By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Outside it was cold, snowing and beginning to feel a lot like winter.
But inside it was warm, the halls were decked, the music was cheery, and it definitely was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
That’s because the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops filled the air with favorite Christmas carols, popular holiday tunes, music from movies, music from ballet, and much more for its opening concert on Thursday, Dec. 14.
The Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15-16, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, December 17. Tickets start at $18 adults, but they’re disappearing fast.
In DeVos Performance Hall, trees trimmed with lights flanked the stage and gaily decorated packages surrounded the podium where Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in music carefully selected according to a precise algorithm.
“It’s all stuff I like,” Bernhardt said.
It’s also music nearly everyone likes, performed for a hometown audience by hometown musicians – with just one exception.
Baritone Leon Williams returned to Grand Rapids for his third Holiday Pops with the Grand Rapids Symphony. No doubt he’ll be back for more. Williams is a charmer, colorful performer and a snappy dresser. Most importantly, he can sing anything.
He channeled a little Nat “King” Cole as he crooned “Have Yourself A merry Little Christmas,” and he roused the audience with all the fire and brimstone of a revival preacher on “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
“Little Drummer Boy,” if we’re honest, is among those Christmas songs some could do without. Williams and the Grand Rapids Pops, however, turned the song upside down into a funky tune that electrified the audience.
The Grand Rapids Symphony itself was a delight on music including Bizet’s Farandole from “L'Arlesienne” and the final waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” a melody that hardly anyone ever hears completely because they’re busy applauding as dancers taking their bows.
With Williams narrating, Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in a colorfully, evocative arrangement of Randol Bass’ setting of "The Night Before Christmas,” a pairing that made the well-known story come to life.
Christmas just isn’t Christmas without carols, and the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus was on stage to sing many. Just half of the 140-voice chorus directed by Pearl Shangkuan was on stage, but those voices were enough to deliver a ravishingly beautiful version of John Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music,” a touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.
The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, led by director Sean Ivory nearly stopped the show with an amazing performance of an original tune titled “Hodie” by Leah Ivory.
Inspired by the rhythms of Ivory Coast, powered by Leah Ivory on African djembe, the joyous, free-flowing melodic line, accompanied by a precise rhythmic pulse, was a treasure to experience.
Grand Rapids’ own Embellish handbell ensemble returned with a battery of more than 40 bells and a brilliant Change Ring Prelude on ‘Divinum Mysterium.” It was as enjoyable to watch 13 ringers at work as it was to hear the arrangement of the hymn tune commonly known as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
Santa Claus himself stopped by to swap a few jokes with Bernhardt, but St. Nick didn’t pick up a baton to lead the Grand Rapids Pops. Instead, Ric Roane, a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors, strode bravely to the podium.
A clarinetist in his high school, Roane hadn’t touched a baton since conducting his high school band 40 years ago. But he capably led not only the Grand Rapids Symphony but also Embellish in a snappy version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”
Afterward, Bernhardt make Roane take the “Guest Conductor’s Oath.”
“I promise … Never to tell anyone … How easy this is.”
Of course, that’s not true at all. What’s true is the good ones make it look easy, and that’s one of the many reasons why the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops is fun for everyone.