse as Irene Cara and Grace Slick

Caron had the audience worked up early in the show channeling George Michaels singing Faith from his solo career as well as a lively version of Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Michaels’ first big hit with Wham! On the flip side, he gave a fair impression of Bono singing one of U2's biggest hits on With Or Without You

LaFond was just as impressive on her version of Pat Benatar's Shadows of the Night, charming the audience in a performance topped only by her version of the epic rock anthem What a Feeling from Flashdance.

The entire ensemble revved the audience up on the Scorpions' Rock You Like a Hurricane. And when they got to Celebration by Kool and the Gang, the audience was ready to have a good time.

That set the stage for Mickey Thomas, who only came with five songs, but they were five really good ones.

Plenty of aging rock 'n roll singers at the end of their career struggle to hit the high notes that made them famous back in the day. Thomas, however, still has the goods. As he kicked off Find Your Way Back to open his set, it was immediately clear he had no trouble finding his way back.

LaFond joined Thomas on the duet Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, which Thomas originally sang with Grace Slick. But LaFond sounded so much like the Chrome Nun, you'd easily believe you were listening to both original singers.

The best surprise of the evening came when the band and orchestra kicked off Don't Stop Believing, which brought the audience to its feet with a roar. It didn't matter that it wasn't Mickey Thomas's song or Jefferson Starship's song. Thomas easily convinced the audience he could sing Steve Perry, and the band and Grand Rapids Symphony proved it could fill in for the rest of Journey.

When Thomas launched into We Built This City, the audience came roaring to its feet, dancing on the hill, dancing in front of the stage, having the time of their lives.

Which is exactly what the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops is all about – kicking back, relaxing and having a good time in the great outdoors with great music.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, July 23, 2018
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