Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates 25 years of Picnic Pops with star-spangled salute to America

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony proved that if you build it, people will come.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops debuted a quarter century ago on a sweltering summer’s evening on a ski slope transformed into an outdoor concert venue.

The Grand Rapids Pops celebrated its 25th anniversary with a star-spangled patriotic salute with Classical Fireworks: Salute to America on Thursday, July 11.

The concert sponsored by Aquinas College, Chemical Bank and TerryTown RV Superstore repeats at 8 p.m. Friday, July 12. Gates open at 5:45 p.m. Tickets are available at the door starting at $25 adults, $10 students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org.

It was 25 years ago, but it felt like no time had passed at all. Gaily decorated tables filled the front of the house. On the lawn, families spread blankets and picnic dinners while children scampered up and down the hills.

Nearly half of the Grand Rapids Symphony musicians on stage for the silver anniversary of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops also were there for the very first season.

Pianist Rich Ridenour, who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Grand Rapids Symphony's Picnic Pops debut in July 1995, returned for a delightful encore performance of Gershwin’s most popular work for piano and orchestra.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Pops in a glittering evening of music with brilliant brass on John Williams’ “Liberty Fanfare” and sparkling woodwinds playing Aaron Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody.”

Patriotic music both old and new were highlights of the show including Morton Gould’s dynamic “American Salute,” a set of variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” all the more important because Gould composed it in 1943 to boost morale during the darkest days of World War II. Varineau led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a performance that was driving, intense and expansive.

Trumpeter Paul Torrisi was featured on John Williams’ Main Theme from the film “Born on the Fourth of July.”  Torrisi, a member of the orchestra since September 2017, was in the spotlight to give a brilliant performance of the heartfelt melody.

A highlight of the night was a performance of the now-traditional “Armed Forces of Salute.” During the spirited performance, veterans of the U.S. Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force and Navy stood for enthusiastic audience applause while the Grand Rapids Symphony played melodies including “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” and “Anchors Aweigh.”

Ridenour, a native of Grand Rapids, returned on the second half for even more Gershwin with an awesome performance of the final movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Though less famous than “Rhapsody in Blue,” in many respects, it more challenging to perform. Ridenour heroically navigated the fast-paced rondo and its rat-a-tat rhythms with élan and joie de vivre.

Naturally, a crowd favorite was John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” featuring the piccolo section in the well-known solo obbligato.

Some of the finest playing of the evening came last with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” By turns it was somber, joyful, subdued and explosive with cannonade to match.

The evening ended with a pyrotechnic display, a grand finale of fireworks, sponsored by Lacks Enterprises. Lasting more than 8 minutes, it was a salute not only to America, but a celebration of 25 years of beautiful music in the great outdoors by your Grand Rapids Symphony.

Happy 25th Anniversary!

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 2:00 PM
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