Recap: GR Symphony celebrates music & diversity with Marcus Roberts Trio at "Symphony with Soul"

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

The night opened with a rousing chorus of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” with nearly everyone in the house standing to sing the 117-year-old song often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.” 

But that was just the beginning of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s annual “Symphony with Soul.” 

The annual musical celebration of diversity and inclusion, which last year brought actress and singer Vanessa Williams to Grand Rapids, welcomed the Marcus Roberts Trio to DeVos Performance Hall for a rollicking version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” 

“If you’re here for the first time,” said Duane Davis, director of the Grand Rapids Community Chorus,” “you’re probably shocked that this orchestra could be so hip and swing.” 

Celebration of Soul - Symphony with Soul 2016

By the end of the one-night only concert on Saturday, February 27, the shock was over. Grand Rapids Symphony swung long and hard for the 16th annual event with music including “Victory Stride” by James P. Johnson and “First Fruits of the Harvest” by Stewart Goodyear, led by Music Director Laureate David Lockington, who launched “Symphony with Soul” in 2001. 

Marcus Roberts, who rose to prominence, first with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, and as the first winner in 1987 of the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, is a shining example of diversity and inclusion several times over. 

At age 5, the native of Jacksonville, Florida, lost his sight, a victim of cataracts and glaucoma. But Roberts attended Florida School for the Deaf and Blind -- a school that also helped launch the legendary Ray Charles – learned to play piano, first on his own, later through formal studies in classical piano at Florida State University. Today, Roberts is an assistant professor of jazz at his alma mater and a celebrated solo artist. 

Roberts’ original interpretation of “Rhapsody in Blue” brought the house down with the most raucous, most bluesy, most free-wheeling approach to Gershwin’s wildly popular work for piano and orchestra. Departing several times from the original score, Roberts cut loose on lengthy improvisatory interludes with his right hand while, interspersed with snippets of Gershwin’s original melodies in his left hand. 

Earlier in the evening, nearly 360 guests were at the “Celebration of Soul” gala dinner honoring Stephen & Clarice Drew, Huntington Bank, and BL2END with the MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award honoring individuals and organizations for their efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion in West Michigan. 

Stephen Drew, a lawyer who founded Drew, Cooper & Anding, is an attorney specializing in civil rights and discrimination cases while Clarice drew is a community activist, serving on the boards of Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Ballet. 

Huntington Bank is a leader in supporting neighborhood development and investing in education and the arts. 

BL2END, a grassroots, non-profit created in 2006 by Grand Valley State University alumni, fosters an environment to connect young professionals of color. 

Skot Welch, a co-chair of the Celebration of Soul, introduced “Symphony with Soul” with the reminder that proceeds from both events go to support Grand Rapids Symphony’s music education programs. 

“A portion of proceeds from tonight’s concert and dinner gala help fund 3rd and 5th grade concerts that are presented for free to every school in West Michigan as well as the Mosaic Scholarship program, in which African American and Hispanic students receive private music instruction from our professional symphony musicians, free instrument rental and music supplies as well as mentoring for career paths in music,” he said. “So your ticket not only buys you a great evening of entertainment, but also helps to fund the musical future of children in West Michigan.” 

Beginning musicians from the Ellington Academy charter school in Grand Rapids played variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle” while advanced students from the Grand Rapids String Academy played the Vivace from J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. Together, both groups plus the Mosaic Scholars performed an original work led by creative Connections director Jill Collier Warne. 

The evening of jazz and blues, gospel and spirituals featured the 90-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus singing several spirituals plus Davis’ original work, “The Call,” for chorus and orchestra, joined by the Marcus Roberts Trio. 

“One of the things we try to do with this program is integrate our guest stars into the program,” Davis said. “And I think this is the most successful one ever.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 2:00 PM

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