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Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates 25th anniversary of Picnic Pops with fireworks, Beatles, Motown and Nashville

Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony transformed a ski slope into the hottest spot in town.

Just west of the village of Cannonsburg, along Bear Creek, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave birth to the Picnic Pops, and a new West Michigan summer tradition was born.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops celebrates its Silver Anniversary Season with music inspired by the best shows, the most popular music, and the all-time fan favorites of the past 25 years.

Four weeks’ worth of music begins July 11-12 at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

“Four incredible programs,” said Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, who returns for his fifth summer of “Symphony under the Sky” at Cannonsburg.

2019 GR Symphony Picnic Pops 

The Grand Rapids Pops’ summer series opens much as it began a quarter of a century ago. Guest pianist Rich Ridenour played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for the series premiere in July 1995, and the Grand Rapids-born pianist returns 25 years later to play it once again for Classical Fireworks: Salute to America on July 11-12.

The next three weeks of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops features music from Liverpool, Detroit and Nashville with Classical Mystery Tour: 50 Years of The Beatles’ White Album on July 18-19, followed by Dancing in the Street: The Music of Motown on July 25-26.

Capping off the summer is Nashville: The Songwriters. Their Stories. The Symphony, starring the Music City Hit-Makers for one-night only on Friday, Aug. 2. The concert stars the singer-songwriters who wrote the hits that made Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw famous.

Season tickets offering substantial discounts, as well as single tickets are on sale now. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 during business or go online to PicnicPops.org.  

Classical Fireworks: Salute to America, at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, features Rich Ridenour, a frequent performer in the early years of Picnic Pops, back at Cannonsburg to play Rhapsody in Blue. Associate Conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra in such patriotic melodies as John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare, John Phillip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever and an Armed Forces Salute along with music by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture leading to a fireworks finale.

“Rich happens to be the first guest performer at the very first Picnic Pops 25 years ago,” Bernhardt said.

Classical Mystery Tour: 50 Years of The Beatles’ White Album, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 18-19, welcomes Classical Mystery Tour, the world’s best Beatles show with symphony orchestra, to Cannonsburg for its fourth Picnic Pops appearance. Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, a huge Beatles fan himself, will lead music from the Fab Four’s celebrated White Album with songs including While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

“The Beatles’ White Album is maybe the greatest rock and roll album ever made,” Bernhardt said. “It’ll be an incredible tribute to the Beatles.”

Dancing in the Streets: The Music of Motown, at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 25-26, features such songs as Diana Ross’ Touch Me in the Morning, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, The Four Tops’ Reach Out/I’ll Be There and Martha Reeves’ Dancing in the Street. The special guest vocalists include Shayna Steele, who wowed the Picnic Pops audience in 2017 for Women Rock!

“It features three fabulous singers, and the show celebrates all the Motown singers you can imagine,” Bernhardt said.

Nashville: The Songwriters. Their Stories. The Symphony starring the Music City Hit-Makers, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2, stars three singer/songwriters who have racked up more than 15 songs that reach No. 1 on the music charts.  Brett James who wrote The Truth for Jason Aldean, and Hillary Lindsey who wrote Blessed for Martina McBride also collaborated on Jesus, Take the Wheel for Carrie Underwood. Along with James and Lindsey, the show stars Rivers Rutherford who wrote Living in Fast Forward for Kenny Chesney and Real Good Man for Tim McGraw. The three will join the Grand Rapids Pops to sing the songs and share stories about the singers and the scene where the Music City Hit-Makers reign supreme.

“They perform the megahits that they wrote for the great country stars, and they talk about the songs,” Bernhardt said. “It’s like you’re right there in their living room for the entire evening.”

“If you’re a country music fan, you’ve got to be there,” he added.

Twenty-five years ago, the inaugural Picnic Pops concert, hosted by WZZM-TV 13 anchors Juliet Dragos and Lee Van Ameyde, was one of the hottest days of the summer.

“It was hot enough to fry an egg on the back of a viola,” reported The Grand Rapids Press.

“Stay cool however you can do it,” Van Ameyde told the audience as he removed his tuxedo coat and tie on stage even before saying hello.

But the scorching heat – 97 degrees and 81-percent humidity – didn’t deter the audience. More than 3,000 were on the hills of Cannonsburg for the debut led by former Music Director Catherine Comet, which opened with The Star Spangled Banner and ended with John Phillip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever followed by fireworks.

The Picnic Pops from the start was laid back, relaxed entertainment in the great outdoors.

“I requested that they parachute me in for my part, but they turned me down,” Ridenour told The Grand Rapids Press in 1995 just before the series opened. “I guess they were afraid I’d land on my hands.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, May 21, 2019

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 Saturday, May 18, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony closes 2018-19 season with Chopin and Brahms featuring Marcelo and his mom

Symphony orchestra conductors, naturally, have their favorite soloists. A couple of Marcelo Lehninger’s favorites, who have appeared previously with him and the Grand Rapids Symphony, include violinist Sarah Chang and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Another is Brazilian pianist Sonia Goulart, who happens to be Lehninger’s mother. Not only is she a gifted pianist, Lehninger knows her so well, it’s easy for them to perform together.

“When I play with her, we don’t even rehearse. We don’t have to talk about how we’re going to do it,” Lehninger said. “I can feel what she’s going to do.”

“She performs differently every time she performs,” he added. “But I just feel what she’s going to do, and I’m there with her.”

Lehninger will welcome Goulart as soloist in Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Friday and Saturday, May 17-18, with the Grand Rapids Symphony for the final concert of the 2018-19 season.

“It’s a very special program – for me,” Lehninger said. “I’m very happy my mom is coming here as soloist.”

The concert titled Chopin and Brahms also features Lehninger leading the orchestra in Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The sunny, bucolic work, the composer’s personal favorite among his four symphonies, was inspired by a summer vacation spent along the shores of a beautiful lake in Austria.

Concerts at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall open with Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, a colorful and playful set of five pieces all inspired by fairy tales from Tales of Mother Goose.

Tickets for Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concert, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, are available at the Grand Rapids Symphony ticket office without additional fees or charges. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org. Tickets also are available at the door or at Ticketmaster outlets for an additional charge.

Sonia Goulart, a child prodigy, who studied in Germany and spent 10 years in Europe before returning to her native Brazil, taught music, rehearsed, and played recitals and concerts throughout her pregnancy prior to giving birth to Lehninger. In fact, the final piece Goulart performed in public near the end of her pregnancy with Lehninger was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Lehninger, who was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, the second-largest metropolitan area in Brazil, grew up on a musical family. His father, violinist Erich Lehninger, a German, formerly was concertmaster of Brazil’s most important orchestra, the Sao Paulo State Symphony, the most populous city in Brazil.

Marcelo Lehninger grew up playing both violin and piano. Over time, violin gave way to piano, and piano gave way to conducting. But he has performed with his parents onstage as both musician and conductor, mostly in South America.

When Lehninger served as music director of the New West Symphony near Los Angeles for four seasons from 2012-13 through 2015-16, he conducted Goulart in a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in April 2014.

“One of the best moments in my life was to go onstage eight months pregnant with my son,” Goulart said in a 2014 interview with the Ventura County Star in California prior to a similar performance five years ago.

Goulart’s career has flourished in South American and Europe, where she earned her doctoral degree in music from the Staatlich Hochschule fur Musik und Theatre in Hanover, Germany. She is a winner of more than 30 national and international prizes, including First Prize in the Frankfurt Television Competition in Germany, and the Rencontres Musicales Internationales Award in Brussels, Belgium.

“She’s had a very important career, though mainly in Europe,” Lehninger said.

Goulart, who has been compared with such artists as Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha and Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich, has performed in sold-out halls across the Americas and across Europe from Spain to Austria. Next season, she has concert tours in France and Belgium as well as in Brazil and Uruguay.

“It’s always an emotional experience when I perform with her,” he said. “I think it’ll really be a treat for the audience, too.”

Polish-born pianist Frédéric Chopin has gone down in history, not only as one of the greatest composers of all time, but as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor, one of only two piano concertos he composed, was a piece he wrote for himself, at age 19, to display his ample artistry. Ever since its premiere in 1829, pianists have been doing the same with it.

The 30-minute work, which puts the piano on prominent display, is a work that Goulart most often performs with orchestra.

“It’s one of her signature pieces,” Lehninger said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Music from 'Star Wars,' 'Star Trek,' 'Lord of the Rings' and much more close Grand Rapids Symphony's 2018-19 Pops season

Grand Rapids Symphony  Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt often refers to film composer John Williams as “my hero.”

Bernhardt and Williams have been friends for more than 25 years, ever since Williams, formerly conductor of the Boston Pops, first hired Bernhardt to guess conduct in Boston back in 1992. But Williams, a five-time Academy Award winner, is a hero to anyone who loves a good action and adventure film, whether it was composed by Williams or not.

Before Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader spoke a line or even appeared on screen, it was Williams’ brilliant fanfare that jolted you out of your seat and set the stage for the 1977 film Star Wars.

The 24-time Grammy Award-winning composer gave birth to the soaring symphonic scores for the silver screen that soon would accompany epic adventures through space, heroic journeys across middle earth, and forays into the world of magic.

Grand Rapids Pops concludes its 2018-19 Fox Motors Pops series with Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth, and More! a musical salute to the symphonic soundtracks of some of the greatest films from such franchises as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Grand Rapids Symphony goes where no orchestra has gone before with highlights from 1978 film Superman starring Christopher Reeve, and the main themes from the Star Trek franchise including TV shows as well as movies.

GR Pops 'Star Wars' and More 2016

Bernhardt leads performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 10-11, and at 3 p.m. Sunday May 12, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 children.  Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org for tickets. There’s never a service fee if when you buy tickets at GRS Ticket Office at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW.

Special guest vocalist Mela Sarajane Dailey joins the Grand Rapids Symphony to sing Can You Read My Mind? from Superman. The Grammy Award-winning singer, who first appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony for its Holiday Pops in 2015, also sings two show-stopping operatic arias, the “Mad Scene” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and “Vissi d’arte” from Verdi’s Tosca.

Bob Bernhardt, who became Grand Rapids Symphony’s Principal Pops Conductor in 2015, last year marked his 25th anniversary as a guest conductor with the Boston Pops. Williams, who served as conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, personally hired Bernhardt in 1992 to guest conduct the famous pop orchestra.

Today, Williams, a 51-time Oscar nominee, is famous for such movies as the Indiana Jones series and the first two Jurassic Park films. In the mid-1970s, he was a rising star who won the Oscar for the 1974 film Jaws when Steven Spielberg invited him to compose the music for a new space adventure move.

To compose music for the first Star Wars film and another eight films in the franchise that would follow, Williams revived the practice of composing leitmotifs or “leading motifs” to represent each character. Star Wars fans are familiar with The Imperial March and know that it’s Darth Vader’s theme. The main theme for Star Wars actually is Luke Skywalker’s theme, and the theme is heard, played by a single French horn, when the young Skywalker first appears on screen.

Williams used the same technique, which dates back to the 19th century operas of Richard Wagner, in such franchises as Harry Potter, in which key themes appear over and over across all eight films, even those composed by others.

Grand Rapids Pops’ Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth and More! includes music from the latest Star Wars installments including the 2015 film Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, the 2016 film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The concert also includes music from the 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness and a medley of music spanning the entire Star Trek franchise.

Bernhardt will lead the Grand Rapids Pops in a suite of melodies from The Lord of the Rings films, all composed by Howard Shore, who won Oscars for the first film in the series, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and for the third film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Recap: Trombonist Ava Ordman returns to Grand Rapids Symphony for an exciting evening of music by women

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Trombonist Ava Ordman is a pioneer’s pioneer.

At age 19, still an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she won the principal trombone position with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1973 in an era when fewer women held principal positions in American orchestras and nearly none played brass instruments.

Over 24 seasons through 1997, Ordman was a frequent soloist, performing Donald Erb’s Concerto for Trombone with the Grand Rapids Symphony and recording it for a CD released by Koss Classics; and debuting Libby Larsen’s “Mary Cassatt” with mezzo soprano Linn Maxwell Keller and the orchestra.

Since her departure, she has returned many times as an extra musician. But for the first time in more than 20 years, Ordman returned to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage on Friday, May 3, as soloist with a concert titled The 20th/21st Century Concert: Celebrating Women featuring music by women plus a woman as guest soloist.

It was an amazing performance led by associate conductor John Varineau in the hallowed halls of St. Cecilia Music Center, an organization founded in 1883 by nine women to promote the enjoyment and understanding of music among women.

Ordman, today a professor of music at Michigan State University, was soloist in a concerto for trombone and orchestra titled “Their Eyes Are Fireflies” composed by her MSU colleague, David Biedenbender.

The title is a metaphor for, as Biednebender puts it, “the magic and joy” that his young, preschool-age sons, Izaak and Declan, bring to his life. The 20-minute work is journey of discovery for the composer as well as the audience. It’s colorful, occasionally introspective, and often exuberant to the point of surreal.

Ordman is a phenomenal player. If it can be done with a trombone, Ordman can do it.

Varineau led a swirling opening movement titled “Beginnings,” and a more balanced middle movement full of beautiful melodies, titled “This Song Makes My Heart Not Hurt,” lovingly played by Ordman. The finale, titled “Izaak’s Control Panels” was an adventure with bursts of fireworks for both soloist and orchestra, making it an adventure for the audience as well.

The final concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series was an evening to celebrate pioneering women in music who not only shattered glass ceilings but also broke new ground in music. The concert featured music by American composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joan Tower and by British composer Anna Clyne, three women whose careers spanned more than a century from Seeger in the early 20th century to Tower and Clyne in the present day.

Each woman was extraordinarily successful. Seeger in 1930 became the first female composer in history to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Tower in 1990 became the first woman to win the lucrative Grawemeyer Award for composition, a prize worth $100,000 today.

Clyne, a British composer, now living in the United States, isn’t quite 40 years old yet. But she’s a rising star who won the 2010 Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2016 Hindemith Prize.

Grand Rapids Symphony performed her work for string orchestra, Within her Arms, a piece composed in 2009 in memory of Clyne’s mother who died that year. It’s a stunningly delicate lament that pushes the emotional buttons. So much so that it’s been compared with Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio for Strings, which is high praise indeed.

The piece for 15 players is a heartfelt meditation on the meaning of the loss of a loved one. Varineau’s performance did it justice. It was incredibly moving.

The evening opened with Joan Tower’s aptly named Chamber Dance. It’s a piece for chamber orchestra, and the music does dance. The performance featured lovely solos in oboe, flute and violin as well as charming duets by instruments not necessarily sitting near each other.

Notably, it’s a piece with subdued energy that pulses nonetheless, often in a flurry of notes that zip by.  It requires the musicians pay especially close attention, not only to the conductor, but to each other. Varineau led a performance careful poise.

If Ruth Crawford Seeger’s last name looks familiar, it should be. She was the step mother to folk singer Pete Seeger. Half of her career as a modernist composer included writing ground-breaking avant-garde music that would inspire composers for two generations to come including her String Quartet of 1931, a seminal work in American music in the early 20th century.

It included a strikingly novel slow movement, which she arranged for string orchestra. What’s fascinating about her Andante for Strings is each of the string instruments occupies one voice of a chord. By varying the dynamics, one particular note stand out, and as the piece progresses, the standout notes form a melody. It isn’t played on any one individual instrument, but it’s a melody just the same.

It’s an eerie melody, perhaps even sad. It’s an interesting challenge for the conductor, and Varineau artfully pulled the tapestry together.

The other half of Seeger’s career was as musicologist gathering and arranging folk music. The latter resulted in her brief work, Rissolty Rossolty, a sophisticated setting of folk melodies, but folk melodies even so.

In the Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance, folk tunes spun forth with a splash and a dash. Much like a well-chosen encore, it sent audiences home with a smile on their faces.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, May 6, 2019

Former GRS principal trombonist Ava Ordman returns home as soloist with Grand Rapids Symphony, May 3

For nearly 25 years, Ava Ordman was one of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s most prominent musicians.

The principal trombonist was a frequent soloist with the orchestra, which she first joined while she was a student at the University of Michigan.

Along with mezzo-soprano Linn Maxwell Keller, she gave the premiere performance of Libby Larsen’s “Mary Cassatt: Seven Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, Trombone and Orchestra,” commissioned by The Keller Foundation and the Grand Rapids Symphony, in March 1994.

Along with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and violinist Miriam Fried, Ordman was one of three soloists on the 1995 album Donald Erb: Three Concertos featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony under former music director Catherine Comet, issued by Koss Classics.

Now a professor of music at Michigan State University, Ava Ordman returns for her first solo appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony in more than 20 years with a concerto composed especially for her by David Biedenbender titled “Their Eyes Are Fireflies”

The concerts on May 3 not only feature a woman as soloist, they also highlight female composers. Associate Conductor John Varineau leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in The 20th/21st Century Concert: Celebrating Women  with music that shattered glass ceilings, composed by pioneering women who broke new ground and blazed new trails in music.

The concert at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 3, in St. Cecilia Music Center features music by American composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joan Tower and by British composer Anna Clyne, three women whose careers spanned more than a century from the early 20th century to the present.

Biedenbender said the piece was inspired in part his two young children, Izaac, age 5, and Declan, age 2.

“I often wonder what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of my children,” he wrote in about the concerto. “The title, 'Their Eyes Are Fireflies,' is a metaphor for the magic and joy they bring to my life. The light in their eyes—both the way in which they take in the world with wonder and amazement as well as the way they add light to the world with their innocence and joy—has shaped and changed my perspective in profound ways.”

Ordman, who is a professor of music at Michigan State University, asked Biedenbender to be sure there are challenges for the soloist.

“It can’t be, you know, a piece of cake. There’s got to be difficult things in it,” Ordman said in an interview with Jamie Paisley of WKAR-FM in November 2018.

I said, ‘You just write me a great piece of music, and I’ll figure out how to play it,” said Ordman, who premiered the piece with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra last fall.

The final concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series, the program also is part of the orchestra’s efforts to highlight the work of contemporary composers as well as to draw attention to the work of overlooked composers. Next season, one of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Great Eras Series concerts will feature music by Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann in March 2020.

“The Grand Rapids Symphony is such a wonderful symphony, and we really do have something for everyone,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger about the concert.

Highlights of the evening concert will be given at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 3, as The 20th/21st Century Coffee Concert. Part of the Porter Hills Coffee Classic series, the one-hour program is held without intermission. Doors open at St. Cecilia Music Center  at 9 a.m. for complementary coffee and pastry.

Tickets for the evening Great Eras Series concert start at $26 adults, $5 students.  Tickets for the morning Porter Hills Coffee Classics concert start at $16 adults, $5 students. Tickets are available at the door or call I616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org

Each of the three featured female composers shattered the glass ceiling in her own way.

In the first half of the 20th century, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a folk music specialist as well as a composer, became the first female composer in history to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930. Though Seeger’s compositions included several modernist works that would inspire important composers throughout the 20th century, the Grand Rapids Symphony will perform two works by her, including “Rissolty Rossolty,” a fantasy for orchestra based on American folk tunes.

Joan Tower, who turned 80 last September, in 1990 became the first woman in history to win the Grawemeyer Award for composition, a prize worth $100,000 today. Tower’s composition “Made in America,” which uses snippets of “America the Beautiful,” won her the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition plus two more Grammys for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Classical Album for the recording made by the Nashville Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Grand Rapids Symphony will perform her work titled “Chamber Dance.”

Anna Clyne, a British-born composer, now based in the United States, is a winner of the 2010 Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2016 Hindemith Prize. Her double violin concerto, “Prince of Clouds,” was nominated for the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Grand Rapids Symphony will perform her piece titled “Within Her Arms.”

Ordman, who became principal trombonist of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1974, is the only woman to hold a principal or assistant principal chair in the orchestra’s brass section since the Grand Rapids Symphony began the transition to a fully professional orchestra in the early 1970s.

Ordman has performed regularly with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, with the Cabrillo Music Festival in California, with the Western Brass Quintet at Western Michigan University and with the American Classic Trombone Quartet.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, May 2, 2019

Recap: Heartfelt humanity, magnificent music in Grand Rapids Symphony's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Gustav Mahler wrestled with the big questions, and then he set them to music. To create a symphony, for the late Romantic composer, was to create a world.

When conductor Bruno Walter visited Mahler in 1896 at his summer retreat in the Alps, the younger man paused to admire the beautiful vista. Mahler told Walter he needn’t bother.

“You don't have to look at that,” Mahler said. “I've already composed it.”

Mahler was referring to his Symphony No. 3, the result of that summer vacation, and the Grand Rapids Symphony gave a magnificent performance of Mahler’s hymn to the natural world on Friday, April 12, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Friday’s concert ended with a standing ovation that lasted more than four-and-a-half minutes. The concert in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series repeats at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 13. Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available.

Lehninger welcomed Grand Rapids’ own Michelle DeYoung, a three-time Grammy Award winning singer who earned one of her Grammy’s for her 2003 recording of this piece with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. It’s been more than 14 years since DeYoung last appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony in January 2005. It’s been even longer since the orchestra last performed Mahler’s Third Symphony in February 2002.

GRS and Mahler Third Symphony with Michelle DeYoung

DeYoung, who was born in Grand Rapids, grew up out west, and returned to study at Calvin College for two years, was joined by the women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the young singers of the Grand Rapids Symphony Junior Chorus, and Mandala, a select ensemble drawn from the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.

In all, nearly 250 musicians were on stage, the biggest orchestra of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season, to perform the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, lasting 100 minutes.

Long perhaps, but it doesn’t seem that long. It’s a big work many big moments, but much of the five-movement work also is subdued and intimate. There’s a lot of canvas to fill, and Lehninger did a commendable job of drawing together the large musical force and guiding it nimbly and efficiently through so many different musical moments.

It’s especially appropriate for spring. Mahler’s Third Symphony has a certain freshness and sense of renewal. The opening movement, subtitled “Summer Marches in,” lasting some 40 minutes, depicts the arrival of spring and summer, though in mythological terms. Mahler subtitled the subsequent movements, “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” “What Humanity Tells Me,” “What the Angels Tell Me” and, finally, “What Love Tells Me.”

Lehninger, who masterfully conducted the entire work without intermission, supplied the answers.

The beginning is massive, beginning with a daunting statement that only eight horns in unison can deliver. It’s also a work of subtlety and refinement. The opening movement, depicting the arrival of the god Pan, was sharply drawn with carefully calibrated colors timbres. Assistant principal trombonist Dan Mattson delivered a sturdy, ominous trombone solo, depicting the end of winter, while the rest of the orchestra celebrated with the brash sounds of summer coming over the horizon.

After a long exposition of understated beauty, the exciting end of the beginning was explosive. The song-like second movement, with its lilting minuet rhythm, was sweet, all the more so because of Concertmaster James Crawford’s delightful solos. The rustic-flavored third movement featured a noble, off-stage trumpet solo by Paul Torrisi.

DeYoung, who made her first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony since 2004, joined the orchestra for the fourth movement, a haunting setting of Friedrich Nietzsche's “Zarathustra's Midnight Song” from “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” DeYoung has an amazing voice with equal measures of passion and power enveloped in a gorgeous tone. More to the point, she expressed the heartfelt humanity of the text.  The mezzo soprano sings only a small portion of the work. It also was a pleasure to watch her on stage, listening and reacting to the rest of the performance around her.

The women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus joined in for the fifth movement, singing the text, “Three Angels Sang,” with a warm, rich sound. Standing just in front of them, the fourth, fifth and sixth graders of the Grand Rapids Symphony Junior Chorus chimed in with the angelic sound of bells.

The symphonic, final movement was one of great delicacy, opening with a beautiful string melody that grew ever more majestic and sublime at the same time. For long moments, Lehninger coaxed more and more from his musicians, drawing a reverent yet passionate melody out of the ensemble.

At the end, Lehninger appeared nearly spent. But not before leading a performance of emotional depth and great satisfaction.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, April 13, 2019

Grammy winner from Grand Rapids, Michelle DeYoung, returns to sing Mahler's Third Symphony with Grand Rapids Symphony

Grand Rapids Symphony’s former chorus director knew Michelle DeYoung had a very special voice.

The mezzo soprano had enrolled in Calvin College as a freshman in 1988, not entirely sure of what she wanted to do with her life.

Anton Armstrong, who taught music at Calvin College in addition to serving as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, told her she had a special voice worthy of a professional career.

“He said I think you should consider a career in singing,” she said on FOX 17’s “Morning Mix” on Wednesday. “I hadn’t even thought of it.”

Armstrong, who would go on to become director of the famous St. Olaf Choir, was right. Today, DeYoung is a three-time Grammy Award-winning singer whose career has taken her to the stages of Bayreuth, La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where her career began.

This weekend, DeYoung joins Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and the Grand Rapids Symphony to perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on April 12-13 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Lehninger will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony’s biggest ensemble of the season with more than 250 musicians on stage including 100 instrumentalists, joined by the women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the Grand Rapids Symphony Junior Chorus, and Mandala, a select ensemble from the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which lasts about 100 minutes, will be the only piece on the program.

“It’s one of the longest symphonies ever written,” Lehninger said. “But it’s so colorful, and there’s so many things happening, you’re never tired of it.”

Michelle DeYoung will make her first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 14 years to sing the musical work that earned her the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album together with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

The mezzo soprano was born in Grand Rapids into a musical family, the last of four girls, while her father was studying at Calvin Theological Seminary to become a minister. Growing up in Colorado and in California, DeYoung followed in the footsteps of her three older sisters, all of whom sang in church and played piano and other musical instruments.

“It never really occurred to me to do any of this professionally,” DeYoung said. “I really saw myself getting married and having six kids.”

But in her sophomore year, her choir director told her she had an extraordinary voice, worthy of a professional career, so she left Calvin College to study first at San Francisco State University and then at California State University at Northridge where her teacher told her that he wanted her to enter the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.

“I laughed because I hadn’t done any competitions yet,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘I want you to be prepared, because you’re going to win, and they’re going to ask you to be a young artist.’”

The 6-foot, 1-inch tall singer didn’t believe her teacher. But she entered the competition, won every level, and was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development Program.

“The first day I walked into the Met, I walked into the elevator, and someone said, ‘Oh, it’s Brunhilda,’” she recalled with a laugh.

That was before she had sung a note. Since then, she’s established herself as a major artist, praised by the London Times as “the Jessye Norman of our day” with an “increasingly voluptuous voice.”

Besides the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, DeYoung has sung with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and The Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall as well as with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Sao Paulo Symphony.

In opera, she has appeared in such roles as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde; Herodias in Salome; Amneris in Aida; and as Fricka, Sieglinde and Waltraute in Wagner’s The Ring Cycle in such international opera houses as La Scala, Bayreuth Festival, Berliner Staatsoper, Opera National de Paris and Tokyo Opera and in the United States with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Seattle Opera among others.

Her Grammy Awards include the 2001 Grammy for Best Opera Best Opera for Les Troyens with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Her past appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony include Hector Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and Opera Grand Rapids Chorus in October 2003. During the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season, she sang Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under David Lockington in January 2005.

In 2016, Mahler’s Third Symphony was voted one of the 10 greatest symphonies of all time in a poll of more than 100 professional conductors by BBC Music Magazine. That list was topped by Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 and his “Choral” Symphony No. 9 plus Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41.

It’s a popular piece, though it’s seldom performed because of its size and scope. The Grand Rapids Symphony’s last performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony was in February 2001, featuring mezzo soprano Marietta Simpson, the Women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, and the Boys from the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys.

Mahler, who was one of the greatest conductors of the late 19th century, was devoted to nature and enjoyed long walks in the countryside.  In the summer of 1896, the young conductor Bruno Walter paid a visit to Mahler in the little Alpine village of Steinbach am Attersee, where Mahler had spent the summer completing his Third Symphony.

As Walter stood there admiring the beautiful mountain scenery, Mahler told him, “You needn’t stand staring at that. I’ve already composed it all.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, April 11, 2019

Recap: 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival ends with a grand and glorious finale

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

One can wonder how and why the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is relevant in a world of soundbites, digital samples, mp3 players and downloadable podcasts. What can an early 18th century composer say to a 21st century audience?

Plenty, and all you have to do is listen. And that’s just what a full house did in the Basilica of St. Adalbert for the final concert of the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

The 12th biennial festival ended with a grand and glorious finale with Bach’s Magnificat in D Major on Saturday, March 23, under the masterful leadership of its new Artistic Director Julian Wachner.

In his first season leading the festival founded 22 years ago, Wachner led soloists, the Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in a sold-out performance with no room to spare.

With no fewer than 125 singers in the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the performance was destined to be big and bold. With a fireball Artistic Director who’s a bundle of energy even at rest, it was destined to be even a little over-the-top.

Bach Magnificat at 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival

Bach was a good Lutheran, but his region of Germany was influenced somewhat by Catholic Austria. Liturgical texts in Latin were not unknown. Certainly Bach’s B minor Mass, arguably his greatest work of all, was in Latin.

The setting of “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord” from the Gospel of Luke is the first major, liturgical work by Bach using a Latin text. It’s also a wonderful piece of music that Wachner conducted with passion and precision in equal measure.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus sang the opening with bright buoyancy, sending waves of sound crashing through the sanctuary.

Wachner assembled a fine group of five soloists including soprano Molly Quinn, a last-minute substitute for Molly Netter, who had to withdraw from the performance. Accompanied by Ellen Sherman on the seldom-heard but charming oboe d’amore, Quinn sang with authority and reverence.

Second soprano Melissa Attebury delivered her solo aria with style and a little bit of sass. Tenor Bran Giebler sang nimbly on his aria with its bright tempo.

The bass declaims the text, “He that is mighty has magnified me,” and bass-baritone Dashon Burton gave his aria a robust performance in a sanctuary that isn’t especially kind to lower voices.

The chorus, which kicks it off, also gets the big finish. The four-part harmony was well-balanced on the penultimate chorus, and the concluding Gloria Patri was majestic and magnificent.

Linn Maxwell Keller, who founded the Grand Rapids Bach Festival in 1997, wanted the community-wide festival to be educational as well as entertaining and enlightening. Igor Stravinsky’s Variations on Bach’s “Vom Himmel Hoch” checked that box.

Stravinsky, as Wachner explained, set out to put a 20th century stamp on 18th century music for the unusual setting of chorus plus orchestra without any violins. Just two flutes, three oboes and three bassoons for winds; three trumpets and three trombones for brass; and three violas and harp for strings.

“It’s a very curious piece,” Wachner told the audience. “The first time I heard it at Tanglewood, I said, ‘What was that?’”

What it is, is a chorale of “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” followed by five variations, focusing separately on brass, on woodwinds, on choir and orchestra, on flutes and choir, and finally on harp and choir.

It was a fine performance by the chorus and orchestra. If nothing else, it demonstrated Wachner’s willingness to explore new territory and lead Bach fans on surprising new adventures.

The program opened with Bach’s Cantata No. 110, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” or “Our Mouth is Full of Laughter,” a cantata with four solo voices.

With each aria, Wachner adjusted the continuo instruments in a new and more interesting configuration.

The Symphony chorus filled the room with a big, lush sound on the texts, “Our mouth is full of laughter, and our tongue full of boasting for the Lord has done great things for us.”

The performance featured the sweet tenor voice of Brian Giebler, accompanied by Christopher Kantner and Ruth Bylsma in a beautiful flute duet, on the aria, “You thoughts and you senses, spring up from here.” Giebler was joined by Quinn for the duet, “Glory to God in the Highest,” two nicely matched voices with pizzicato continuo.

The bass aria, “Wake up, you veins and limbs, and sing joyful songs,” delivered powerfully by Dashon Burton alongside brilliant piccolo trumpet playing by Neil Mueller, was straight from Handel’s playbook for pomp and propulsion in equal measure.

With the final chorale, “Alleluia! God be Praised,” the chorus delivered a volume of sound that its composer could only imagine in his wildest dreams. But the Grand Rapids Bach Festival audience got enjoy each and every enchanting note.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Recap: Grand Rapids Bach Festival performs Bach with a bonus – sublime music by Bach, sensational music by Julian Wachner

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

For true lovers of music, a major performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach always is a big deal. But there always are ways of making it an even bigger deal.

The Grand Rapids Bach Festival, for its Mass Reimaginings concert led by Artistic Director Julian Wachner on Thursday, March 31, delivered an evening of sublime music by Bach plus and sensational music by Wachner all expertly performed by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Add the exhilaration of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, 28 professional singers who sounded like twice as many.

Add the excitement of featuring soprano Nola Richardson, the newly-minted winner of the $10,000 inaugural Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award, stepping in as a last-minute substitute just hours after winning the inaugural prize at the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

Add again the elation of pairing the Bach’s Mass in A major with Wachner’s adventurous Epistle Mass.

And top it all off with the effervescence of Wachner leading the program with the energy and enthusiasm of a boy let loose in a room full of really cool gadgets.

Call it Bach with a bonus. The audience at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church got its money’s worth and then some.

Mass Reimaginings - GR Bach Festival

Mass Reimaginings concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation for the efforts of five top-notch soloists plus the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Grand Rapids Symphony, the first of two major choral concerts in the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

Bach’s Mass in B minor is well known because his setting of the Roman Catholic Latin Mass arguably is the greatest work Bach ever composed. Bach’s Mass in A Major, however, is one of the other ones.

It’s one of four Lutheran masses he composed, in part, by revising and adapting some of his earlier music. You might say it’s some of Bach’s Greatest Hits in one performance.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street was a joy to listen to. The ensemble from the famous church in lower Manhattan was well-rehearsed and well-balanced. Their opening Kyrie was very florid and flowing. The Gloria delivered enough sound to raise the roof of the historic Grand Rapids church that opened in 1848.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who has performed previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony, sang the Domine Deus with nimble delicacy at the top of his range and robust power at the bottom.

Soprano Nola Richardson graced the Qui Tollis with a sweet, ethereal voice, set against a pair of flutes and strings less than three hours after she sang the very same selection with piano in the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in the final round of the first Keller Award competition.

Countertenor Daniel Taylor sang the Quoniam Tu Solus with buoyancy.

The assembled forces delivered the propulsive Cum Sancto Spiritu with musical acumen and emotional conviction. A listener couldn’t ask for more.

The inspiration for Wachner’s Epistle Mass was Bernstein’s “A Mass,” a theatrical piece that’s as much about the drama as it is about the music. It was an eye-opening and ear-stretching adventure. It also was fun for an audience that got to sing along at one point.

Julian Wachner uses the ordinary of the Latin Mass interspersed with a modern text by librettist Royce Vavrek that represents a letter from the last human being on earth, written for a future alien race to discover.

The Chorus sings the Mass in Latin. Baritone Stephen Salters sings the epistle in English.

The Grand Rapids Symphony played magnificently on the piece that called for a wide variety of tone colors from strings as well as from a complex battery of percussion

Salters’ wide-ranging baritone, both in compass and color, proved to be capable instrument of dramatic possibilities. The text is intense and packed with emotion, but Salters delivered a commanding performance that also served to grab you by the lapels and give you a good shake.

The choral passages are ambitious, full of thick, meaty chords and seemingly random vocal lines all requiring accomplished singers to perform.

Wachner led a thrilling performance of the Gloria with rolling waves of sound and vivid gestures. The artistry of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street was breathtaking on the Sanctus. The seep of the final Agnus Dei with organ added to orchestra and chorus truly was climactic.

The new Artistic Director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival demonstrated he’s interested in performing the music of J.S. Bach with integrity. But he’s also interested in much more.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, March 25, 2019
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