By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Everyone loves music but not everyone is able to experience and enjoy live music.
That’s what inspired the Grand Rapids Symphony to launch its Neighborhood Concert Series, to take music out of the concert hall, and bring it to the people.
The Grand Rapids Pops returned to John Ball Zoo for Symphony on the West Side on Saturday, Sept. 21.
Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the orchestra in such popular favorites as Rimsky-Korsakov’s zippy Flight of the Bumblebee and Tchaikovsky’s lush Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker Ballet for the first concert of the second year of the orchestra’s Neighborhood Concert Series.
Underwritten by the Wege Foundation, the free concert drew an audience of more than 1,250 to the park on the west side of downtown Grand Rapids near the John Ball Zoo.
GRS Associate Concertmaster Christina Fong was soloist in one concerto from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performing a delightfully charming rendition of the Autumn Concerto.
Cellist Zachary Earle, a 17-year-old student at East Kentwood High School, was soloist in a section from Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, performing sweetly on the beautiful movement titled The Swan.
Lehninger, who is entering his fourth season in Grand Rapids, put the Grand Rapids Symphony on full display with a wide variety of music for the concert, supported by Meijer, Inc., as Presenting Sponsor.
He led a sultry and spicy version of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, and a performance of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México that was lean and taught.
Highlights from Gershwin’s folk opera, Porgy and Bess, properly titled Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture was colorful and evocative of the “Catfish Row” made famous by the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira.
Despite the cloudy and overcast skies, the concert opened with a sparkling version of Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Die Fledermaus following the customary performance of The Star Spangled Banner to open the program with Huntington Bank as the Partnering Sponsor.
Prior to the concert, audiences arrived hours earlier for pre-concert activities including music by vocalist Kathy Lamar, a musical instrument petting zoo sponsored by Meyer Music, and activities including face painting and crafts.
Last year for a similar concert in John Ball Park, rain shortened the second half of the concert in John Ball Park. This year, though umbrellas popped up from time to time due to sprinkles, the entire concert was performed for an enthusiastic audience.
Grand Rapids Symphony launched the series in July 2018 with the orchestra’s first outdoor performance in the city in 20 years. That was followed by La sinfonía navideña, a Spanish-flavored Christmas concert, held last December in Wyoming at the Dan Heintzelman Fine Arts Center at Wyoming Junior High School.
“A symphony orchestra in the 21st century has become a service organization,” Lehninger said at the time. “We’re here not only to entertain our audience but also to serve our community.”
The Grand Rapids Symphony’s Neighborhood Concert Series, an initiative launched with help from the Wege Foundation, began with 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.
In November, the Grand Rapids Symphony plans to present a second FREE La sinfonía navideña at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Kroc Center, 2500 S. Division Ave.
Associate Conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra in holiday favorites. Admission is free but tickets are required for entrance. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony for details.
Though concerts in DeVos Performance Hall remain central to the orchestra its audience, new programs in new places are important for the continued growth of the Grand Rapids Symphony.
“I have a passion and a mission to reach the hearts and souls of everyone in this community,” Lehninger said. “Hopefully, they’ll understand that the Grand Rapids Symphony is their orchestra too.”