The songs of Ella Fitzgerald are timeless.
Songs such as S’Wonderful are everlasting, not only because they’re shining examples of the Great American Songbook, but also because they were performed and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald.
The same can be said for Symphony with Soul, Grand Rapids Symphony’s enduring concert of American music celebrating diversity and promoting inclusion in its community.
“We have challenged ourselves to ask, as well as to answer the question, how do we make the Grand Rapids Symphony yours, mine and ours?” said President and CEO Peter Perez at the Celebration of Soul gala and dinner that preceded the Symphony with Soul concert on Saturday, February 24.
The 17th annual concert in DeVos Performance Hall led by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt featured the Grand Rapids Symphony performing music by Duke Ellington, joined by the Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus, singing in the gospel tradition.
Two special guest singers joining the orchestra for Ella, A Tribute, a salute to songs of Ella Fitzgerald.
“It’s beautiful to see how it’s grown,” said Duane Davis, who has been part of Symphony with Soul since its debut in 2002, speaking in DeVos Hall on Saturday.
The evening concert was preceded by Celebration of Soul gala, a dinner and awards ceremony honoring people and institutions who have worked tirelessly to advance multicultural understanding and equity.
Honorees included Herschell Turner, Skot and Barbara Welch, and Celebration! Cinema who were presented with the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award, named for the co-pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center church who died in 2010. MaLinda Sapp, together with her husband, gospel singer Bishop Marvin Sapp, had been honored perviously with the award, which later was renamed in her memory.
“I’m still pleased to be part of this event,” Sapp said at the Celebration of Soul gala. “It’s doing great things for our community.”
In recent years, Symphony with Soul has welcomed special guests who need little introduction such as Lalah Hathaway, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony last year. This year’s star was the First Lady of Song, but the singers channeling Fitzgerald’s music were no less impressive than such past special guests as Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Broadway star and jazz vocalist Aisha de Haas, who has performed in the national tour of Newsies, and singer Nova Y. Payton, who sang at the dedication of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, brought the audience to life with their opening number, It Don’t Mean A Thing.
Songs including How High the Moon and Satin Doll wowed the audience of nearly 1,600, interwoven with stories of Ella Fitzgerald’s life. Born in 2017, she rose from a poor inner city girl to a world famous singer and jazz vocalist who would win a total of 13 Grammy Awards including Grammys for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance, Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album and a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Payton’s medium tempo performance of Blues in the Night was torchy and touching at the same time while her operatic delivery on Summertime was simply stunning.
Haan's sassy version of A-Tisket, A-Tasket was a delight, and her Fitzgerald-influenced interpretation of Over the Rainbow was very beautiful and very Ella.
Fitzgerald was the best improvisational scat singer of her day, and both Payton and Haan were worthy interpreters, bringing down the house with sweet and sultry scat singing on Blues Skies and Lady is A Tramp.
Bernhardt, appearing for the second time at Symphony with Soul, led the orchestra and audience in a joyfully uplifting chorus of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing to open the evening.
Though it isn’t Christmas, it’s always the right season for music by Duke Ellington. The supersized Grand Rapids Symphony, equipped with a saxophones and extra brass to fill out a big band, entertained with highlights of Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite.
A highlight of the program was a performance of Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholars led by Jill Collier Warne, director of Creative Connections.
The Mosaic Scholarship Program, made possible through a gift from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, provides talented African-American and Latino students with musical instrument rental, private, one-on-one lessons with a professional musician from the Grand Rapids Symphony, and tickets to Grand Rapids Symphony concerts.
Once a year, the entire group of scholars comes together under the leadership of Creative Connections to compose and perform an original musical composition. The end result always is fascinating, and this year’s performance was no exception to see how 20 teenage musicians came together to weave a tapestry of melody, harmony and rhythm in a large scale musical work.
“In truth, not one note of that was written a week ago,” Bernhardt told the audience, garnering a second round of applause for the Scholars.
The Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus led by Duane Davis was joined by narrator Eddie L. Stephens, Jr., for Davis’ original work, Portrait of a Leader, a salute to Martin Luther King Jr.
It was a moving journey through King’s work with excerpts from his famous speeches and musical excerpts from hymns such as In Bright Mansions Above, There Is a Balm in Gilead and We Shall Overcome, tied together by Davis and affectionately played by the orchestra.
The piece calls to mind the upcoming 50th anniversary in April of King’s assassination in 1968.
"It’s amazing after all this time,” Davis told the audience, “we’re still trying to get it right.”
Through music, the Grand Rapids Symphony is doing what it can to get it right.