Recap: Dramatic flair, theatrical twist and electrifying finales cap Grand Rapids Symphony’s season

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

Dramatic flair, theatrical twist and electrifying finales cap Grand Rapids Symphony’s Classical season

Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2015-16 season brought to town eight guest conductors and all of the excitement of its first search in the 21st century for a new music director.

Surely, the Grand Rapids Symphony didn’t save the best for last. Or did they?

Music Advisor Larry Rachleff, who is not a music director candidate, was on the podium to end the season with a dramatic flair, a theatrical twist and a pair of electrifying conclusions.

Grand Rapids Symphony rehearses, performs "Carmina Burana"

Having Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein on stage plus the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus singing “Carmina Burana” promised a big finish to the season.

But the final concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series, which repeats tonight, was one for the record books. It was sensational.

Carl Orff’s cantata was meant to be exciting. Do a good job, and it’s going to be a stimulating.

Add three animated, accomplished vocal soloists and two well-prepared choruses, and you’re going to get thrills galore.

But no less thrilling was the return to Grand Rapids of Gerstein in collaboration with the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival as soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s seldom-performed Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.”

“You can decide on one hearing you like it,” Rachleff told the audience. “You can’t decide on one hearing that you didn’t.”

The consensus of Friday’s standing ovation was that they liked it.

The two works on the program bookend the most important event of the 20th century.

Orff’s 1938 cantata looks to the past in its modern interpretation of medieval texts on such timeless pursuits as search for love and quaffing adult beverages. Bernstein’s 1946 symphony looks to the future following the cataclysmic upheaval of the Second World War.

Both journeys were exhilarating.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, the “Age of Anxiety,” based on W.H. Auden lengthy poem, wrestles with the loss of innocence and an uncertain road ahead in the aftermath of World War II.

It’s doubtful many in the audience had heard it before. It’s doubtful many of the musicians had played it before, but a first-time GRS concert-goer wouldn’t have guessed that the ease and facility of Friday’ performance.

Gerstein and Bernstein were made for each other.

Gerstein, a jazz pianist as well as a classical artist, is particularly attuned to the nuances of Bernstein’s vocabulary which are full of both. What’s more, playing a symphony that features solo piano can be a thankless task. One moment, you’re the star; the next moment, you’re just one of many players. Gerstein is a keen collaborator as well.

The artistry of the 2010 Gilmore Artist was intoxicating. Gerstein commands the audience’s attention with the simplest of phrases. When he unleashes the fireworks, it’s spellbinding what he’s capable of.

It’s a fascinating work. Delicate interplay between small groups of musicians – a pair of introspective clarinets or an entire section of violas – dominates the work. You get to hear a lot of good stuff from a lot of good players.

An angry, energetic conclusion to the half sets the stage for a splashy, jazzy solo piano, backed by harp and celeste, walking bass and percussion could only have sprung from the mind of Bernstein.

“Carmina Burana” needs little elaboration. It’s big, it’s playful, it’s racy and it’s hair-raising. If you happen to speak Latin, it’s an amusement that’s rated R. If you don’t, it’s merely PG-13. In either case, it’s entertaining.

Yet never more so than Friday’s performance. Rachleff led a bold performance of clanging percussion and bellowing brass and the charming sweetness of the Grand Rapids Youth Chorus. Well over 200 in all on stage, flexing their musical muscles.

Three operatic veterans came, not to stand and sing, but to put on a show.

Hugh Russell’s smooth baritone was a delight as a boozy abbot or a vigorous young man in pursuit of a female conquest.

Donald George, a tenor with a wicked gift for physical comedy, pulled the funny out of a grisly tale sung by a swan as it’s roasted on a spit.

Andriana Chuchman, easy on the eye and even easier on the ear, sang long, flowing phrases of sensual delight. With the orchestra humming like a church organ, Chuchman sang ravishingly beautiful notes while offering herself up to her lover.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus opened with a roar and ended with a roar just as big.

In between, a chorus of men sang lusty drinking songs, and a chorus of flirtatious women had the audience chuckling over their efforts to adorn themselves in order to catch the eyes of young men.

Great music. More than that, great entertainment.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 1:00 PM

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