Recap: Surprises, celebrations and sensational music complete Grand Rapids Symphony's 2018-19 season

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk-

Some concerts are full of surprises.

Great works of music give you ample opportunities, and when Music Director Marcelo Lehninger decided to end the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season with sensuality from Ravel, sparkle from Chopin, and substance from Brahms, there were plenty of opportunities, guaranteed.

Then there are the moments you could not have imagined. Such as three encores.

Pianist Sonia Goulart, with her son on the podium, made her Grand Rapids Symphony debut with an artfully accomplished performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor that drew a fervent standing ovation on Friday, May 17 in DeVos Performance Hall.

GR Symphony with Chopin & Brahms

The animated reception inspired the Brazilian pianist to return to the stage for an encore with a virtuosic performance of Chopin's Waltz in E minor (published posthumously). Afterward, out came a second piano bench, and Lehninger joined his mother for a spellbinding performance of Rachmaninoff’s Romance for Piano Four Hands, Op. 11.

And if that wasn’t enough, Goulart returned on Friday for a surprising third encore with an exhilarating performance of Domenico Scarlatti's Keyboard Sonata in C minor, K. 22.

Moments like that seldom happen, though there’s reason to believe Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience can expect more of the same at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18. Tickets for Chopin and Brahms, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available at the door or online at GRSymphony.org.

The concerts ending the 2018-19 season also recognized musicians in the orchestra celebrating anniversaries and acknowledged a couple who were departing. Most significantly, violinist Lenore D’Haem marked her 50th year of playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony as well as her final performance in DeVos Hall. She’ll retire from the Grand Rapids Symphony at the end of this summer’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.

Goulart, a native of Brazil, trained in Germany, has had an important career as a pianist in South American and Europe. She performed little in the United States because, for many years, she had all the concerts she wanted. Things changed when her son, Marcelo launched his career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra nearly 10 years ago.

Goulart has since played with Lehninger and the New West Symphony in Los Angeles, and on Friday, May 17, she made her Midwest debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Chopin was one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Those who would perform his concertos must be the crème de la crème. It’s also an interesting challenge to perform for everyone. The pianist is the star, by far, with the orchestra playing a supporting role. The rubato the pianist employs can give conductors fits. But Lehninger grew up listening to his mother play the piece. It shows. In fact, the two hardly looked at each other, yet were together every step of the way through the 30-minute performance.

Goulart’s ample technique fueled a luminous performance with cascading notes that glistened with poise and precision. The slow movement had its dramatic moments punctuating the delicacy. The finale hinted at flash and dash but remained charming, elegant and satisfying.

The concert opened with Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye, a suite the French composer wrote inspired by a set of stories from Tales of Mother Goose. It’s a work the Grand Rapids Symphony has performed only a handful of times and just once in the last 30 years.

On that basis, it was fascinating on Friday to watch Lehninger conduct. Though it has many subtle colors and plenty of exposed passages – including an important contrabassoon solo deftly handed by Andrew Genemans, Lehninger led a handsome performance with sumptuous strings decorating delicate harmonies.

Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 filled the second half of the concert. Haunted by the shadow of Beethoven, Brahms spent 20 years composing his First Symphony. Buoyed by the success, he took a summer vacation and dashed off his sunny Second Symphony in D Major.

Later in life, Brahms declared it to be his favorite of his four symphonies. It’s occasionally referred to as pastoral, but Brahms still is Brahms, so it must have its dark moments.

Lehninger led a performance of rich textures and sturdy sonorities. The opening was sunny but substantially so. The Adagio was smooth and flowing and even a little magisterial at the end. Woodwinds were especially delightful in the charming Allegretto, which had a pleasant kick to it.

For the finale, Lehninger slowly warmed up the engine before unleashing the orchestra into a controlled explosion. The wild ride and rip-roaring conclusion, not only to the piece, but to the 2018-19 season was well deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 6:00 AM
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