Recap: Tasteful, elegant music fills St. Cecilia Music Center for Grand Rapids Symphony's Classical Concert

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The Classical Era in Classical Music is a favorite for many music fans, including Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

What’s not to like? Music the Viennese masters is substantial and satisfying, but it’s also light and cheery.

You can’t go wrong with Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart, especially not when it’s played by the Grand Rapids Symphony in St. Cecilia Music Center. It’s the right music played by the right orchestra in the right setting.

The third concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Great Eras series went swimmingly on Friday, February, 16, with delightful melodies and superb ensemble playing by the core of the orchestra, with the added bonus of Principal Second Violinist Eric Tanner  as soloist.

The program featured Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, Two Rondos by Mozart, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Highlights were performed earlier on Friday morning for the Porter Hills Coffee Classics Series.

Remarkably, few years separated the lives of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of whom spent time in Vienna, the world’s most important city for music in the late 18th century. All three knew each other to some degree and influenced each other.

Beethoven’ Symphony No. 8, for instance, though a late work by Beethoven, bears an unmistakable Haydnesque flavor and structure.

What’s more, Lehninger took a light, zippy approach to the performance, especially the trio. He preceded it with a colorful, often humorous explanation of how conductors pick tempos for Beethoven’s music. Suffice to say, the jury’s out

 But at this concert, Lehninger opted for a fast-paced performance. Still, clarity, clarity and more clarity was the result, thanks to magnificent ensemble playing. Lehninger deftly handled interior lines and counter melodies and made the most of propulsive passages.

The end results was a passionate but refined performance, and a reminder that even Beethoven’s less-frequently heard symphonies still are magnificent.

Tanner, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1996 and was appointed Principal Second Violin in 1999, made his eighth solo appearance with the orchestra to play two Rondos by Mozart, one in B-Flat, one in C major. The Grand Rapids Symphony is blessed with many fine soloists. Tanner is one of them.

Both were tasteful and elegant performances yet also focused and determined. Tanner wrote composed his own solo cadenzas for both, and all were well in character with the music. He played both with a flourish.

The middle of the program was given over to Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 to recognize that 2017-18 is the Grand Rapids Symphony’ 88nd season. It’s among the lesser heard, though not unknown, of Haydn’s 104 symphonies, a truly astonishing figure.

One of the pleasures of listening to Haydn is he never stopped learning and growing as a composer. You’re always aware that he’s trying out new ideas to see what works, and it’s just as delightful for the audience to share in the discover hundreds of years later.

Lehninger’s approach was full of good cheer, even with the sturdy German approach to the minuet. The finale was a really big finish.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 17, 2018 | 0 comments

GR Symphony violinist Eric Tanner is soloist for evening of Beethoven, Haydn & Mozart on Friday

In the late 18th century, professional musicians typically were composers as well as performers, generally writing music for themselves to play.

Even when they performed their own virtuoso works for soloist and orchestra, composers such as Mozart and Beethoven typically improvised solo cadenzas on the spot to show off their skills as both performer and composer.

Today, concerto soloists almost always play a previously composed solo cadenza. Violinist Eric Tanner, however, will play his own cadenzas with the Grand Rapids Symphony when he performs two Rondos by Mozart.

“This was the tradition during the Classical era, so I thought it was fitting to try my hand at it too,” said Tanner, who is Principal Second Violinist of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The 2017-18 Crowe Horwath Great Eras series continues with The Classical Concert: Beethoven, Haydn & Mozart at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 16, in St. Cecilia Music Center, 24 Ransom Ave. NW.

Highlights of the evening concert will be given at 10 a.m. that morning for The Classical Coffee Concert, part of the Porter Hills Coffee Classics series, a one-hour program held without intermission. Doors open at 9 a.m. for complementary coffee and pastry.

Tickets start at $26 for the Great Eras series and $16 for Coffee Classics. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony ticket office at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to GRSymphony.org

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by the three Viennese masters for the third concert in the four-concert series held in Royce Auditorium.

The program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, the latter in honor of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 88th season in 2017-18.

Tanner steps in front of the orchestra as soloist in Two Rondos for Violin and Orchestra, one in B-flat Major and one in C Major, both by Mozart.

Tanner, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1996 and was appointed Principal Second Violin in 1999, is making his eighth solo appearance with the orchestra. His previous solo appearances include performing the Brahms’ Double Concerto together with his brother, cellist Mark Tanner, in 2005, and performing as soloist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in 2007.

Eric Tanner has held positions in the Florida Philharmonic, New Orleans Symphony, Springfield Symphony and American Sinfonietta. He served as Concertmaster of the North Miami Beach Symphony where he performed the Bruch Violin Concerto with the orchestra. 

Along with violinist Joshua Bell, Tanner was a finalist in 1982 in the first annual SEVENTEEN Magazine and General Motors Concerto Competition, in addition to other competitions and awards. 

Along with serving as second violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s DeVos String Quartet, Tanner is first violinist of the Perugino String Quartet, which was founded at Grand Valley State University, where he also taught violin from 1997 to 2011. With the Perugino Quartet, Tanner has performed in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts at the invitation of the Juilliard Quartet. 

No one is certain why Mozart wrote either of these two Rondos, which is a musical form with a principal musical theme that alternates with a series of contrasting themes.

It’s likely Mozart wrote them for his friend and colleague, the Italian violinist Antonio Brunetti, who was leader of the court orchestra at Salzburg, where Mozart began his adult career as a musician.

The Rondo in B-flat dates from about 1776 followed by the Rondo in C, which was composed in April 1781, just before Mozart left Salzburg to become a freelance musician in Vienna.

“It’s very probable the Rondo in C was written for Brunetti for a special concert at the palace to show visiting dignitaries from Vienna that Salzburg wasn't just a distant hick town,” Tanner said with a smile.

Tanner, who had never performed these pieces until recently decided to tackle the challenge of writing his own cadenzas for both.

"I wrote them before listening to any recordings of other cadenzas, of which there are many," he said. "I'm happy to say that, except for one small harmony adjustment, I didn't make any changes to what I'd written after listening to the others."

"I hope the audience will enjoy something fresh, and I'll be interested to hear what people think afterwards," he added.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, February 13, 2018 | 0 comments

The magic of Harry Potter returns to Grand Rapids Pops with 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' Friday and Saturday

Last season, when the Grand Rapids Pops brought the Harry Potter Film Concert series to town, the Grand Rapids Symphony sold out three performances of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the musical score played live by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

When Harry Potter battled talking spiders and giant snakes, dealt with a charming but inept Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and finally faced the memory of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, an audience filled DeVos Performance Hall.

Now, Pottermania is back for more.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the series, comes to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage for three performances on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 9-10.

Tickets, starting at $18, are available, but they’re going fast for three shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday with a matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, Ron and Hermione, now teenagers, return for their third year at Hogwarts, where they are forced to face escaped prisoner, Sirius Black, who seems to pose a great threat to Harry.

Harry and his friends spend their third year learning how to handle a half-horse, half-eagle creature known as a Hippogriff, repel shape-shifting Boggarts, and master the art of Divination. They also visit the wizarding village of Hogsmeade and the Shrieking Shack, considered the most haunted dwelling in Britain.

In addition to these new experiences, Harry faces a werewolf and must overcome the threats of the soul-sucking Dementors. With his best friends, Harry tackles advanced magic, crosses the barriers of time and alters the course of events for those around him.

This weekend, the lobby of DeVos Performance Hall will be decorated in trappings of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Guests can take photos with a Sorting Hat or sample specialty drinks inspired by the world of magic in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions.

Created by author J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon unlike any ever seen before. Rowling’s seven books have sold more than 400 million copies and counting, making Rowling the world’s only billionaire author.

The Harry Potter Film Concert Series, created by CineConcert in conjunction with Warner Bros. presents the original film in high-definition on a 40-foot screen with a full-scale symphony orchestra performing musical score by Williams, who also created film scores for “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” as well as for many of the films to follow in those franchises. He also scored “Saving Private Ryan,” “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List” among a galaxy of blockbuster films.

“I think that John Williams is one of the great geniuses of all music, not just film,” Freer said in an interview on Pottermore.com last year.

Grand Rapids Symphony was among the first orchestras in the world to present Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone after the series debuted in June 2016.

It since has become a worldwide phenomenon, scheduled to include hundreds of performances across more than 35 countries around the world through 2018.

Still, it’s hard to imagine audiences anywhere could be as excited to relive the tale of the boy who lived as they were for the Grand Rapids Pops debut in January 2017 that sold out three performances totaling more than 7,000 people, many dressed in wizard’s robes or in the house colors of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Odds are everyone who attended has seen the movie before, possibly many times over. The shared experience makes it special. So does the live music, which generates excitement because it’s fresh and new. It’s familiar but also a little bit different.

Even as you get caught up in the experience of watching a lively game of Quidditch or the deadly drama of a game of Wizard’s Chess, you’re aware nonetheless that what you’re hearing is coming at you live. The air crackles with excitement.

What’s more, the truly surround sound of a 90-piece orchestra in a concert hall reveals aspects of the music not as apparent in the original movie soundtrack. The first time the Grand Rapids Symphony performed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s, nearly everyone stayed put for more than five minutes of end credits to listen to the Grand Rapids Symphony play. When was the last time you saw that in a movie theater?

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, February 7, 2018 | 0 comments

Recap: Fun and good times with Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

It’s almost impossible to believe how old Gustav Holst’s The Planets is. The symphonic suite sounds fresh from the cinema and a killer opening weekend for the latest sci-fi blockbuster.

In fact, the English composer began work on the seven-movement work in 1914 at the end of the horse-and-buggy era. The Planets only sounds like the soundtrack for a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before because film composers have drawn inspiration from its rhythms and energy.

Composers such as John Williams have chosen wisely. The Planets is a big work that packs a big wallop, and even more so with the full forces of the Grand Rapids Symphony under the capable baton of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

The fifth concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series ended with a standing ovation lasting nearly 5 minutes on Friday, February 2. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 3 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Lehninger, in his second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, came to have fun. When he entered the hall to conduct Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 on the first half, Lehninger scampered up the podium like a kid about to board a roller coaster. He just couldn’t wait.

The audience was ready to have a good time as well. Scattered applause followed nearly every movement throughout Friday’s concert from start to finish.

Though it’s a well-known piece to concert goers, Lehninger’s performance was thoroughly enjoyable. The insistent energy and ambitious scope of “Mars, The Bringer of War,” was exciting, making full use of a big orchestra that filled the stage. The robust melodies and deftly executed mixed meters of “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” left the audience gasping at the end. “Uranus, The Magician,” was stately and lively at the same time and full of sparkling moments.

The same was true for the softer movements. Exposed solos in Venus, The Bringer of Peace,” were delightful. The nimbleness and agility of “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” was mesmerizing. In the final movement, “Neptune, The Mystic,” the voices of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, singing off stage, entered the performance so unobtrusively, it took minutes for many in the audience to realize what they were hearing.

The Planets really has nothing to do with the actual planets. Rather, Holst, an amateur astrologer, was inspired by the astrological significance of the planets and their effects on the human psyche. Not surprisingly, it’s music that pushes the emotional buttons.

Nevertheless, the performance of the 48 minute work was accompanied by video of outer space and interplanetary exploration created by the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Some of the footage was animated, but much of the film was actual video. The journey across the Martian landscape or through the rings of Saturn at times was breathtaking.

The Planets is a big piece and a tough piece. Before giving the downbeat for the Holst suite on the second half, Lehninger joked from the stage that the hard music was over. He wasn’t entirely joking.

It’s not that the music of the Classical Era was difficult to play, note by note, phrase by phrase. The trick is, the music is so transparent, it’s a challenge to put together artfully.

The concert inspired by celestial bodies opened with Haydn’s Overture to Il mondo della luna or The World on the Moon, a cheery piece seldom heard in the concert hall. The performance was crisp, lively and clean with a bit of drama but all in good order.

It continued in the first half with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, which would be his final composition in the symphonic form before his untimely death at age 35. It also would become the most popular and arguably the greatest of his symphonies.

Its nickname had nothing to do with the planet or with astrology. It was dubbed “Jupiter” for its size and scope. At 30 minutes in length, it was really big. It also was really beautiful.

The opening, alternately martial and lyrical, was clean but not antiseptic

The soothing andante that followed featured an enchanting interplay of winds. The earnest minuet cleverly sets the stage for the finale, and Lehninger made the most of its arrival on the scene.

The finale, a large-scale fugue, is a wonder that has amazed music lovers for more than two centuries. In lesser hands, it would be an academic tutorial in counterpoint. In Mozart’s hands, it’s five themes worth of magnificent music.

Lehninger led a performance full of passion, yet played with such precision and poise, it was satisfying for both the heart and the head.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 3, 2018 | 0 comments

Hear Grand Rapids Symphony play the music that inspired film music from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek'

When the words “Star Wars” first burst onto the movie screen to the sweeping accompaniment of a symphony orchestra in 1977, the first blockbuster film, with a soundtrack to match, was born.

Composer John Williams would go on to become one of the most important film composers of modern times. One of the secrets to his success was how he drew inspiration from classical music.

The driving rhythms of Williams’ Imperial Death March in Star Wars were inspired by Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets. Specifically, from the opening movement, “Mars, Bringer of War.”

In fact, Star Wars producer George Lucas encouraged Williams to use Holst’s seven-movement suite for inspiration while composing the score for the epic space adventure. Listen to some comparisons in this YouTube video.

Plenty of composers since then have followed suit.

“Gustav Holst can be seen as unintentionally being one of the greatest movie composers of all time, inspiring many film scores of the last 50 years,” according to blogger Nathan Spendelow on the website Inside Film.

Grand Rapids Symphony presents Holst’s The Planets on Friday and Saturday, February 2-3, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the multimedia program featuring video of outer space courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium.

The full-length video accompanying the seven-movement suite includes images of the planets, its moons, and the spacecraft that have visited each, including photographs of Jupiter taken during the Juno mission and images of Saturn from the Cassini mission.

Animations and simulations of galaxies, nebulae, other deep space objects, and flights through the stars are part of the video, with including content and imagery from Evans and Sutherland, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Tickets for The Planets, the fifth concert of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concert start at $18 adults, $5 students for the 8 p.m. concerts.

Lehninger also will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, nicknamed “Jupiter,” and Haydn’s Overture to Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon).

Members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will be featured in The Planets.

Holst, though not a believer in astrology, was inspired by the astrological associations of the planets when he composed his seven-movement suite more than 100 years ago.

Three of the seven movements, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” and “Neptune, the Mystic,” are among the most frequently quoted compositions of all time.

Film scores for such well-known movies as Aliens, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and The Terminator all suggest inspiration from The Planets. In the original Star Wars film, “Episode IV: A New Hope,” the music in the concluding act that sees Luke Skywalker firing his proton torpedo into the exhaust port of the Death Star, becoming louder as the tension builds, follows the same format as “Mars” from The Planets.

Other TV shows and movies that quote directly from The Planets include the 2010 TV series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and the 2008 film Hellboy II: The Golden Army with Ron Perlman and Selma Blair.”

The 1983 film The Right Stuff, the story of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris, uses excerpts from “Jupiter,” “Mars” and “Neptune.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 30, 2018 | 0 comments

Best songs, best singers come to Grand Rapids Pops stage for Blockbuster Broadway, Jan. 26-28

The great Broadway shows have staying power. If you see it once and fall in love with it, years later you’ll feel the same.

That’s why shows such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music and A Chorus Line return again and again.

The same is true for singers and actors who bring the shows to life. When a show is revived, sometimes you see the same faces and hear the same voices again.

Jessica Hendy was a young actress, fresh from college, when she joined the chorus of the original Broadway production of Cats in 1999. Though it debuted in 1982, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber still was going strong when she served as an understudy for Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, on Broadway as well as on the national tour that ended in 2000.

When Cats was revived in 2016, Hendy was cast again as an understudy and replacement for Grizabella after years of living and acting regionally in her native Cincinnati.

“Getting back on Broadway is kind of the great affirmation that I made the right choice,” Hendy told WCPO-TV in Cincinnati in July 2016.

Hendy, who has appeared previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, returns to West Michigan for Blockbuster Broadway, a salute to show-stopping tunes from Broadway’s biggest hits.

The Fox Motors Pops series show is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 26-27, and at 3 p.m., January 28, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Four stars of the Broadway stage and New York City cabaret will join the orchestra for songs from Wicked, Annie, Jersey Boys, Chicago and Cats among others.

Associate Conductor John Varineau leads the Grand Rapids Pops in tunes you love in three performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 26-27, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, all under Associate Conductor John Varineau.

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students. For tickets and more information, call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to GRPops.org

The cast includes Scott Coulter and Kelli Rabke. Like Hendy, who also has starred on Broadway as Amneris in Elton John’s Aida, Rabke recently revived her career.

A native of West Orange, New Jersey, Rabke has appeared on Broadway in 1994-95 as Eponine in Les Misérables and as the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. On television, Kelli played the recurring role of Bernadette on The Young and the Restless and can be seen in countless commercials. After taking time away from show business to start a family, Rabke returned to the stage with No Place Like Home, her cabaret debut.

“I was definitely nervous,” she said to New Jersey Stage Magazine in September 2016. “And I still am. Every time I get on stage I’m nervous and I think that’s a good sign. It shows that you continue to care. The day that I’m cavalier about standing in front of people and singing, I’ll probably need to sit back down.”

Scott Coulter has performed all over the world in the revue Stephen Schwartz & Friends with Schwartz, and with  Debbie Gravitte, who has performed previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony; and Liz Callaway, whose sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, appeared last season on the Grand Rapids Pops stage.

Coulter, who has received five awards from Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs and five Bistro Awards, was director and star of A Christmas Carol: The Symphonic Concert with the Baltimore Symphony, the Emmy-nominated PBS production that premiered in December 2013.

Coulter has performed previously in West Michigan at Farmers Alley Theater near Kalamazoo in March 2012. But her first appearance was in 1991 when he spent the summer in Kalamazoo, playing Jack in a production of Into the Woods with Kalamazoo Civic Theatre.

In 2012, Coulter told MLive that his years in theater in shows such as Into the Woods influence his cabaret work.

“I think of my style as musical storytelling. I do pretty familiar material, but people often tell me they felt like they head the song for the first time or in a new light,” he said. “I love hearing that.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 23, 2018 | 0 comments

Musical chairs ends with principal appointment for Grand Rapids Symphony bassoonist Victoria Olson

Grand Rapids Symphony Principal Bassoonist Victoria Olson grew up in a musical family.

Her mother, Vicki Olson, is a violist. Her father Robert Olson, a professor of music and director of orchestras at the University of Missouri-Kansas City since 1990, was conductor of Kansas City Ballet for 14 seasons.

Her father also was a bassoonist earlier in his career, though Victoria had never heard him play until he took his instrument out one day when she was 13 years old.

“He was getting ready to sell it,” she recalled. “I had never seen it or heard him play it.”

Intrigued with the four-and-a-half foot tall instrument, Victoria soon began playing it. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s a fun, quirky, beautiful instrument,” said Victoria, who is in her second full season with the Grand Rapids Symphony and her first full season as principal bassoonist.

It’s also a unique instrument that’s not for everyone.

“For a child to choose bassoon, you have to really like it,” she said. “And you have to have the desire to be different.”

But it has its rewards.

"The sound is really beautiful,” she said. “The tenor register is so reminiscent of the voice.”

One of the peculiar challenges of playing bassoon, as well as oboe and English horn, is that the players have to make their own reeds. Musicians who play clarinet and saxophone usually buy reeds and then customize them to their individual needs. Musicians who play double reed instruments make theirs from scratch.

Victoria estimates she spends an average of an hour a day making reeds though usually in two or three-hour blocks of time every few days.

“If you don’t have a good reed, you can only sound elementary,” she said.

A native of Kansas City, Victoria began music lessons with violin at age 3 and piano at age 9 before taking up bassoon.

In 2005, when she was a junior in high school, she spent a summer at Interlochen Fine Arts Camp as an Emerson Scholar and was a finalist in the Interlochen Concerto Competition.

Victoria earned her bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh followed by a master’s degree at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and an Artist Diploma at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Over the past three years, she’s performed with many orchestras in the country including Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony. She has participated in such festivals as the Castleton Music Festival under the direction of Lorin Maazel; the National Music Festival; and the Aspen Music Festival as a New Horizons Fellow.

In her short time in Grand Rapids, she’s been through a series of musical chairs. Though she initially won the third bassoon/contrabassoon position in January 2016, she soon auditioned for and won the assistant principal position in August 2016. But due to a leave of absence, she began the 2016-17 season as acting principal bassoonist.

“My goal always was to play principal,” she said. “I love the solos and working closely with the other woodwinds.”

In February 2017, one year after joining the orchestra, Victoria won the national audition for principal bassoon, becoming the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first principal bassoonist since the retirement of Martha Bowman in May 2015 after more than 40 years of service with the orchestra.

In the end, Victoria only played a few concerts on contrabassoon and essentially none in the assistant principal chair before taking up duties as principal bassoonist.

“Last year was such a blur,” she said with a laugh.

Victoria said she’s happy to be playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. She’s the first principal player appointed by Lehninger since he became Music Director in June 2016.

“I’ve felt like everyone was very welcoming and seemingly happy,” said Victoria, who serves on the music faculty of Grand Valley State University and teaches bassoon privately.

Though Grand Rapids, with about 1 million people in its metropolitan area, is about half the size of Kansas City, which has more than 2 million people in its region, she’s enjoying discovering the area.

“I love ArtPrize and the breweries,” she said. “And the lake is beautiful.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, January 18, 2018 | 1 comments

Recap: Passion and precision at its finest with Grand Rapids Symphony’s all-Tchaikovsky program

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The music of Tchaikovsky is beloved by many.

For an audience of classical music aficionados, an evening of Tchaikovsky needs little explanation. But Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger provided one anyway.

“He’s one of my favorite composers. I love his music,” Lehninger said on Friday in DeVos Performance Hall.

But the Brazilian-born conductor had more to say on the subject.

“One of the things I love about this orchestra is its passion,” he said.

That’s the reason for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s all-Tchaikovsky concert on Friday, Jan. 12, and Lehninger hinted that symphony goers will see more of the same in the next two seasons.

If this weekend’s concerts are any indication, buy your tickets as soon as they’re available. Grand Rapids Symphony’s evening of Tchaikovsky on Friday was amazing.

Tickets remain available for the concert in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series, which repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13.

GR Symphony, Tchaikovsky and Gabriela Montero

Pianist Gabriela Montero, appearing in Grand Rapids for the first time, joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major.

It’s the piece that Van Cliburn played in 1958 at the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, making the lanky Texan a household name and his subsequent recording of the concerto the first classical music recording to sell 1 million copies.

It has everything from crashing chords to delicate melodies. Pianists who play it are forces to be reckoned with. Those who play it well are true artists.

DeVos Performance Hall was treated to a true artist, capable of caressing the instrument much as a lover would as well as hammering it as a blacksmith should. The Venezuelan pianist plays with presence and authority. She doesn’t dominate the performance, apart from her first movement cadenza, which held the audience in rapt silence.

The lengthy first movement ended with sustained applause. Purists would call that a faux pas on the part of the audience. True music lovers would say it’s an honest and heartfelt expression of emotion.

Performing Tchaikovsky well is all about passion and precision and knowing which to apply and when. Montero brought passion came to the fore in the lovely lyrical melodies, and she delivered precision with powerful octaves and thundering chords.

In all, it was sublimely romantic and thrilling in equal measure, leading to a lengthy standing ovation.

“I think it just got hotter in Grand Rapids,” Montero told the audience after the applause died down. “Music making isn’t always this intense.”

Nor is it always as much fun as what was to come.

Montero is a celebrated improviser who takes musical suggestions from the audience and then makes music on the spot. Same as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven once did.

 “I love the fragility of it,” she told the audience.

Someone shouted out “Happy Birthday,” and Montero was off to the races.

Beginning with a bit of Bachian counterpoint, she soon segued into classical era clarity. A series of key changes and a sudden mutation to a minor key led to a passionate romantic flavored variation in which the melody slipped into the background.

Montero followed that with modulation back to the major and a rollicking ragtime stride piano as Scott Joplin might have played it in the bars and bordellos of New Orleans.

The audience loved it.

Lehninger returned in the second half with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a uniquely cyclical symphony with a theme that appears in all four movements of the 50-minute work. Some describe that theme as fate, beginning somberly at the beginning of the work but ending triumphantly at the end.

Lehninger began a little hesitantly, and then took off like a shot. The opening movement was delightful, well-sculpted and sensible with hints of wild abandon yet to come.

Principal hornist Richard Britsch was superb with the memorable horn solo in the second movement with rich string accompaniment. The woodwind section was outstanding with the third movement waltz.

The finale is one of those aggressive, take-no-prisoners moments in classical music, full of dramatic climaxes and earthshattering resolutions. Tchaikovsky fretted that he went too far over the top.

But it’s also an opportunity for an orchestra to show what it can do. In the capable hands of a conductor such as Lehninger, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave a full-bore performance that made the piece sound fresh and made your heart pound with excitement. That’s a wonderful thing.

The concert opened with the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Lehninger conducted it like a kid in a candy store with plenty of cash in his pocket. He was having a blast. So was the audience.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 13, 2018 | 0 comments

Celebrated improviser Gabriela Montero takes requests, just like Mozart and Beethoven did

Once upon a time, celebrated pianist such as Mozart and Beethoven not only composed music for themselves to play, they also improvised on the spot at the concerts they gave. It was expected.

Franz Liszt, possibly the greatest pianist who ever lived, would strike up melodies from the latest operas and embellish them to the delight of audience. But in the 19th century, improvising at the keyboard began to fade into obscurity. Comparatively few, among them Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, continued to improvise for audiences.

But it didn’t die.

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero began piano studies at age 3, and she gave her first public performance at age 5. In between, at age 4, she began improvising in secret.

Montero began improvising at the piano at age 4. For many years, she kept her improvisational forays a secret. The world-famous Venezuelan pianist Martha Argerich encouraged her to do it in public.

“At that point I made the decision,” Montero told the British newspaper The Independent in 2010. “I'm a classical artist, and if the classical world shuns me because I improvise, then that's a risk I have to take, because I have to show myself exactly as I am.”

Pianist Gabriela improvises on the main theme from "Harry Potter."

Montero, who performed at the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama, will show herself exactly as she is in her debut appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 12-13.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and in the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall.

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students for the fourth concerts of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

The all-Tchaikovsky concert features Montero will be soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s one of the best-loved works in the repertoire for pianist and orchestra and for good reason. It’s the piece that pianist Van Cliburn performed in 1957 in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition.

At the height of the Cold War, just months after sending Sputnik into orbit to win the first victory in the race for space, the former Soviet Union created the international competition to prove the superiority of artists and musicians in the Communist world.

But Cliburn, a lanky, 23-year-old Texan, dazzled the Moscow audience performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to capture the top prize.

Cliburn, who returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and a cover story in Time magazine, soon recorded both concertos for RCA Victor. The album became the first classical recording in the world to sell 1 million copies, cementing both works as all-time favorites among classical music lovers.

An excerpt of Gabriela Montero rehearsing the finale of the Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1

Montero, in her native Venezuela made her concert debut with the Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra, earning a scholarship from the Venezuelan government to study in the United States. At age 12, she won the Baldwin National Competition and AMSA Young Artist International Piano Competition, leading to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In 1995, she won the Bronze Medal at the 13th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

In an era of modern recordings and competitions, both of which emphasize note-perfect performances, improvisation has been elbowed out of the concert hall.

“There are so few of us that do it on the concert platform that you become an oddity,” Montero told WQXR-FM in an interview in January 2015.

Improvisation has remained an important part of her career. In her recitals and as encores with orchestras, Montero often spins elaborate creations, sometimes on a given theme, sometimes on one provided on-the-spot by a member of the audience.

Montero’s 2006 recording “Bach and Beyond” for EMI, a recording entirely of her improvisation on themes of J.S. Bach, held the top spot on the Billboard Classical Charts for several months. Two years later, her follow-up CD, “Baroque,” garnered a Grammy Award nomination.

Winner of the 2015 Latin Grammy Award for Best Classical Album, Montero was performer, composer and improviser all on the same recording, performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, contributing an original work, “Ex Patria,” and improvising live in the studio for the album.

Montero has been heard on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” show, improvising on melodies called in by listeners and also has been profiled on CBS TV’s “60 Minutes” in December 2006.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, January 10, 2018 | 0 comments

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's intimate chamber music is superb in St. Cecilia Music Center

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Forty-five musicians in all were on stage, never more than 27 at a time, but it hardly mattered.

No soloist was in front of the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday evening at St. Cecilia Music Center, though no one noticed.

It was an uncommon concert, a little more chamber music, a little less orchestral, but the result was magnificent just the same under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

Grand Rapids Symphony returned the elegant splendor of Royce Auditorium for The Romantic Concert: Dvořák & Tchaikovsky on Friday, Jan. 5, the second concert of the 2017-18 Crowe Horwath Great Eras series.

The Grand Rapids Symphony itself was the star of the show with music includingTchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments, and a Brass Sextet in E-flat minor by Oskar Böhme.

It was a bonus that the music was composed in the era in which its surroundings were built. St. Cecilia Music Center opened its doors at 24 Ransom Ave. NE in 1894.

The power of a full-size symphony orchestra in a large concert hall, playing as one instrument, is a wonder to behold. But that sonic experience is built upon the work of 70 or 80 master musicians, playing at the highest level, contributing the mastery of their craft to the great whole.

On Friday, Lehninger peeled away at the onion to reveal those layers in three separate pieces of music that focused the spotlight on three portions of the orchestra. The results were breathtaking and delightful.

Tchaikovsky, who loved the music of Mozart above all other composers, paid homage to the German composer in his delightful Serenade for Strings, composed in 1881, two years before St. Cecilia Music Society was founded.

The Russian composer was fond of the Serenade, regarding it as one of his finest works, one that he composed from inner conviction. Lehninger honored the music appropriately

With just 27 string players at his disposal, Lehninger nonetheless filled the hall with free-flowing sound from the lyricism of the outer movements, a particular joy when elements of the opening movement returned at the end. The orchestra contributed both precision and elegance with fast moving passages that were played boldly and rendered beautifully.

Lehninger rendered the harmonic shifts in the waltz with loving care. The finale is brilliantly composed, and Lehninger made sure it was brilliantly played.

Dvorak also wrote a Serenade for Strings. This one for winds is lesser known but it also has its charms.

Just 12 musicians were on stage for Dvorak’s Serenade for Wind Instruments – two oboes, two clarinets, three bassoons, three French horns, plus one cello and one bass. No flutes, but plenty of lower-voiced instruments were just the ticket for the serenade in a minor key, at least at its outset.

The cheeky opening march was filled with good humor. The folk melodies were rollicking. The pastoral third movement was bucolic. The finale was playful. Lehninger gave the piece plenty of attention, and it shows.

A mere six musicians performed the Sextet for Brass by Böhme, a little-known composer who flourished in the early 20th century. The six included principal trumpet Charley Lea playing cornet, a slightly mellower version of the trumpet that’s rarely heard in the orchestra hall. Though just six musicians are featured, the music nevertheless was dramatic, exciting and colorful.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 6, 2018 | 0 comments
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