Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony says farewell to Rich DeVos and opens season with bold, beautiful music by Bernstein, Barber and Beethoven

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The Grand Rapids Symphony would not be the orchestra it is today were it not for Rich and Helen DeVos.

Forty-five years ago, the DeVoses funded the first five full-time musicians in the Grand Rapids Symphony – two violins, a viola, a cello and a double bass – for a mere $40,000. It was the beginning of the transformation of the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra to a professional ensemble.

A few years later, they were major contributors to the former Grand Center Convention Center and DeVos Hall, which became the Grand Rapids Symphony’s home when it opened in 1980. For decades, Rich and Helen DeVos were stalwart supporters and dear friends of the orchestra.

“I think it is safe to say that in the modern history of the Grand Rapids Symphony, no one has had a deeper or more profound effect on this orchestra than Rich and Helen DeVos,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau, speaking to the opening night audience on Friday, Sept. 14.

The Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 89th season with a tribute to Rich DeVos, who died on Sept. 6, a little more than 10 months after Helen DeVos passed away last October. In his memory, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a poignant performance of Maurice Ravel’s eloquent Pavane. It was a performance that left the audience in complete silence afterward.

GR Symphony's Beethoven's 7th

But the evening began in grand fashion with the traditional season-opening performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the audience singing along.

Opening his second season at the helm of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Lehninger led the orchestra in a colorful evening of music by Bernstein, Barber and Beethoven. The concert titled Beethoven's 7th repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday Sept. 15. Tickets remain available.

Violinist Karen Gomyo and her exquisite Stradivarius violin joined the orchestra for a magnificent performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It’s a shrewd bit of programming to show off the French-Canadian and Japanese violinist who studied at The Juilliard School under Dorothy Delay, who taught Itzhak Perlman, Midori Goto, Sarah Chang, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Nigel Kennedy, and a long list of great violinist.

The neo-romantic concert work demands a luscious, liquid tone and a tuneful approach to melody in the first two movements. It asks for heroic feats of technical bravado in the finale. We could spend all night arguing which is her greater strength, but it wouldn’t matter in the end because Gomyo is brilliant at both. Her violin playing sings and sizzles at the same time.

Principal Oboist Ellen Sherman contributed a lovely melancholy solo in the slow movement. We’ll hear more from her next month at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Baroque Concert on Oct. 12.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the capstone for the evening. Though it’s slightly overshadowed by some of his other symphonies, it’s no less brilliant. It also clips right along. The slow movements aren’t slow at all. The fast movements are a Formula One race in the concert hall.

Lehninger led a bubbly, buoyant performance, clearly happy to back on the podium with the Grand Rapids Symphony. He deftly handled the overlapping themes of the first movement.

The allegretto was featured in the climactic scene of “The King’s Speech,” which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s the very definition of musical gravitas, and Lehninger delivered the solemnity and seriousness with hymn-like radiance.

The finale is a full-bore, full-throated march. Lehninger pushed the musicians, and the Grand Rapids Symphony played with vivacious vitality.

The evening opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a piece he composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1980s. It’s quintessential Bernstein – angular and ambitious with clever nods to the work of other composers and creative departures that border on the outrageous.

Lehninger led an aggressive, extroverted performance. Friday’s audience chuckled at the wit of the movement titled “Turkey Trot,” marveled at the energy of the “Samba” and enjoyed roller coaster of a ride that is the Sousa-flavored finale, titled, naturally, “The BSO Forever.”

In 2012, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched its Legacy of Excellence Campaign to raise $40 million to build a permanent endowment to secure the orchestra’s future. Rich and Helen DeVos provided a $20 million lead gift to open the campaign that concluded in 2016. Though they no longer will be seen at Grand Rapids Symphony concerts – and they were seen often – their presence will continue to be felt forever.

“I can’t think of any other person than Rich DeVos who was so in love with “his community” and who was so dedicated to lifting up and improving this community,” Varineau told the Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience on Friday. “He was a visionary. Everywhere we look, there is evidence of Rich’s love for Grand Rapids. We will miss him terribly.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 10:00 AM
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