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Recap: Beethoven's mighty Ninth Symphony, plus world premiere, bring Grand Rapids Symphony's season to a thrilling conclusion

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

What does one say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

It’s one of the greatest achievements, not simply of classical music, but of all of Western civilization. The music, some of Beethoven’s best, stands on its own merits. The message that all of humanity is a brotherhood elevates it to a whole new level.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Leonard Bernstein led a performance on Christmas Day in East Berlin that may be the most important performance since its debut in May 1824. But the fact is any performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a big deal.

It’s the piece that Music Director Marcelo Lehninger chose to end his first full season at the helm of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Together with the world premiere of Alexander Miller’s “Testament,” Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony -- both featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus -- brought the 2017-18 season to a thrilling conclusion.

It was an exciting season of big pieces of music including Verdi’s Requiem in November and Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” in March and of important milestones such as the Grand Rapids Symphony’s triumphant return to Carnegie Hall in April.

Friday’s performance, which repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, in DeVos Performance Hall, was the cherry on top.

Lehninger, firmly in command of his orchestra and chorus, led an exceptional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth featuring four wonderful guest singers, soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor John Matthew Myers and baritone Richard Zeller. The mantra, “Go big or go home” certainly applied to the performance.

The dramatic opening moment, which settled into insightful ebb and flow and a forceful finish led to scattered applause in the audience. Not missing a beat, Lehninger turned to the audience and said with a smile, “If you like it, go ahead.”  That led to even more applause.

It’s worth pointing out that was the custom back in Beethoven’s day. People applauded whenever they wanted.

More good things followed. An insistent tempo filled the second movement with impressive energy, Lehninger practically levitating himself off the podium as he conducted the piece in triple time that nonetheless often feel as if it’s in quadruple time.

The warm string sounds enveloped the audience with the rhapsodic third movement with its prominent fourth horn solo skillfully played by Paul Austin. Lehninger capably balanced its two pairs of variations.

The finale featuring the singers and chorus is the highlight, but Beethoven still takes a little time getting there. In fact, the final movement is about as long as entire symphonies composed by Mozart and Haydn.  Lehninger plunged boldly into the movement with intensity, determination and a blisteringly fast tempo.

Remarkably, Beethoven revisits the first three movements briefly. When the famous “Ode to Joy” melody appeared on Friday, it emerged as a sunrise over the audience.

Beethoven did not write well for voices. His music is hard to sing. But the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, well-tuned from their performances in Grand Rapids and New York City just last month, delivered a refined wall of glorious sound.

Following the performance, which ended the concert, the audience erupted in an enthusiastic standing ovation that went on for several minutes.

Beethoven loomed large over the evening. The concert also answered the question, what else goes good with Beethoven? Try Alexander Miller’s “Testament,” inspired by Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament,” which Beethoven wrote in 1802 to his brothers, expressing his anger and frustration at losing his hearing. Though he considers suicide, Beethoven declares his determination to live on for the sake of the music he has yet to write.

Grand Rapids Symphony commissioned the 16-minute work and gave the world premiere of the piece by its assistant principal oboist by night and composer-in-residence by day.

It’s a raw, emotional work offering a cinematic look into the inner recesses of Beethoven’s mind and soul, masterfully arranged for bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra.

Zeller’s magnificent bass baritone poured forth the anguish of Beethoven, revealing his innermost thoughts. The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, serving as a Greek chorus with a big, opulent sound, offering commentary and added perspective.

The contrasts are rewarding, ranging from a solo voice set against a minimum of strings to an angelic choir of women paired with a solo cello, to full onslaught of orchestra and chorus delivering a pulse-pounding performance. Much as Beethoven could mesmerize with a single melody or suddenly move mountains of sound, Miller’s “Testament” offers a wide range of musical experiences in one satisfying setting.

As it happened, Lehninger conducted the world premier performances of two of the three works on the program. Just not at the same time.

The concert opened with “Variações Temporais, Beethoven Revisitado (Temporal Variations, Beethoven Revisited)” by Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda. Lehninger conducted premiere in 2014 with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

It’s a witty, series of short, orchestral portraits, each inspired by another of Beethoven’s musical works, so it’s very musical. At times, it’s a clever game of “Name that Tune.” Early on, apart from assorted percussion, it’s also something that Beethoven might have arranged himself. But that’s early on.

It turns into an exciting, colorful tapestry of sounds using the full resources of the modern orchestra. The audience clearly enjoyed it.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, May 19, 2018

Music by Beethoven and inspired by Beethoven celebrate triumphs over adversity in Grand Rapids Symphony's season finale, May 18-19

One of the most important composers in the history of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven also suffered the bitterest of all blows a musician can face. In his late 20s, Beethoven realized he was going deaf.

In a fit of despair, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers, even contemplating suicide over the loss of his hearing. The letter known today as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” was never sent. It was discovered among Beethoven’s papers after the composer’s death.

In the rambling prose, the composer who later would be known as one of the most important artists in the history of Western Civilization pours out his anguish and despair.

“But in the end, he declares his will to go on for the sake of the art he has yet to produce,” said Alexander Miller, an oboist with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

It’s a sentiment that Miller, a nationally known composer, understands all too well.

In 2009, Miller was diagnosed with a papillary craniopharyngioma, a rare brain tumor leading to surgery to remove a golf ball-sized mass behind his sinus cavity. That was followed by a long, difficult recovery involving persistent headaches, low energy, quirky and unreliable vision, and a ringing in his ears, rather like Beethoven suffered.

When Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 was premiered in May 1824, the 54-year-old composer was completely deaf. Though he was seated next to the conductor, the alto soloist had to turn Beethoven around so that he could see the thunderous applause he no longer could hear.

When the Grand Rapids Symphony premieres Miller’s latest work, “Testament,” on Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19, its composer, who will celebrate his 50th birthday in September, will be in the hall to hear the music as well as the audience reaction to it.

The Grand Rapids Symphony closes its 2017-18 season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plus the premiere of Miller’s “Testament,” Beethoven’s 1802 ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ for Bass-Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will conduct the two works that also feature the 140-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, prepared by Pearl Shangkuan. Soloists for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor John Matthew Myers, and baritone Richard Zeller.

The Ninth Symphony, which the Grand Rapids Symphony last performed in 2011, is Beethoven’s only symphony that uses vocal soloists and chorus. Considered one of Beethoven’s greatest works as well as one of the most important compositions in the history of classical music, it’s a revolutionary piece of music that uses the text of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which celebrates the universal brotherhood of all humanity.

“When I conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, I’m always immersed in these emotions that Beethoven’s music does like no other,” Lehninger said.

Miller’s “Testament,” a 16-minute piece, features Zeller, who has spent 12 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and has performed with orchestras of Boston, Cleveland and Chicago as well as internationally with the orchestras of Toronto and Montreal and the philharmonics of Tokyo, Czech and Korea.

The Grand Rapids Symphony commissioned Miller to write the piece for the program to be paired with the Beethoven Symphony No. 9. Lehninger suggested Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” as a possible source of inspiration.

The statement has a “raw energy,” according to Miller who became GRS assistant principal oboist in 1992.

“Questions about what it takes to go on living despite a deteriorating condition are topics I can relate to,” said Miller, who blogs about his experiences with brain surgery and recovery at “Especially after two brain surgeries, the never-ending follow-up care, and the side conditions I have since developed.”

The “Heiligenstadt Testament” is a document that Lehninger said he rereads regularly, especially before performing a work by Beethoven.

“Beethoven knew he was a very difficult man, personality wise,” Lehninger said, adding that the composer became even more difficult in his later years as his hearing slowly deteriorated.

“He knew it would be better for the people he loved to be away from them because he knew he would hurt them,” Lehninger said.

Nevertheless, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was chosen to be performed on Christmas Day in East Berlin. Leonard Bernstein conducted an international cast of soloists, choristers and instrumentalists in a performance broadcast throughout the world.

“We should all be friends and get along and respect each other and fight together for a common goal,” said Lehninger of Beethoven’s intentions.

The concert opens with another contemporary work inspired by Beethoven. “Variações Temporais, Beethoven Revisitado (Temporal Variations, Beethoven Revisited)” by Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda.

Composed in 2014, it’s a witty, 10-minute series of short, orchestral portraits, each inspired by a particular work of Beethoven’s. Lehninger conducted the world premiere performance of this work with the most important orchestra in Brazil’s largest city the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in July 2014.

Tickets for the Grand Rapids Symphony Classical Series concert start at $18 adults or $5 students. Call (616) 454–9451 or go online to “Inside the Music,” a pre-concert conversation, will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in the DeVos Recital Hall.

Besides the Grand Rapids Symphony, Miller’s music also has been performed by the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Alabama and Santa Barbara among others. Many have performed his “Fireworks,” which the Grand Rapids Symphony played for its first performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in May 2005. His 1998 work “Let Freedom Ring” for Narrator and Orchestra, based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, has been performed by such celebrity narrators as James Earl Jones, Danny Glover, William Warfield and Harry Belafonte and was recorded by former President Bill Clinton prior to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Since his 2009 surgeries and recovery, Miller has composed “Scherzo Crypto” for the San Antonio Symphony and “Rocomoji for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston. In 2013, the Grand Rapids Symphony opened its season with Miller’s ‘Madam Bovary’ Concerto for Cello and Orchestra featuring principal cellist Alicia Eppinga.

“Living with a difficult medical condition becomes a decision,” Miller said. “One decides to endure, to go on. Holding onto the knowledge that we actually have a choice in the matter — that ace up our sleeve — is often the coping mechanism that saves us from ourselves.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hear Grand Rapids Pops play 'Star Wars' and more, movie music of John Williams, May 11-13

Grand Rapids Symphony Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt doesn’t mince words when he talks about film composer John Williams.

“He’s my hero,” Bernhard says with a smile.

Bernhardt comes by that belief honestly. During his 14-year tenor as conductor of the Boston Pops, Williams in 1992 hired Bernhardt to be a guest conductor of the most famous pops orchestra in the world.

Ever since, Bernhardt has continued to guest conduct the Boston Pops nearly every season for the past quarter century. Williams, of course, has continued to compose music for film.

Their collective efforts come together this week on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s stage.

Bernhardt will be back on the Grand Rapids Pops podium this week with Star Wars and More: The Music of John Williams with some of Williams’ best-known and most-loved music, plus a few surprises in for good measure.

The Fox Motors Pops series shows are at 8 p.m. May 11-12 and at 3 p.m. May 13 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 or go online to or

Two years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony's first concert devoted to the movie music of John Williams sold out several performances, leading to the creation of an all-new show. With the film music of John Williams, there plenty of material to shose from. Winner of five Academy Awards and 24 Grammy Awards, the Juilliard School-trained composer, conductor and pianist has composed film music for some of cinema’s all-time blockbuster franchises including the Indiana Jones series and the Harry Potter series as well as the Star Wars series.

GR Pops 'Star Wars' and More 2016

Drawing inspiration from composers such as Wagner and Tchaikovsky, Williams’ capacity to write evocatively and create characters out of musical thin air seems to know no bounds.

“John Williams, I think, is the greatest American film composer we have and one of the greatest that’s ever lived,” said Steven Reineke, music director and conductor of the New York Pops.

In a small way, Williams has filmmaker Stephen Spielberg to thank. Before Williams sat down to compose the score for the original Star Wars film, Spielberg suggested Williams listen to English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, which the Grand Rapids Symphony performed in February in DeVos Hall.

The rest is musical and cinematic history.

“John has a way to capture the visual element of the film, and the feelings, the emotions … and transfer that into music,” Reineke told AM New York. “So when you take the music out of the film and play it on a concert stage with no visuals and just listen to it, it takes you right back to that film and what it’s about – you can picture it in your mind.”

In Williams’ first film to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score, a two-note theme announces the entrance of a menacing shark in the 1977 film Jaws. In his second film to win the Oscar for Best Original Score, a French horn solo, brief and longing, introduces the young Luke Skywalker, gazing out at a binary sunset on a desert planet in the 1977 film now known as Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope.

The Julliard School-trained composer’s score for Star Wars, with its sweeping sonic landscape, helped define the entire franchise, which now encompasses eight films plus a ninth now in pre-production.

The Grand Rapids Pops this weekend will perform highlights from all three of the Star Wars trilogies. Selections include “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars: A New Hope, “Battle of the Heroes” from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and “The Rebellion is Reborn” from The Last Jedi.

Continuing on the Star Wars theme, costumed characters from the Star Wars franchise will patrol the lobby of DeVos Hall, greeting guests and posing for pictures at each show. Characters from the Great Lakes Garrison of the 501st Legion, a worldwide Star Wars costuming organization, are expected to include Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, Rey, assorted Storm Troopers, and more.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt  also will conduct the Grand Rapids Pops in music from films including Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsFar and Away, Angela’s Ashes and more.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will sing vocal music including “Double Trouble” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and “Exultate Justi” from Empire of the Sun.

The most recent Star Wars trilogy, which includes the 2015 film The Force Awakens followed two years later by The Last Jedi, will see its third and final installment premier in December 2019. Williams, now 86, says that the as-of-now untitled Star Wars IX, directed by J.J. Abrams, will be the composer’s last Star Wars film.

“We know J.J. Abrams is preparing one now for next year that I will hopefully do for him, and I look forward to it,” Williams said recently on the University of Southern California’s Classical music radio station, KUSC-FM. “It will round out a series of nine and be quite enough for me.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Recap: Polish pianist, Gilmore Artist joins Grand Rapids Symphony for marvelous performance of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Frederic Chopin is one of those musicians, same as Paganini, same as Liszt, which we’d dearly love to go back in time and hear perform. Contemporary accounts say the three were virtuosos who were lightyears ahead of their peers.

Today, I’m a little less fussed about hearing never getting a chance to hear Chopin perform. Because I’ve heard Rafał Blechacz play Chopin. If it’s possible to channel the reincarnated soul of an artist for 35 minutes, Blechacz did so.

The Polish-born pianist made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut on Friday, April 27 with a magnificent performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. One that was amazingly adept and astonishingly beautiful at the same time under the baton of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

The performance, part of the 2018 Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in DeVos Performance Hall.

In 2014, Blechacz was awarded seventh Gilmore Artist Award, one of the most lucrative prizes in classical music worth some $300,000. The quadrennial prize also is one of the most unusual major awards in music. Performers do not compete for the prize. Nominations are made in secret. Jurors travel the world to observe pianists in their natural habitat, so to speak. In the end, the Gilmore judges pick one artist worthy of a major, international career.

The Gilmore Foundation’s track record is rather good. The past 20 years have produced such pianists as Leif Ove Andsnes of Norway, Piotr Anderszewski of Poland, Ingrid Fliter of Argentina and Kirill Gerstein of Russia.

Blechacz, however, rocketed to fame in 2005 as the winner of the 15th International Chopin Piano Competition, becoming the first native Pole in 35 years to win the prize. Not only did Blechacz win the competition, he won all four of the subsidiary prizes for best performance of a mazurka, a polonaise, a nocturne and a concert.

Friday’s performance demonstrated it was well deserved.

To play Chopin, you must be a brilliant player. Blechacz dazzles with technical virtuosity and mesmerizes with musicality, becoming one with the instrument. The long, majestic opening movement was full of elegant effervescence. The lovely middle movement was full of nostalgia and wistfulness. The finale was heroic and heavenly.

When Blechacz performs, you forget that a piano is a percussion instrument with 88 little hammers clanging away at strings. You sometimes also forget there’s an orchestra there as well, and that’s not always bad. Chopin was barely out of his teens when he completed his two piano concertos. He had no particular gift for orchestration and no interest in honing it. Mr. Piano was all about the piano.

It’s no easy task for a conductor to make it sound good. Lehninger’s obvious love for the music of Chopin is a big help.

No doubt it would be different to hear Chopin play his own music. I don’t imagine it could be much better than hearing Blechacz.

Lehninger made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut three years ago conducting Dvorak’s mighty Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” On Friday he led the Grand Rapids Symphony in Dvorak’s sunny Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

Lehninger, who conducted from memory without the score in front of him, clearly was in his element, leading a masterful performance of nuanced shaping and phrasing with cheery melody after cheery melody. Whether it was a little melody in the flute dispatched effortlessly by principal flutist Christopher Kantner or a full-bodied string section filling the hall with warm, woody music, it was an inspiring performance.

Certain aspects of the late 19th century work do strike the 21st century ear as sappy and schmaltzy. Yet Lehninger applied tasteful when needed. The end result was a performance of joy and celebration though on a grand scale.

The program opened pleasantly with Canto by composer Adam Schoenberg. Not Arnold Schoenberg, the 12-tone German, whose music tends to be more interesting to read on the page than to hear in the hall. Adam Schoenberg’s music is lyrical and inviting, and the American may be the most performed living composer today.

Canto is something of a lullaby that the composer wrote following the birth of his son, though it’s much more. It’s an atmospheric work with a dreamy soundscape, rather like an active mind gathering its thoughts and calming itself in preparation for sleep.

Its sweet, musical meanderings are tranquil but actively so.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, April 28, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus sings for Hoda Kotb on NBC TV’s ‘Today Show’

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus made its Carnegie Hall debut last week with the Grand Rapids Symphony in New York City.

Member of the chorus also made their debut on NBC-TV’s Today Show.

Hours before appearing in the venerable auditorium with Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and the orchestra, members of the all-volunteer chorus rose early and trudged to NBC Studios where the show is broadcast, arriving at 6:30 in the morning on an unseasonably chilly morning.

“I think none of us realized how cold it would be that morning, and what a challenge it would be to get the Today’s Show’s attention,” said Richard Krueger, who sings tenor in the Symphony Chorus. “Once we were there, I feel like we all just decided we were going to get on the air, whatever it took.”

After standing outdoors in unseasonably chilly weather, Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus members, waving signs reading “Wake Up and Hear the Beethoven!” and “Hoda! Let us Bring You Joy!” caught the eyes of producers who work the crowd outside.

Co-host and meteorologist Al Roker soon followed.

“When Al Roker reacted so positively to us, that was big,” Krueger said. “He wasn't just polite like the producers had been, he seemed genuinely enthusiastic.”

In the final half hour of Friday’s show, when the hosts of Today Show stepped outside, two hours of standing outdoors was rewarded when co-anchor Hoda Kotb came over, asking for “my chorus.”

“That was when it felt real, and singing right to her and the camera was really fun,” said Krueger, a parish assistant at Messiah Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids.

“Ages 20 to 80, it’s a diverse, beautiful, group of people, and they have a special thing that they’re going to perform for us,” Kotb told viewers at home.

“That was when it felt real, and singing right to her and the camera was really fun,” Krueger said afterward.

GR Symphony Chorus sings on NBC's 'Today Show'

Singers launched into an unaccompanied snippet from Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9, which the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will perform at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s  “Beethoven’s Ninth,” the final concert of the 2017-18 season on May 18-19 in DeVos Performance Hall.

More than 2,000 people were in the audience on Friday in Carnegie Hall for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel. But many more heard members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus sing briefly on national TV.

“It’s astonishing that 4 million-plus people may have heard us sing,” Krueger said.

Chorus members including tenor Scott Parmenter, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Allegan, said they soon heard from family and friends who saw them on national TV.

“A 2-year-old girl from my church saw me and kept saying to the TV set, ‘Hi Pastor Scott,’”’ Parmenter later learned.

Chorus members credited Today Show’s producers with keeping them informed on the show’s progress, which made the two-hour wait bearable in temperatures that started in the high 30s and only rose into the low 40s.

 “I'm glad we got the chance to do it, that people I trust say we sounded good on the air, and that we were able to show millions of people that the Grand Rapids Symphony was in New York to take care of business at Carnegie Hall,” Krueger said. “Like our performance that evening, it was an experience I'll remember for the rest of my life.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony, Symphony Chorus, is primed and ready for its return to Carnegie Hall

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Nearly 13 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony traveled to New York City to make its Carnegie Hall debut, a major milestone in the history of the orchestra.

Next week, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony plus the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus back to the Big Apple to make its debut on the international stage, another epic event in the 88-year history of the orchestra.

Based on Friday’s exhilarating performance, the Grand Rapids Symphony is ready.

The Grand Rapids Symphony previewed its Carnegie Hall concert on Friday, April 13, a program of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel that repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets remain available.

With eminent pianist Nelson Freire, Lehninger led an exciting and colorful performance of Spanish and Brazilian-flavored music, all of it dating from the first half of the 20th century.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger, now in his second season in Grand Rapids, and the Brazilian Freire, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest pianists, are uniquely positioned to perform the repertoire of Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer.

That the Grand Rapids Symphony’s appearance in New York City on April 20 is a milestone for the world of classical music is easily demonstrated. Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears your Heart), which features the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, has been performed only a handful of times in Carnegie Hall. Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce, featuring Freire at the piano, has been heard only once before in the 127-year-old hall. That was by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959.

The 73-year old Freire isn’t as well-known as, say, Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. Yet the two of them have appeared in Carnegie Hall in duo piano recitals, not once but twice together. Freire chose to tour and record less than his famous colleague. Industry insiders, however, clamor to hear Freire when they can.

It doesn’t take long to see why. Other pianists dazzle audiences with how they dominate the piano. Freire, on the other hand, charms audiences with loving caresses and delightful musical repartee. Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain calls for the former. Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce demands the latter.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain is an exquisite piece of music that captures the sights and sounds and the flora and fauna of southern Spain. When you hear it, you practically can smell the flowers.

The full effect of Freire’s poetic artistry was on display. He’s an elegant pianist, and when you have technical mastery, you have no need of bravura tricks. His performance was fervent and animated yet masterfully controlled. Freire can be tricky to follow, yet Lehninger was with him every step of the way.

Momoprecoce was inspired by Villa-Lobos’ memories of childhood during the famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a playful, exuberant piece full of childlike wonder. It was conceived to be a work for solo piano, but the composer decided to orchestrate it into a fantasy for piano and orchestra.

It’s an extraordinary piece of music demanding great virtuosity from the soloist. At times the finger work is startling to watch. That virtuosity, however, isn’t always readily apparent to the audience because the piece treats the pianist as part of the orchestra rather than pitting it against the orchestra.  The percussive piano playing might sound mechanical in the hands of a lesser musician, but Freire’s performance was full vigor and vitality, yet it also ebbed and flowed with musical sonority.

Lehninger led an energetic performance that was impressive without becoming oppressive. Even with the presence of extensive percussion, Lehninger kept the orchestra on an even keel that made a powerful impact without becoming harsh or ugly.

Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 10 is a unique work. A “chôros” isn’t a work for chorus. The word translates as “weeping” or “cry.” The music is a popular form of music of the 1920s similar to a serenade. Villa-Lobos made it so much more than street music.

The propulsive piece is brassy and rhythmic. You can hear breezes and birds of the rainforest. You might also say it’s tribal and earthy. Certainly,  it’s a handful for the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which is called upon to recite and chant as well as sing the text of a poem “Rasga o Coração,” which translates as “tears the heart” or “rends the heart.”

It’s not a long piece, but it’s a taxing piece. Lehninger led a dynamic performance full of aggressive solos from many of the principal players plus the singers of the Symphony Chorus singing their hearts out through a feisty and fiery finale.

The concert opened with Ravel’s Bolero, a piece that the Grand Rapids Symphony performed on its season-opening concert in September. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’s also tougher to play than meets the eye.

Lehninger’s reading was particularly transparent, with a softer, understated accompaniment, giving the many solos room to breathe and bloom. It shows off the orchestra very well. Next week’s audience, even if they’ve heard it before, will be impressed nonetheless.

Thirteen years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s goal was to go to Carnegie Hall, play a great concert, and show itself to be worthy of the hall that’s arguably the most important in North America.

The goal this time is to demonstrate the Grand Rapids Symphony can make a meaningful contribution to classical music’s efforts to broaden its international base and expand its horizons.

You might describe the first Carnegie Hall appearance as a tryout. This time, the Grand Rapids Symphony is really getting into the game.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, April 14, 2018

Join the Grand Rapids Symphony for its Carnegie Hall sendoff concert featuring Ravel's 'Bolero,' Friday and Saturday

The Grand Rapids Symphony is bound for the Big Apple next week.

It’s not quite April in Paris, but April in New York City is the next best thing. That’s because New York City is one of the world’s most important centers for classical music, and Carnegie Hall is its mecca.

But this week, you can hear the Grand Rapids Symphony perform its Carnegie Hall concert here in DeVos Performance Hall along with eminent Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday in music including Ravel’s Bolero. Next week, the orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall for its second appearance, along with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which will make its debut in the 2,800-seat auditorium.

“It’s very important for the orchestra and the prestige of the Grand Rapids Symphony to go there with such an important soloist,” Lehninger said. “It’s a good moment to go back to Carnegie because it’s time to show the industry this orchestra and what it can do.”

Carnegie Hall is where the world’s best artists and top orchestras go to perform. Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini both conducted there. Violinist Jascha Heifetz, just 16 years old, made his American debut on its stage. Pianist Van Cliburn triumphantly performed there after winning the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

Freire, who has performed in the 127- year-old hall four times previously, will join the Lehninger and the orchestra to perform music by their country’s most famous composer, Heitor-Villa Lobos.

“If we want to raise the profile of the orchestra in the industry, we have to go to New York,” said Lehninger, who previously conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra there in 2011. “I think we’re ready for the next step.”

But you can hear the entire program of Brazilian and Spanish-flavored music first in Grand Rapids at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students, for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Carnegie Hall Preview – Bolero Encore.

The programs in both Grand Rapids and New York City will end with Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears Your Heart) featuring the 140-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus directed by Pearl Shangkuan.

“Chôros” is a style of Brazilian music similar to a serenade.

“It was street music, very popular in the 1920s and 30s,” Lehninger said. “Villa-Lobos took it to its next step.”

Nelson Freire, who has appeared in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, is a childhood friend and, later, a musical colleague of Lehninger’s mother, Sônia Goulart, a noted pianist and teacher in her own right.

In 2016, Freire and Lehninger toured Australia, giving concerts with all of Australia’s most important orchestras, including in Sydney and Melbourne.

“I grew up listening to him playing,” Lehninger said. “We have almost a father-son relationship. He became a wonderful friend and mentor and someone I love deeply.”

Twice, Freire has shared the stage in Carnegie Hall with Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich in duo piano performances. But the Brazilian pianist is less of a household name than Argerich, arguably the most famous Latin-American concert pianist of all time.

“He’s kind of a kept secret. Everyone in the industry knows and respects him, but he never reached the celebrity status because he never wanted to,” Lehninger said. “But he’s played with the most important orchestras and in the most important cities all over the world.”

In fact, Freire recently was engaged to appear at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo on April 28 as a replacement for the previously scheduled pianist Murray Perahia.

Until recently, Freire was less inclined to make recordings, which is how many artists become well known. Nonetheless, he’s one of just 72 pianists featured on the 200-CD box set, Great Pianists of the 20th Century, issued by Phillips in 1999.

“He’s that phenomenal,” Lehninger said.

Freire will be soloist on two pieces, Spanish composer Falla’s Noches en los Jardines de España and in Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce.

Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a piece for piano and orchestra that Lehninger describes as a “poem with piano.”

“It’s not for the kind of soloist you’d expect when you play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff,” he said. “The piano is another instrument in the orchestra.”

Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce is a series of vignettes of children on parade, wearing costumes, and playing instruments, led by the Children’s Carnival King, called “Momo.”

“Villa-Lobos loved children,” Lehninger said. “He never had children, but he composed many pieces for, or inspired by, children.”

Several years ago, Lehninger led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in a performance of Momoprecoce with Freire at the piano. It was the first time the BSO had ever performed the work that captures a child’s impressions of Brazil’s famous Carnival.

“It’s a unique program, which we chose as a good possibility to take to Carnegie Hall,” Lehninger said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lehninger led an exciting performance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, March 31, 2018

West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce names Grand Rapids Symphony its 2018 Non-Profit Champion

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has honored the Grand Rapids Symphony with its 2018 Non-Profit Champion Award for service to West Michigan’s Latino community.

The award was presented Thursday, March 21 at the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s annual Gala de Premios held at the JW Marriott. WOOD TV8’s Eva Aguirre Cooper served as emcee.

The award is given to an individual in the nonprofit sector or to a not-for-profit organization that has made a positive contribution to the Hispanic business community in West Michigan through business, entrepreneurial initiatives, education or professional growth.

Selected from a field of 10 individuals or organizations, the Grand Rapids Symphony was honored for its Gateway to Music, a network of 17 programs and access points for people of all ages to engage with live orchestral music.

“We were thrilled with this recognition, which confirms that our diversity and inclusion work in the Hispanic community is valued,” said Peter M. Perez, Grand Rapids Symphony President and CEO.

GRS Picnic Pops with Mariachi Vargas

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors Chairperson Chuck Frayer along with Vice President for Development Diane Lobbestael and Vice President for Marketing and Communications Denise Lubey attended the ceremony along with Perez.

Each award included an original work of art. The plaque given to the Grand Rapids Symphony depicted a saxophone, a keyboard, a double bass, a guitar and musicians, all in a colorful setting.

Gateway to Music, which services more than 86,000 people per year across 11 West Michigan counties, includes such programs as Symphony Scorecard, which provides concert tickets at no charge for people who receive financial assistance from the State of Michigan or who are members of the U.S. Armed Forces on active, reserve or guard duty. A related program, Free For Families, provides two complimentary tickets for children ages 7 to 18 in conjunction with one adult ticket purchased.

Gateway to Music, which partners with 230 schools in the region, also includes such educational programs as the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Fifth Grade Concerts. The West Michigan tradition dating back to 1944 brings up to 15,000 students to DeVos Performance Hall for a live orchestra concert tailored especially for elementary school-age students.

Gateway to Music includes the Mosaic Scholar program, which offers a music education to Hispanic and African-American teenagers. Students ages 12-18 receive free use of a musical instrument, free one-on-one private lessons with a professional GRS musician, free concert tickets along with music and other supplies through the Mosaic Scholarship.Grand Rapids Symphony’s efforts to serve West Michigan’s Latino community included an appearance by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán last August with the Grand Rapids Symphony for its D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops Series. Coming this season to Cannonsburg Ski Area will be a concert featuring percussionist Tito Puente Jr., son of legendary percussionist and composer Tito Puente, for an evening of mambo, merengue and more along with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The Grand Rapids Symphony, led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, present nine concert series each season, offering a wide variety of music and musical styles. More than 400 performances a year touch the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs.

Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses, and the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, which was held in March 2017 and returns in March 2019.

Grand Rapids Symphony also supplies the live orchestral music for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet in DeVos Performance Hall.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Recap: Marcelo Lehninger leads Grand Rapids Symphony in magnificent performance of 'Ein Heldenleben'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

In symphony orchestra concerts, it’s usually the soloists and conductors who get the lion’s share of the glory.

The virtuoso soloists are the aerialists, working without a net, flying high above the ground. The conductors are the ringmasters running the show and guiding the audience through the performance.

But this week, with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, all the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony were putting their heads into the mouth of the lion.

A Hero’s Life is everything and then some.

The stage was packed with musical heroes. A total of 102 instrumentalists, the biggest orchestra of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2017-18 season, filled the stage from end to end.

The Grand Rapids Symphony played magnificently under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, conducting a work by Strauss for the first time in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday, March 23. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24.

Ein Heldenleben was the sixth and final tone poem Strauss composed over 10 years in the 1880s and 1890s. A Hero’s Life was his final word on the subject of producing a lengthy, one-movement instrumental work that tells a story in music. He threw everything including the kitchen sink into it.

By everything, Strauss composed a semi-autobiographical piece about a hero who overcomes adversity and triumphs over his enemies. If it isn’t clear that Strauss was telling his own story, he quotes from nine of his previous compositions.

A performance is a big undertaking with eight horns, five trumpets, four oboes and a pair of tubas to perform. A total of 60 stringed instruments were on stage.

It’s also a big deal to perform. Ein Heldenleben is an enormously complex work with intricate and intriguing solos from nearly every principal player. Violins, at one point, have to turn their low G string down to G flat. Orchestral musicians spend lifetime learning and relearning excerpts to take auditions.

It takes a big, talented band of musicians just to get through it, let alone play it well. Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in one of his finest performances to date since his appointment as music director less than two years ago.

The opening section, “The Hero,” with all its swashbuckling glory, sent chills up your spine with Lehninger wielding his baton as Grail Knight might wield a lance, yet sculpting in sound a three-dimensional portrait of the hero.

The woodwinds were nimble but determined, cackling fiercely, as “The Hero’s Adversaries.”

A middle section is a portrayal of Strauss’ wife who sang professionally as a soprano. She was a complex woman, and though they had a successful marriage, it was a complicated relationship. Strauss, the master orchestrator, depicts Pauline in all her glory in the movement titled “The Hero’s Companion.”

Crawford, the master violinist, gave a captivating performance as the flirtatious, occasionally perverse, lady. It’s a solo that could keep a violinist from a good night’s sleep, but Crawford played it as if it were as easy as pie.

Off-stage trumpets played a brilliant fanfare to usher in the section titled “The Hero at Battle,” capped off by the thrilling horn theme from Don Juan.

Strauss in all his glory comes to the fore in the fifth section, “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” full of bits and pieces from his earlier tone poems and other works. It’s music that, when originally composed, wasn’t intended to go together, so good conducting matters. Lehninger skillfully wove the disparate threads into a remarkable coat of many colors.

The finale, “The Hero’s Retirement,” came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, wonderful rage giving way to sensuous sounds, brought home by a nostalgic duet between Crawford on violin and Richard Britsch on horn. The two instruments, in their natural setting, hardly balance, but Crawford and Britsch made it seem effortless.

Friday’s audience gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation that went on for several minutes.

Principal flutist Christopher Kantner was the other hero of the night as soloist in Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G Major. It’s the barnburner of all flute concertos. Every flute player who intends to have a professional career learns it.

It’s beautiful music, well composed, never mind that Mozart was in his early 20s when he wrote it. Kantner, meanwhile, was in his 20s when he joined the Grand Rapids Symphony as principal flutist in 1976.

A couple generations of concert goers in West Michigan have heard his solo work, but we’ll never get enough. Kantner’s flourishes were relaxed; his cadenzas were melt-in-your-mouth delights. A remarkable performance both angelic and masculine at the same time.

The concert opened with more Mozart, only this was music by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, a 20th century Brazilian composer who really was named “Mozart,” though he went by M. Camargo Guarnieri in life.

Guarnieri’s Abertura Festiva or Festive Overture might have been music that Bela Bartok would have composed had he moved to Brazil and spent his adult years there. It keeps its Latin American flavor but it’s well crafted.

It was an exhilarating opener. Lehninger’s performance was clean and propulsive, and the audience delighted in it.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, March 24, 2018
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