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The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus creates new bonds

By Courtney Collar - 

One week. Five days of school. Twenty-six and a half hours. Five concerts. Two rehearsals. One day off.

This has been the life of the 115 Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus singers in mid-December due to the Grand Rapids Symphony's annual Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops concerts. Sophomore Katie Woods thrives on this schedule.

“Holiday Pops was a long, hard, stressful week,” said Katie, who joined the chorus this year. “It’s a miracle we all have maintained our voices and powered through. It was hard, but I wouldn’t have (wanted to be) doing anything else.”

GR Symphony 2017 Holiday Pops

However, the intensity of this past week is not typical for the chorus. They ordinarily practice every Monday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Calvin College Recital Hall. The SATB chorus works hard on a variety of choral-type songs and occasionally an African song or two. Even with their determination to get a song down, which takes about an hour and a half spread out along weeks of practice, the atmosphere is still light and fun.

“Every rehearsal is just something new,” Katie said. “We’re always kind of laughing about something. It’s fun– it doesn’t feel like work”

All their work goes towards the 12 to 16 concerts they perform in a year. Usually, the concerts are on a Friday or a Sunday.

While the days of their concerts have some consistency, the locations vary. Generally, the Youth Chorus performs all over Grand Rapids. The DeVos Performance Hall, where the Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops took place Dec. 14 through Dec. 17, and the Basilica of St. Adalbert are a couple favorites among the singers.

“The acoustics are incredible (at the Basilica of St. Adalbert),” Katie said. “The vaulted ceilings created an incredible reverberation with our sound that you can’t find anywhere else in Grand Rapids, and that is a singer’s heaven.”

The Youth Chorus rarely performs alone. They are just one branch of the Grand Rapids Symphony. For children, there are four different choruses based on skill and grade. Prelude Chorus is offered for the youngest singers starting in elementary school. Junior Youth Chorus is for fourth through sixth graders. Youth Chorus is for seventh through twelfth grade. A prestigious group of girls called Mandala breaks off of the Youth Chorus.

To Katie, the chorus is so exceptional because of the people who take part in it.

“It has given me a good community,” Katie said. “I found a new community of people that I connect with in a different way than I can with the people here at school because we all share the same passion.”

Junior Abby Stead shares similar sentiments about the chorus.

“I think (the Youth Chorus) made me more confident,” Abby said. “I was quiet everywhere, and you couldn’t get me to say anything. It’s made me better at communicating which was something that was kind of hard for me, especially with people my own age. So being in a group of like-minded people, that just really changed everything for me. I would not be the same person without it.”

Abby originally joined the Youth Chorus in seventh grade and has been singing in it ever since. Freshmen year, she auditioned and joined Mandala. She thinks that the reason that the chorus works so well together is because of their retreat.

The entire Youth Chorus goes to Camp Manitoulin in September to bond and to get to know each other. The weekend is full of campfires, camp activities, and lots of singing.

“The thing is that (the retreat) seems like it is so separate, like just hanging out with the people who are in Youth Chorus would be really different from singing, but it makes everything work,” Abby said.

But it’s not just the other singers in the chorus who make it special; it is the director, too. FHC choir teacher Sean Ivory is the founder and director of the chorus.

“(The Youth Chorus) is one of my favorite things,” said Ivory, who has been directing the chorus since 2007. “It gives me the opportunity to work with young singers who desire to be there and to work hard.”

Because of the singers’ drive, devotion, and skill, Ivory holds them to high standards and has big dreams for them.

“My goal for each student is individual musical and vocal growth, as well as an appreciation for making live music at a high level,” Ivory said. “I also want them to experience working with professional musicians who push them to improve.

Ultimately, I want them to pursue singing in a choir after they leave the (Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus).”

In order to accomplish this, Ivory has given his singers opportunities to work with the Grand Rapids Symphony and the adult Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. Additionally, every couple of years, he provides the chorus with the chance to travel to another country and perform there. In 2013, the Youth Chorus took a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. The purpose was to sing a poem written by children in a concentration camp about their horrid experience.

This year, the Youth Chorus has plans to go to Illinois and Iowa to Ivory’s hometown to sing with his old high school choir. They also plan to go to Iceland to sing during the summer of 2019.

Ivory always works to do what is best for his singers and the chorus. It is for that reason that he writes his own compositions for the chorus. Since the sopranos and altos greatly outnumber the baritones, Ivory writes pieces a few times a year that tailor to their vocal composition.

“Mr. Ivory is just so talented,” Abby said. “I think that he has that connection with music, and he translates that with working with kids really well. He just always makes you feel like he’s paying attention to what you need and what’s happening.

Originally published Dec. 19, 2017, in The Central Trend of Forest Hills Central High School. Reprinted with permission.

Posted by Guest Blogger at Wednesday, January 3, 2018 | 0 comments

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops is cheery, holiday fun for everyone

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.

GR Symphony 2017 Holiday Pops

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.

GRS Holiday Pops Spectacular 2017

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.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, December 15, 2017 | 2 comments

Come home for the holidays with Grand Rapids Symphony's Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops

If you love Christmas, you love Christmas carols, sung by a choir.

Join the Grand Rapids Pops for its Wolverine World Wide Holiday Pops, and you get to hear not one but two choirs sing Christmas music.

What’s more, you get to sing along too.

The Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops, a West Michigan holiday tradition, returns for five concerts opening this Thursday in DeVos Performance Hall.

Five shows through Sunday, Dec. 17, draw entire families from children to parents, grandparents and great-grandparents for holiday cheer led by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, leading the Grand Rapids Pops in such favorites as Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and highlights from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

What’s more, it’s home-grown entertainment for a hometown audience. Nearly every musician on stage is part of the Grand Rapids Symphony family or part of the West Michigan community.

The adult Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, conducted by Pearl Shangkuan, joins the orchestra to sing G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus from The Messiah, but that’s not all.

Bernhardt will conduct two of his all-time favorite holiday works for chorus and orchestra, Randol Bass’ “Gloria,” and John Rutter’s, “What Sweeter Music,” both near the top of the show.

“The biggest reason is the chance to do them with our wonderful Symphony Chorus,” Bernhardt said. “Pearl does magic with them, and I get to go along for that wonderful ride!”

The longtime guest conductor for the Boston Pops first conducted Bass’s “Gloria” with the venerable Boston Pops, without rehearsal, as a last-minute substitute for its then-music director Keith Lockhart.

“It was an absolutely amazing experience, so the piece is meaningful for the experience alone,” Bernhardt said. “However, Randol Bass has written a ‘Gloria’ that is contemporary in feel, yet traditional in message and joyous in expression. He writes beautifully for the orchestra, and it’s a fantastic concert opener. I really love it.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will be featured on John Rutter’s “Star Carol,” and both adult and youth choruses will sing music from the 1990 movie Home Alone with the orchestra.

Just one out-of-town guest appears at this year’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops. But he’s hardly a newcomer to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage. In fact, he’s made seven past appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony for classical and pops concerts alike.

Singer Leon Williams, in his third Holiday Pops concert, joins the Grand Rapids Pops to sing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” in DeVos Performance Hall, which will be decked with boughs of holly for the Christmas season.

The adult Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, conducted by Pearl Shangkuan, joins the orchestra to sing G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus from The Messiah.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will be featured on John Rutter’s “Star Carol.”

Both choruses will sing music from the 1990 movie “Home Alone” with the orchestra.

Embellish handbell ensemble, directed by Stephanie Wiltse, will join the Symphony Chorus on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and will perform a virtuoso Change Ring Prelude on ‘Divinum Mysterium’ by Fred Gramann on a battery of handbells and chimes.

The Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 14, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15-16. Matinees will be at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16-17 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults.

Student tickets for concerts on Thursday, Dec. 14 and for the matinee on Saturday, Dec. 16 are available for $5. Full-time students of any age are able to purchase tickets for those two events on the night of the concert by enrolling in the GRS Student Tickets program.

Families with children are invited to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Holiday Pops Spectacular on Saturday, Dec. 16, just before the 3 p.m. matinee concert. Beginning at 1:30 p.m., children can enjoy festive treats, arts and crafts, games, and much more leading up to the concert at 3p.m. Tickets for the Holiday Pops Spectacular plus the Holiday Pops start at $20.

Tickets are available at the GRS ticket office at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, across the street from Calder Plaza. Buy tickets by calling (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or by going online at

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, December 12, 2017 | 0 comments

Join the Grand Rapids Symphony in Carnegie Hall when Marcelo Lehninger leads the orchestra back to the Big Apple in April.

When the Grand Rapids Symphony went to New York City’s Carnegie Hall more than 12 years ago, the orchestra not only brought its musicians, it also brought along much of its audience.

Music Critic Bernard Holland couldn’t help but notice. His review in the New York Times began, "The Grand Rapids Symphony came to Carnegie Hall on Saturday night and brought a good part of the city with it."

Not quite. But then-Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and his wife, Susan, were among more than 1,000 people in the audience of just over 2,000 who had purchased tickets through the Grand Rapids Symphony’s ticket office, just to see their hometown orchestra take the Big Apple by storm.

Grand Rapids Symphony in Carnegie Hall 2005

Now it’s your turn.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony, plus the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, back to New York City in April for a return appearance in Carnegie Hall.

“All the important American orchestras and all the great international orchestras perform at Carnegie Hall,” Lehninger said. “Therefore, it’s a very prestigious event for us.”

You’re invited to join us in one of the world’s greatest concert halls on Friday, April 20, 2018, for an amazing musical experience you’ll never forget.

Our good friends at Witte Travel & Tours in Grand Rapids have organized travel packages just for you to come to New York City to see the Grand Rapids Symphony along with special guest Nelson Freire, one of the world’s most eminent pianists.

Packages range from concert tickets and pre-concert and post-concert receptions to packages including airfare to New York City and hotel accommodations along with concert tickets and receptions.

Airfare choices even include the option of returning to Grand Rapids on Saturday, April 21 or remaining one more day in the “City that Never Sleeps” and returning on Sunday, April 22.

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Carnegie Hall Patron Packages are on sale now through Friday, Dec. 15.

Here’s why you should get a Patron Package from Witte Travel.

  • It Saves Time – You don't need to shop around to make reservations for flights, hotels or concert tickets. Select a package that suits your travel needs. 

  • Early Ticket Availability – Tickets to the Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall are not yet for sale anywhere else.

  • Insider Access – Witte’s travel packages include two private receptions with other patrons, Grand Rapids Symphony musicians and staff.

  • Prime Location – Stay right where the action is.  Your accommodations at the JW Marriott Essex House are two blocks from Carnegie Hall, and the post-concert reception will be held in the luxurious hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

  • Competitive Price – Visiting New York City isn’t cheap. Save money by taking advantage of group airfares and group hotel rates, including all taxes and fees. 

  • Peace of Mind – From the airport to the hotel to the concert hall and everything in between, Witte Travel & Tours takes care of the details. All you have to do is enjoy the experience.

Registrations and a deposit of $110 are due by Friday, Dec. 15, 2017.

Go online to and enter booking code: 041918bort

For more information, call Whitney Llewellyn, Group Tour Specialist, at (616) 954-9676 or email

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, December 6, 2017 | 0 comments

Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates the season with Grand Rapids Ballet and 'The Nutcracker' Ballet, Dec. 1-10

Of all of the Christmas traditions you know and love, one of the most beloved is seeing and hearing The Nutcracker.

In West Michigan, what you see is Grand Rapids Ballet dance its version of the story of Clara and her magical Nutcracker Doll.

What you hear is the Grand Rapids Symphony performing Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s magical score.

“When done right, it’s magic,” said GRS Associate Conductor John Varineau, who for many years has conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony in Grand Rapids Ballet’s annual production of the holiday favorite.

The enduring Christmas tradition opens Friday, Dec. 1 for eight performances over two weekends through Sunday, Dec. 10, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Three years ago, Grand Rapids Ballet unveiled a new production of The Nutcracker, co-designed by illustrator and Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsburg, author of The Polar Express, and by Eugene Lee, a Tony Award-winning set designer, who has designed for such shows as Sweeney Todd, The Lion King and Wicked.

'The Nutcracker' Ballet

Val Caniparoli, one of America’s leading choreographers, who has worked with Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Lyric Opera of Chicago, choreographed the ballet hat debuted in December 2014.

Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director Patricia Barker designed costumes for the production that sold out several shows during its premiere season. Some 21,000 saw the debut of Grand Rapids Ballet's first new production of The Nutcracker in three decades.

“Allsburg and Caniparoli were adamant from the beginning to focus on the original story of The Nutcracker,” Barker said. “Lee is also part of the vision and ensures from beginning to end you see the complete storyline of Clara coming of age and going through a wonderful adventure.”

Premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, The Nutcracker was not an immediate hit. One reason may have been because its premiere was part of a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, which was performed first followed by the ballet. The company’s prima ballerina, Antonietta Dell’era, didn’t appear on stage until the end of the Second Act, and the performance didn’t end until just past midnight.

On the other hand, the music from The Nutcracker was an immediate sensation. In preparation for the performances, Tchaikovsky carefully smuggled from Paris a newly invented celesta, the mini keyboard that produces the delicate, twinkling bell sounds used in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

Several months before the ballet’s premiere, Tchaikovsky conducted a highly acclaimed concert version of the musical score that featured much of the ballet’s most popular music including the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Russian Dance,” “Arabian Dance” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”

For many years, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” was far more popular than the ballet itself. Tchaikovsky himself, who died less than a year after its debut, didn’t think it was his best work, believing his Sleeping Beauty Ballet was better.

The Nutcracker was seldom performed in Europe for decades. But in the 1950s, another Russian, choreographer George Balanchine, brought it to the United States, creating a version for New York City Ballet that debuted in 1954.

Though its original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German, and its music was composed by a Russian and choreographed by a Frenchman and his Russian assistant, it was American audiences that made The Nutcracker a holiday tradition.

Grand Rapids Ballet’s production, featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1-2, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 2-3.

Performances continue next week at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 9-10.

Tickets start at $20. Call Grand Rapids Ballet at (616) 454-4771 or go online to

Caniparoli, who has served as a principal character dancer with San Francisco Ballet, returned to Grand Rapids in November to prepare for December’s performances.

“He continues to finesse and develop the strength of the work, especially as the dancers' talents evolve and emerge,” Barker said.

Choreographers typically revise their work, sometimes for particular dancers, but also because the passing of time gives them new insight into their earlier work.

Caniparoli hopes fans discover something new in this year's production.

“’Oh, I haven't seen that before,’” he said. “That's the fun part.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, November 29, 2017 | 0 comments

Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus celebrates 10th season of music making

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus has never been busier.

The Grand Rapids Symphony, the largest performing arts organization in West Michigan and the second largest in the Great Lake States, gives thanks this season for the 224 young singers in the choral organization led by Sean Ivory and Jackie Sonderfan Schoon.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus performs four times this November and December, twice with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Performance Hall.

In just nine years, the Symphony’s newest affiliate organization has become an indispensable and integral part of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Its members have joined the orchestra for music including Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which helped launch the organization in 2007, and for events such as LiveArts, a multimedia, multi-genre extravaganza that filled the Van Andel Arena to capacity in April 2015.

“Being able to give kids the opportunity to work on larger choral works with orchestra, or on our own smaller projects, makes it all worthwhile,” said Ivory, founder and current director of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony Chorus as well as vocal music instructor at Forest Hills Central High School in Ada. “And it helps them develop an appetite for live symphonic music, which I think is vitally important to the art form.”

Part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music, a network of 17 access points for people of all ages to engage with orchestral music, the GRSYC’s three choirs, plus a select ensemble, form a graded, tuition-based program that maintains a tradition of choral excellence for young singers in West Michigan. The Youth Chorus, under Sean Ivory, currently has 115 singers.

Two training choirs, the Prelude Chorus, numbering 42 singers, and Junior Youth Chorus, with 67 young musicians, are directed by Jackie Sonderfan Schoon.

Following its own fall concert on Nov. 3, GRSYC singers joined with the Grand Rapids Symphony for its performance of The Snowman on Nov. 11 in DeVos Hall, part of the 2017-18 DTE Energy Foundation Family Series. Members of its select ensemble, Mandala, performed Howard Blake’s haunting song “Walking in the Air,” which helped make the animated short famous.

The entire choral program gives its own Holiday Concert in the Basilica of St. Adalbert on Sunday, Dec. 10 with performances at 4:30 p.m. and at 7 p.m. The Prelude Chorus only performs at the afternoon program.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus will return to DeVos Hall with the Grand Rapids Symphony for five performances of the popular Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops, Dec. 14-17.

In addition to performances at home, singers in the program have toured nationally and internationally. The GRSYC traveled to Trinidad in April 2016 and will journey to Iceland next year. Earlier this year in March, the Junior Youth Chorus was one of several choruses from across the country that premiered Dan Forrest's Jubilate Deo in New York City’s Carnegie Hall with eminent youth choir director Henry Leck as guest conductor. 

“These are works and events the singers remember fondly for years,” said Ivory, who also is principal conductor of the Calvin College Oratorio Society and an adjunct professor at Calvin College.

Singers who have graduated from the program include Elisabeth Keen, who studied international development at Calvin College and now lives in Perth, Australia, where she works with Youth With A Mission. Another graduate, Rebecca DeBoer, currently is a student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. In addition to pursuing environmental studies, she sings in the famous St. Olaf Choir led by Anton Armstrong, a former professor of music at Calvin College as well as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in the 1980s.

“My hope is that the high level of artistry we expect from members of the GRSYC will translate into a lifetime of appreciation, if not continued participation, in a choral group or live orchestra concerts,” said Ivory.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, November 21, 2017 | 0 comments

Recap: Marcelo Lehninger leads Grand Rapids Symphony and Chorus in glorious performance of Verdi's Requiem

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Giuseppe Verdi wrote his Messa da Requiem in memory of a great man.

As fate would have it, the Grand Rapids Symphony used it to bid farewell to a great woman on Friday.

Philanthropist and arts lover Helen DeVos, who died in October, more than any single person, made the Grand Rapids Symphony what it is today.

“I think it is safe to say that in the modern history of the Grand Rapids Symphony, no one has had a more profound effect on this orchestra than Helen DeVos,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau, moments before the performance of Verdi’s monumental Requiem

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony finalized its 2017-18 season nearly a year ago, it happened that the orchestra’s scheduled performance of Verdi's Requiem would be the first concert in its Richard and Helen Classical series following the death of Helen DeVos, who served nearly 20 years on the orchestra’s board of directors.

It’s no surprise that the Grand Rapids Symphony dedicated performances on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18-19, to her memory.

Friday’s performance was glorious, and it ended with a full 5 minutes of applause following the 85-minute performance, which repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19.

GR Symphony presents Verdi's Requiem

A total of 275 musicians on stage, singing and playing their hearts out, rattled the rafters with each reprise of the dramatic “Dies Irae” or “Day of Wrath.” But those same musicians also sent chills through the auditorium with the softest pianissimos beginning with the almost imperceptible opening passages of the setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

It’s Music Director Marcelo Lehninger’s second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, but the performance, in fact, was Lehninger’s first collaboration with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.

The Brazilian-born conductor has said Verdi’s Requiem is one of his all-time favorite works to conduct. It quickly became apparent that his affection for the work is genuine and heartfelt, and his understanding of it is insightful.

The performance offered the promise of wonderful things yet to come in the choral and orchestral repertoire in DeVos Performance Hall. For openers, it was a big leap forward from the Grand Rapids Symphony’s last performance of Verdi’s Requiem in May 2010.

For that season-ending concert, the Calvin College Capella joined the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus to fill out a chorus of 150 singers. For this performance, Capella joined the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus to put 180 singers on stage.

What’s more, this time both choruses were prepared by same director, Pearl Shangkuan. It was immediately clear that both choral ensembles were on the same page and prepared to pull together for a powerful performance with precise diction and a shared interpretation in the brilliant double fugue in the “Sanctus.”

That’s necessary. Because Verdi composed a big work for double chorus and orchestra with four bassoons and eight trumpets four onstage and four antiphonal. In fact, there are 16 brass in all, including a cimbasso, a bass instrument though with a more direct and penetrating sound than a tuba. A pounding bass drum comes back again and again.

Conductor Hans von Bulow, glancing through the score of Verdi’s Requiem prior to its debut, famously dubbed it “an opera in ecclesiastical robes.” It is an opera, minus the costumes, makeup and special effects. History also records that the first time Bulow heard it many years later, he was moved to tears.

In the “Dies Irae,” Verdi unleashes the furies of hell to chase after the faithful with pokers and pitchforks. In the “Sanctus,” he who is blessed and coming in the name of the Lord appears to be making the trip aboard a pirate ship.

Four soloists, each accomplished Verdi singers, were thoroughly impressive on Friday.

Verdi assigns the bass the bleakest passages. Bass Raymond Aceto was positively menacing with a commanding, though seemingly effortless, delivery. Each of his terror-filled recitations of the word “death” in Latin galvanized the audience.

Tenor Carl Tanner, substituting for the previously scheduled Anthony Dean Griffey, sang with formidable voice but also one with notable sweetness in his softest passages.

In his Requiem, Verdi seems to ask the most of the mezzo soprano. Suzanne Hendrix was up for the challenge, singing the “Liber scriptus” with a rich, round voice of Wagnerian proportions, possessing the heft of a contralto and the clarion notes of a mezzo, all in one package.

Julianna di Giacomo, a soprano with soaring height, carried the day with the fear and trembling of the final “Libera Me” in a powerful scene for soloist and chorus. Though the works ends softly, it does not disappoint.

Verdi’s Requiem will return again to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage. It’s a work that will last forever.

For that matter, in West Michigan, so will the memory of Helen DeVos.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, November 18, 2017 | 3 comments

Grand Rapids Symphony at 2017 BRAVO! Awards honors five remarkable women for their volunteer service to the orchestra

To be successful, an arts organization needs more than great artists who make great art.

It also needs supporters and volunteers who provide the foundation that makes great art possible.

The Grand Rapids Symphony honored five women on Tuesday for their contributions to build and maintain a world-class, professional orchestra in West Michigan at its 2017 BRAVO! Awards.

The extraordinary dedication and exceptional service to the Grand Rapids Symphony of Kate Pew Wolters, Diane McElfish Helle, Karen Henry Stokes, the late Linn Maxwell Keller, and Lori Lee Curley were recognized at the ceremonies, which included a dinner and a performance by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“Each had a passion for the Grand Rapids Symphony,” David Dams, co-chair of the 2017 BRAVO! Awards together with Gina Paul and Larry Robson.

The gala held on Tuesday, Nov. 14, in DeVos Performance Hall, raised $154,000 to support Symphony programming including the Gateway to Music, a matrix of 17 access points for music lovers of all ages and abilities.

GR Symphony presents 2017 BRAVO! Awards

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky plus Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 1 from The Three-Cornered Hat as part of the program.

Kate Pew Wolters, who previously was awarded a BRAVO! Award in 2013, was presented only the second BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award in the history of the awards. The first was awarded in 2007 to philanthropist and benefactor Helen DeVos, who died in October.

“Kate Pew Wolters was cut from the same cloth,” said Larry Robson, co-chair of the 2017 BRAVO! Awards. “A longtime activist for children and education, for social justice and for disabled people, Kate also has been a lover of arts and culture since childhood.”

“Kate also is a woman who knows how to get things done,” added Robson, currently Vice Chairperson of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors who received a BRAVO! Award at the last gala.

During Wolters’ two-year term as Board Chair from 2015 to 2017, the Grand Rapids Symphony hired Marcelo Lehninger as music director; it ratified an unprecedented 5-year collective bargaining agreement with its musicians; it adopted a new strategic plan to guide the orchestra’s operations for years to come; and it wrapped up its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign to build an endowment to secure the orchestra’s financial well-being for the future.

“Kate has the heart of an artist, the soul of a prophet, and the head of a businessman,” Robson said. “It’s an unbeatable combination.”

In accepting her award, Wolters said she recently had discovered an old checkbook register dating back to 1974 containing an entry for tuition paid to Aquinas College as well as a check to buy Grand Rapids Symphony tickets.

“There’s something about live music of any genre that soothes the soul,” she said. “We’re a lucky bunch in West Michigan to have such a wide offering of arts and culture.”

Diane McElfish Helle, a violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony since 1980, became the first member of the orchestra honored with a BRAVO! Award since 1991 when violist Daniel Kovats, who also conducted the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, was honored at the inaugural BRAVO! Awards.

Among her activities for the orchestra, Helle inaugurated the Symphony’s pre-concert conversations held before all 10 programs in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concerts.  In 2012, Helle launched the Symphony’s innovative Music for Health Initiative, which sends small groups of musicians into area hospital to assist music therapists as well as to entertain and comfort patients and caregivers.

In June, Helle was one of five musicians honored by the League of American Orchestras with its Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service.

“Five years ago, she began to write an entirely new chapter in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s history with the launch of our Music for Health Initiative,” said Gina Paul. “Today, with Diane as Program Administrator, our musicians regularly bring the healing power of music to Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and its Neuro-Rehab facility. Recently, the 16 musicians she leads have begun providing similar services to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Grand Rapids Veteran’s Home.”

Helle praised her fellow musicians’ performance of music including an orchestra arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Prelude No. 9, “La fille aux cheveaux de lin.”

“My heart is so full because I’m on stage where I‘ve lived a lot of my life,” she said.

The Pittsburgh native noted her fellow musicians come from all over the United States and beyond to take up residence in West Michigan and enrich the community.

 “Art matters when you make it for your own community,” she said.

That has contributed to the success of the Music for Health Initiative.

“They know it’s the musicians they’ve seen on stage coming to play for them.”

Karen Henry Stokes, a professional pianist who taught at Cornerstone University and Calvin College, has served many organizations from the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

“Karen has a deep and personal understanding of the power of music to enrich and transform lives,” said David Dams, co-chair of the 2017 BRAVO! Awards Gala. “Her efforts certainly have enriched and transformed the Grand Rapids Symphony into a finer institution and one of the crown jewels of arts and culture in West Michigan.

 “As a newer member of the Symphony’s Board of Directors, I can tell you that I’m in awe of Karen Henry Stokes,” Dams said. “Some of Karen’s greatest achievements are behind the scenes, but they do not go unnoticed.”

Longtime chair of the nominating committee for the Symphony Board of Directors, Stokes is responsible for recruiting and nurturing board members.

Stokes, who currently serves as board secretary, said the pleasure is all hers.

“Thanks for making it possible to hear this glorious music,” she said. “Not only has this orchestra played a huge role in this community, it also has in our family.”

Linn Maxwell Keller, a professional singer who made many appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony and Opera Grand Rapids, died in June 2016.

“Linn Maxwell Keller was a Renaissance woman. A professional singer, Linn’s career in opera and oratorio took her to the stages of the world’s most important opera houses and concert halls across the United States and in 26 countries,” Dams said. “Linn wore many hats, including serving for many years on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s board of directors. But one of her greatest gifts to West Michigan was creating the Grand Rapids Bach Festival.”

She had a determination you had to admire, said her husband, Fred Keller, who accepted the posthumous award on her behalf.

“Linn really enjoyed performing. She was dedicated to the work that was to be performed,” he said.

Maxwell Keller’s experiences performing with Bach Festivals throughout the world inspired her to launch the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival in 1997. But her hard work made it happen.

“We have a saying in our family,” Keller said. “It only takes one more ‘yes’ to their ‘no.”

“That was what led to the Bach Festival,” Keller said.

At the BRAVO! Awards, the Symphony awarded its Nancy and Ray Loeschner Volunteer Leadership Award to Lori Lee Curley. Introduced in 2013, the award was named for the Loeschners, who were honored with a joint BRAVO! Award in 2001. Nancy Loeschner received the inaugural award posthumously.

When the Grand Rapids Symphony took over operations of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival in 2013, Curley was appointed its first president.

“With quiet grace and irrepressible enthusiasm, Lori took up the challenges of integrating the biennial festival into the operations of the Symphony while also planning and organizing the festivals’ many evenings of marvelous music,” said Gina Paul, a previous recipient of the Loeschner Volunteer Leadership Award in 2016.

Earlier, Curley had served as a member of the Board of Directors and as a past president of the Women’s Committee (now known as Symphony Friends). Over the years, she also served as co-chair of fundraisers including Symphony Showhouse and the “Encore” Cookbook.

“My involvement with the musical community has greatly enriched my life,” Curley said while accepting the Loeschner Award.

The 2017 BRAVO! Award Gala also payed tribute to the late Roger Nelson, the Grand Rapids Symphony Vice President for Operations, who died suddenly in March 2017.

Formerly a double bass play in the orchestra, Nelson made the transition from musician to stage manager and rose to become Chief Operating Officer, playing an instrumental role in developing such programs as “Symphony with Soul” and “LiveArts!”

“He was the man behind the curtain,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau.

Varineau described Nelson as “a man of passion for excellence” who was “determined to pursue lofty goals.”

“Roger was a big man,” Varineau said. “With a big heart and really big shoulders.”

Lehninger, who attended his first BRAVO! Awards Gala since his appointment as Music Director last year, told the audience how happy he was to be part of the community.

“This is truly a great place,” said the Brazilian-born conductor. “And this is a high-level orchestra that brings the best of the symphonic repertoire to you.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, November 17, 2017 | 0 comments

Grand Rapids Symphony’s cast of 275 musicians and more performs monumental Verdi’s Requiem, Nov. 17-18

You’ll find Giuseppe Verdi at the top of any list of all-time greatest opera composers.

One of the best operas ever written by the composer Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida usually is performed in a concert hall, though it calls for no costumes, make up or sets.

Verdi’s Requiem, at first glance, seems like it was meant for the church. But his setting of Mass for the Dead according to the Roman Catholic Church is drama at its best.

The musical tour de force includes some of the greatest music written by one of the greatest composers for stage. With its thunderous Dies Irae or “Day of Wrath” movement, it’s also one of the most popular works every written for orchestra and chorus.

Former Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Semyon Bychkov conducts
The BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem

The Grand Rapids Symphony presents Verdi’s Requiem, featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and the Calvin College Capella, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17-18, in DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW.

Tickets for the third concert of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series start at $18 for adults, $5 for students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, who will be on the podium, says the piece is a particular favorite of his.

“It’s one of the pieces I enjoy conducting the most,” said Lehninger, who is in his second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, mezzo soprano Suzanne Hendrix, tenor Carl Tanner, and bass Raymond Aceto are guest soloists. Tanner replaces the previously announced Anthony Dean Griffey, who dropped out due to illness.

The four all are experienced performers of Verdi’s operas.

Pearl Shangkuan, who is in her 14th season as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, also is a professor of music at Calvin College and director of Capella, the top vocal group at the college in Grand Rapids.

All told, there will be upwards of 275 musicians on stage for the performance.

“It has everything and the kitchen sink,” said Shangkuan, prior to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s last performance in 2010.

Prior to 2010, the Grand Rapids Symphony last sang Verdi’s Requiem in November 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which gave added poignancy to the Libre Me section, with its first line that translates as “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fateful day.”

Both performances will be dedicated to the memory Helen DeVos, who died in October. The philanthropist and patron of the arts served for nearly 20 years on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors and was honored with a BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s highest honor, in 2007.

Verdi, who was spiritual, but not a regular churchgoer, poured his most mature vocal and dramatic gifts into his Messa da Requiem, which is sung in Latin. Translations will be projected into English in DeVos Hall.

Even if you haven’t heard of Verdi’s Requiem, you’ve almost certainly heard portions of the 85-minute work. The dramatic Dies Irae, perhaps the loudest musical moment in the entire orchestra repertoire, has become the go-to soundtrack to signal that Armageddon is on the way. It’s frequently heard in movies including Mad Max: Fury Road with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in 2015; Django Unchained with Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Quentin Tarantino, in 2012; and The Final Curtain with Peter O’Toole in 2002.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, November 14, 2017 | 0 comments

If you liked 'La La Land,' you'll love seeing Grand Rapids Pops' 'An American In Paris,' Nov. 10-12

Great movies, like great symphonies and great paintings, echo and reverberate through time. 

With its jazz-flavored score, Technicolor costuming, and classic dancing, the 2016 film, La La Land, garnered critical acclaim, five Academy Awards, and enthusiastic audiences.

But sixty-five years before La La Land, there was An American in Paris.

The 1951 musical, starring the indomitable Gene Kelly and elegant Leslie Caron, weds the worlds of symphonic music, dance, and fine art into a movie that’s inspired audiences and filmmakers for generations.

Grand Rapids Pops presents An American in Paris with a full-length screening of the entire movie, coupled with a live performance by the Grand Rapids Symphony. Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students.

Part of the Fox Motor Pops series, the show features the film projected onto a 40-foot screen above the orchestra while the musicians play the iconic film score with the music of George Gershwin.

Damien Chazelle, director of the award-winning La La Land, admitted he “pillaged” from An American in Paris to make his 2016 box-office hit come to life. “An American in Paris is such a stunner,” Chazelle explains. “It’s an awesome example of how daring some of those old musicals really were. It’s incredible that it ever got made, let alone that it won best picture.”

Daring indeed. The film sets the artistic bar high and never looks back.


Set just after World War II, An American in Paris features Gene Kelly as Jerry, an ex-GI living in Paris, attempting to become a successful painter, while falling in love with Leslie Caron’s character, Lise, a shop girl in the city of lights. The two characters, separated from each other by would-be romantic partners vying for their attention, struggle to find a way to be together.

All the while, the film boldly brings together the best of several artistic genres: The finest of George and Ira Gershwin’s songs and the best of George Gershwin’s symphonic music with his An American in Paris, ballet piece, hailed as a “jaunty, jazzy symphonic poem” by the New York Times.

Gene Kelly’s choreography and prowess bring together classical and modern dance, as he and Leslie Caron dance their way through sets inspired by famous paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, and Toulouse-Latrec. The enterprise, masterful and elegant, elevated the musical to high art that still resonates deeply with audiences.

Associate conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra through the musical genius of George and Ira Gershwin songs, including Embraceable You, Our Love is Here to Stay, and I Got Rhythm, along with the nearly 20-minute-long ballet piece, An American in Paris.

Musicals sometimes get a bad rap: Where, in real life, does anyone burst into song spontaneously? Where, in real life, can a simple love song unite people in perfect relational harmony?

Real life may not be so tidy as musicals suggest, but An American in Paris is more daring and less tidy than one might think.

Damien Chazelle sums it up: “That finale is completely experimental, avant-garde filmmaking. Nothing but Gershwin, Gene Kelly, and painted sets. You look at that and realize how daring the film was.” 

Written by Jenn Collard, Grand Rapids Symphony Public Relations Intern

Posted by Marketing Intern at Tuesday, November 7, 2017 | 0 comments
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