Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's 20th Century Concert is a sensational addition to Great Eras series

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Great Eras series concerts are just what the name implies: Concerts devoted to a particular period in music.

For many years the three-concert series has celebrated the music of the Baroque, the Classical and the Romantic eras each season, though not necessarily in that order.

But this season, the Grand Rapids Symphony embraced the 20th century with a fourth program for the Crowe Horwath Great Eras series. It took the entire season, which opened last September, to get there; but it was well worth the wait for the final concert of the series for the 2017-18 season.

The 20th Century Concert, featuring music of the Americas, both North and South, was held Friday, March 30, in St. Cecilia Music Center. The program, which also featured music by Russians living at home and abroad, was a great success and ended with a standing ovation.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger programmed four pieces. Each totally different. Each was sensational.

The full orchestra was a pleasure to hear performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Trumpet, Piano and Strings, starring Principal Trumpet Charley Lea and guest pianist Michael Brown. A smaller ensemble was charming playing the original version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

Deciding which of those two was the audience favorite could take longer to determine than the length of the concert itself.

The Concerto No. 1, tricky for the conductor, is a brilliant showpiece for piano. It’s clear Shostakovich wrote it for himself to play. It’s a substantial, meaty piece of music, which generally means it’s also a handful. Lea on trumpet supplied brilliant brass interjections into the fabric of the neo-Baroque work. But a heavier burden falls on the pianist.

Brown, a past Rising Star of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, returned to West Michigan to give a performance that was clean and precise but still with an undercurrent of passion just below the surface. A gifted pianist, Brown has substantial skills as a soloist. But he also proved an able collaborator, which is critical when the soloist is playing entirely off the beat from the rest of the ensemble.

Lehninger led an exciting performance.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring needs no introduction to an American audience that watches TV and eats beef. But Lehninger set aside the familiar concert suite for full orchestra in DeVos Performance Hall and programmed instead the original version that Copland wrote to accompany dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company. It has just 13 instruments.

It’s more like chamber music than orchestral music, demanding a higher level of interaction, not just with the conductor, but between the other musicians. Luckily for the audience, a stage full of principal or assistant principal players has the talents and experience to get the job done. Though the sophisticated music is familiar, the simplicity of the texture is not. Lehninger led a nimble performance of engaging music that captivated the audience.

Those two pieces also were heard on Friday morning for the Porter Hills Coffee Classics concert, a one-hour version of the evening program, held without intermission.

For the evening program, the concert began with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Prelude to Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. The Bach prelude that launches the work for strings is well known. But Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s best-known composer of concert music, takes the prelude through space and time from 18th century Thuringia in Germany to 20th century Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger takes delight in the music of his home. Grand Rapids audiences will hear a lot more soon.

Igor Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra rounded out the program. It’s a whimsical romp and a sardonic tour through four different dance rhythms, a march, a waltz, a polka and a gallop. Now imagine it performed under the Big Top in a circus tent. It’s that kind of piece.

Even in small piece, Stravinsky writes for a full orchestra with plenty for everyone to do from piccolo to tuba. The full Grand Rapids Symphony sparkled with vivacity, vim and vigor throughout.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 8:00 AM
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