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.”
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
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
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
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.”