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Black Violin blows the roof off of sold-out DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids Symphony’s annual ‘Symphony with Soul’

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Black Violin has appeared with Alicia Keys at the Billboard Awards, won Showtime at the Apollo, and performed for second inauguration of President Obama. Now they’ve won the respect of Grand Rapids.

The hip-hop duo that plays string instruments joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 18th annual Symphony with Soul and a performance that blew the roof off of DeVos Performance Hall in more ways than one on Saturday, Feb. 16.

For openers, it was a sold-out show, a first for the Grand Rapids Symphony, which launched the yearly event, under a different name, in 2002.

But the lush strings of violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil B., coupled with a driving beat of a drummer and DJ, took the concert led by Associate Conductor John Varineau in an entirely new direction.

Black Violin’s “Impossible Tour” rolled into town for Symphony with Soul, which in the past has welcomed such artists as Lalah Hathaway, Take 6, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lizz Wright to DeVos Hall.

GR Symphony's 2019 'Symphony with Soul'

The Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus, directed by Duane Shields Davis, joined the orchestra for the concert that uses music to further the cause of diversity, equity and inclusion in West Michigan.

Black Violin’s 2015 album, Stereotypes, topped Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart while also reaching No. 4 on the R&B chart. That’s the appeal they have, and DeVos Hall was packed with regular Grand Rapids Symphony concert-goers as well as with first-timers at a Grand Rapids Symphony concert.

The stage, in fact, looked just like a rock concert with computer controlled lighting illuminating mist hovering in the air. It also sounded just like a rock concert with subwoofers sending sonic booms into the 2,400 seat auditorium.

Black Violin writes and performs plenty of original songs including Stereotypes, which opened their half of the show. Their song Dirty Orchestra started very clean and very classy before turning a little bluesy, a little more rhythmic, a little more dirty.

 A-Flat, which includes sampled sounds, put both Kev Marcus’ violin and Wil B.’s viola in the solo spotlight. Songs such as Virtuoso just push the envelope with a driving beat.

Black Violin creates a musical mashup with melodies by Mozart, Vivaldi and Bach coupled with hip-hop rhythms and electronics. Mozart Cardi opened with the Grand Rapids Symphony playing a bit of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 as straight as can be before adding in Kev Marcus, Wil B, electronic effects and samplings from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow.

It’s hard to imagine how two distinctly different genres of music could be blended better.

The first half of the concert opened a rousing chorus of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, with everyone in the house standing to sing the 120-year-old song often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.”

Davis, who has been a part of the Symphony with Soul since its beginning, composed an ambitious original work for orchestra and chorus titled Soar on Wings like Eagles. With texts from Maya Angelou and the Book of Isaiah, it shares an important message, but the music with swinging rhythms packed a wallop with gospel fervor.

Keyboardist and singer Deborah Perry, another Symphony with Soul veteran, led the chorus and orchestra in a lovely gospel melody, Beautiful Song, and Dr. Cad W. Shannon took the solo vocalist spotlight with chorus and orchestra to sing Love Lead the Way to close

A highlight was a performance of Voices Shouting Out, composed in 2002 by African-American composer Nkeiru Okoye. Born in New York to a Nigerian immigrant father and an African-American woman, Okoye set out to compose a remembrance of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks of the previous year. Rather than a work of sorrow, it evolved into a hymn of celebration, drawing on elements of classical music and hip-hop, with hints of Leonard Bernstein and traditional Yoruba music among other styles.

It’s an inspiring and uplifting work, and it was given an inspiring and uplifting performance.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, February 18, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony's annual 'Symphony with Soul' featuring Black Violin is sold out

Violinist Kevin Sylvester and violist Wilner Baptiste went to college to study classical music. Today both are professional musicians, but neither wear white tie and tails on stage.

As Black Violin, “Kev Marcus” and “Wil B.” break down stereotypes and cultural barriers, one gig at a time.

“If you come to our show and look at the stage before, you would sear it was two guitarists performing,” Will B. told the Mercury News recently. “There’s a ton of pedals and gear, tools that add to the creativity and helps us connect to the audience in a way that classical music rarely does.”

The classical and hip-hop crossover duo joins the Grand Rapids Symphony for its annual Symphony with Soul at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 16 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Associate Conductor John Varineau leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in the evening of gospel, spirituals, jazz, blues, and R&B, celebrating diversity and inclusion in West Michigan, featuring community musicians joins nationally renowned artists to perform for the wider community.

The show is sold out, a first in the 18-year history of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s special event celebrating musical diversity, equity and inclusion. Returned tickets may be available at the door.

Natives of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Kev Marcus and Wil B. went to separate colleges but reconnected after they returned home. Among other musical pursuits, they soon began covering hip-hop songs on their violins, something no performing artist had done before.

“We approach our artistry and our craft as pop singers or rappers. That’s how we move. It’s just we have violins in our hands,” Wil B. said recently in an interview with Grandeur magazine in Grand Rapids, just prior to the show in DeVos Hall.

In 2004, Black Violin was invited to appear with Alicia Keys at the Billboard Awards. The following year, two years after they first sent an audition tape to Showtime at the Apollo, they were invited to participate and promptly won the competition in 2005. Black Violin was on its way.

Black Violin, known for a “hard-hitting beat with lush string sounds,” has toured with Kanye West, Jay-Z and Linkin Park and has collaborated with Aerosmith, Wynton Marsalis and Elvis Costello. In January 2013, they performed for President Barack Obama at his Second Inauguration.

Symphony with Soul also features the Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus, a vocal ensemble that sings in the gospel tradition, led by Duane Shields Davis.

Performers for Symphony with Soul include young musicians from the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholarship Program for talented African-American and Latinx students. The program provides teenage students with one-on-one lessons with a professional musician from the Grand Rapids Symphony plus with instrument rental, music, supplies, and tickets to Grand Rapids Symphony concerts.

Opening the program is the anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” First performed in 1900 by a group of 500 school children for President Lincoln’s birthday celebration, the cherished song of the Civil Rights Movement is the traditional opener for the community celebration in DeVos Hall.

Each year, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony with Soul is preceded by Celebration of Soul, a gala dinner honoring the accomplishments of individuals and organizations in the community that emphasize and celebrate the importance of cultural awareness and inclusion in West Michigan.

This year’s recipients of the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award are architect, business owner and jazz musician Isaac V. Norris; Grand Rapids Symphony Associate Conductor John Varineau; and retired educator, photographer and musician Noel Webley II. Each are leaders in successfully advancing multiculturalism and multicultural awareness in their profession or industry and are role models of consistent, creative encouragement in the community to become more culturally competent.

A limited licensed psychologist, licensed counselor and college professor, Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp was co-pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, along with her husband, gospel artist Marvin Sapp. Prior to her death in 2010, Dr. Sapp was awarded the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Celebration of Soul Legacy Award. The award was renamed posthumously in her honor.  

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students for Symphony with Soul. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Recap: 'Tchaikovsky Festival's' Russian music warms American hearts in Grand Rapids Symphony's performance

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

‘Tis the season for Russian music.

For several weeks now, the snow and ice that has fallen had made West Michigan feel less like the Great Lake State and more like the Russian steppes. Mother Nature demands we embrace it, and so we shall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus in Russian music to warm an American heart with two familiar works by Tchaikovsky and two largely unknown to orchestral audiences.

Cellist Andrei Ioniță joined the orchestra for a delightful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme on Friday, Feb. 8. Lehninger ended the evening with a brilliant performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in DeVos Performance Hall.

The program in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students.

Ioniță is Romanian, but he’s also winner of the cello division of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition in which playing Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations is required. If his Tchaikovsky is good enough for Moscow, it’s good enough for Grand Rapids.

Truthfully it was more than good enough.

The Rococo Variations are a joy to experience. Tchaikovsky revered Mozart among all other composers, and the 19th century Russian paid homage to the 18th century German with music that is Romantic yet with a light touch.  A simple, little theme in the cello is followed by seven variations of increasing complexity. It’s a sparkling panorama technical pyrotechnics and lush lyricism.

Ioniță plays with passion and warmth. His florid passages appear light-hearted but substantial at the same time. This time of year, you expect coughing and sneezing in a full house. Yet the cellist, hunched over his instrument while executive a difficult passage, would complete it, lift his eyes to the audience, and pause in complete silence before resuming the next phrase.

Ioniță followed that Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile for Cello and Orchestra, an arrangement Tchaikovsky created from the second movement of his First String Quartet. With its principal theme drawn from a Ukrainian folk song, it was a crowd pleaser from its premiere. It is said that a performance once brought the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to tears.

At just 8 minutes in length, it functioned rather like a planned encore with orchestral accompaniment.

Where the Rococo Variations often are virtuosic prose, the Andante is lyrical poetry. Ionia made beautiful music with it.

The 25-year old cellist, largely based in Europe, is just starting his performing career in the United States. No doubt, it will be a successful one.

Over nearly 90 concert seasons, the music of Tchaikovsky has figured prominently in the repertoire of the Grand Rapids Symphony. And of all the repertoire by the Russian master, the orchestra has played no concert work by Tchaikovsky more frequently that the Symphony No. 4. Influenced by a disastrous marriage and an attempted suicide, with its theme of fate.

It’s a warhorse’s warhorse, but the performance, simply put, was a highlight of the season.

Lehninger, conducting from memory, led a performance full of passion in the outer movements and precision in the scherzo. Muscular brass, balletic strings and sweet winds, all exciting and expressive, led to an outburst of applause at the end of the first movement.  A delightfully yearning solo by Assistant Principal Oboist Alexander Miller set the stage for the second movement, full of wistful melodies both pleasant and painful.

The finale simply flew out of the gate. Lehninger coaxed, massaged, nudged and maneuvered alternating themes with controlled intensity before unleashing the unbridled force of a powerful return of the Fate theme for a real roof-raiser of a performance.

Likely the Andante Cantabile for Cello and Orchestra never has been performed in Grand Rapids before. The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus joined the orchestra for a piece it’s likely few in the audience had ever heard of, let alone heard.

“At Bedtime,” a short setting of an evening prayer by poet Nikolai Ogartyov, is a work Tchaikovsky composed during his student days. Even at age 23, the Russian romanticism of the budding composer is apparent in the 7-minute piece with texts such as as “forgive our sins and relieve our burning suffering with your soothing breath.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, singing in Russian, gave an exceptional performance of the work that is dark and dominant though with a touch of optimistic sadness all at once. Originally composed for unaccompanied chorus, it is exposed music that offers an impassioned plea of one whose “soul is weather by the storms of the day.”

That’s an experience everyone within the sound of its hearing understood all too well.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 9, 2019

Tchaikovsky Competition winner joins Grand Rapids Symphony for all-Tchaikovsky concert

In all of classical music, few composers are more beloved than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Though the bombastic 1812 Overture and the enchanting ballet The Nutcracker are some of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, almost every note that poured from his pen remains popular with audiences.

Igor Stravinsky proclaimed Tchaikovsky to be “the most Russian of all composers,” but Tchaikovsky’s music has universal appeal. So much so that the Grand Rapids Symphony performs an all-Tchaikovsky concert on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 8-9.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads music of Tchaikovsky with “well-known and unknown pieces” as he put it.

Tchaikovsky Festival is at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW. “Inside the Music,” a free, pre-concert talk, begins at 7 p.m. Tickets for concerts in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical  start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to

Joining Grand Rapids Symphony is cellist Andrei Ioniţă to perform Tchaikovsky’s popular Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, which the late 19th century composer paid homage to the lighter 18th century music of Mozart and Haydn.

The Romanian cellist is Gold Medalist of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious music competitions.

“It was the most intense competition experience I’ve ever had, and I believe the other competitors would agree with me as well,” Ioniţă told the classical music blog Interlude shortly after his victory.

“It’s not necessarily the pressure from outside, from the jury, from the possibility of either winning or losing, from all the cameras or the thousands of people watching and following you,” Ioniţă added. “I would say that the pressure mostly comes from the inside – it becomes a battle with your own demons, with your fears, your pride.”

Ioniţă, who will make his Grand Rapids Symphony debut, also will perform Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile for Cello and Orchestra, an arrangement of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, which uses a Ukrainian folk song as one of its main themes.

“He’s a wonderful young cellist,” said Lehninger, who worked pervious with the 25-year-old musician.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will join the orchestra to sing a youthful, less familiar work titled “At Bedtime,” which Tchaikovsky composed during his student days.

Familiar music on the program on this weekend’s concerts includes Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, which reflects the composer’s disastrous marriage that would end in divorce less than a year later.

In a letter to his friend and supporter, Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky revealed the meaning behind his Fourth Symphony. “The introduction is the germ of the entire symphony, its central idea. This is Fate, the force that prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, that jealously watches to see that peace and happiness not be complete or unclouded. Successive new themes express growing discontent and despair. A sweet vision appears but bitter Fate awakens us. Life is a continuous, shifting, grim reality.”

The composer was pleased with the symphony and considered it to be some of his best work. Though in another letter to von Meck, Tchaikovsky couldn’t help but wonder of the fate of the symphony itself. “What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion?”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony unveils 2019-20 season with Itzhak Perlman, 'Ghostbusters' and 'Up,' Beethoven piano concertos and more

Nearly 90 years ago, on the final Saturday in 1929, a group of 51 men and women took the stage at Central High School and gave Grand Rapids the best Christmas present of all, the gift of music.

Karl Wecker, who taught at Grand Rapids Junior College, gave the downbeat to Franz von Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture, and the Grand Rapids Symphony was born.

Now under the leadership of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, West Michigan’s biggest performing arts organization celebrates its 90th anniversary season with a series of special events featuring musicians such as violinist Itzhak Perlman, making his first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony in more than 35 years.

Lehninger will conduct the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6, Schubert’s “Great” Symphony No. 9, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra among masterworks by Brahms, Wagner, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich for the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt will lead the Grand Rapids Pops in a tribute to Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and Adele titled Queens of Soul as well as a special salute to the music of the Fab Four with Revolution: The Beatles Symphonic Experience for the Fox Motors Pops series.

GR Symphony's 2019-20 90th anniversary season

By the numbers, Grand Rapids Symphony’s 90th anniversary season will feature:

  • Six-world class pianists including Olga Kern, Gold Medalist at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

  • Five films plus live music including the 1984 hit film Ghostbusters and the 2009 Disney/Pixar film Up.

  • Four guest conductors including Peter Oundjian, who recently stepped down as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra.

  • Three musical works composed by women from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Two Broadway stars, Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway, who appeared in their own hit cabaret show, Sibling Revelry.

  • And one new work by 2018 ArtPrize artist Daniel Leo, commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“We’re celebrating the Grand Rapids Symphony and its artistic accomplishments,” Lehninger said. “We wanted to make sure every program is really exciting and really special. That’s the real idea behind the season.”

The 10-concert Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series begins with violinist Augustin Hadelich, possibly the most frequent guest soloist in Grand Rapids Symphony history, returning for his sixth appearance with the orchestra to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein will be back in DeVos Hall to perform all five of Beethoven’s Concertos for Piano with Lehninger and the Grand Rapids Symphony. The 2010 Gilmore Artist of the Irving S. Gilmore Keyboard Festival will play all five over two consecutive nights.

Another Gilmore laureate, pianist Ingrid Fliter, will return to Grand Rapids to perform two piano concertos, one by Mozart and one by Schumann, on the same program. The special-event appearance by the 2006 Gilmore Artist will lead into the 2020 Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, directed by Pearl Shangkuan, will join the orchestra for a performance of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” in the fall and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in the spring. The monumental performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony will include two soloists and an ensemble of 100 musicians on stage plus two off-stage orchestras.

Olga Kern, who in 2001 became the first woman in more than 30 years to win the Gold Medal at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, will make her Grand Rapids Symphony debut as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 as part of an all Tchaikovsky concert.

Pianist Jeffrey Kahane, a favorite accompanist of Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw and Joshua Bell and a conductor who presided over the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for 20 years, returns to Grand Rapids to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22.

One of the greatest violinists of our time, Itzhak Perlman has performed for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, for a State Dinner at the White House honoring Queen Elizabeth II, and twice for St. Cecilia Music Center’s Great Artist Series including the series debut in 1987. But he hasn’t appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony since 1983. The Israeli-American violinist and conductor will be joined by his student, violinist Randall Goosby, to perform J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.

The six-concert Fox Motors Pops series will feature the best of Broadway musicals, hit songs from Hollywood films, and much more in in 2019-20.

“We’re sure everyone will like one show,” Bernhardt said. “But we hope you’ll like them all.”        

Songs by the Fab Four return to DeVos Hall in Revolution: The Beatles Symphonic Experience with live music transcribed from the original Abbey Road master recordings plus video, animation and hundreds of rare and previously unseen photos from the archives of the Beatles official fan magazine, The Beatles Book Monthly.

Broadway stars Liz Callaway, the singing voice of Anya/Anastasia in the animated film Anastasia and of Princess Odette in The Swan Princess, and Ann Hampton Callaway, who wrote and sang The Nanny Named Fran, the theme song of the TV show The Nanny, will join the orchestra for musical theater showstoppers from West Side Story to Wicked. Music from such popular films as Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, Rocky and The Pink Panther will feature film clips and still images in a show titled Hollywood Hits.

Associate Conductor John Varineau will be on the podium for several full-length films plus live musical accompaniment including not one but two films in the Harry Potter Film Concerts Series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, plus an encore performance of Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin.

The three-concert Gerber SymphonicBoom Series will welcome back Cirque de la Symphonie for the 11th time and its 10th consecutive performance of Cirque de Noël, sponsored by Old National Bank.

Grand Rapids Symphony’s own will be featured soloists during the 90th anniversary season. Principal cellist Alicia Eppinga will be soloist in Haydn’s Concerto for Cello No. 1 in C major in DeVos Hall. Principal bassoonist Victoria Olson, who was appointed in 2017, will make her solo debut with the orchestra to perform Mozart’s Concerto for Bassoon in B-flat Major in St. Cecilia Music Center.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s PwC Great Eras and Porter Hills Coffee Classics series in St. Cecilia will welcome marimbist Ji Su Jung, winner of the Houston Symphony’s 2018 Ima Hogg Competition, as soloist in a contemporary Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra.

Grand Rapids Bach Festival Artistic Director Julian Wachner, who will be in Grand Rapids next month for the 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival happening March 17-24, will return next season for a concert of Baroque music including J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and G.F. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Season tickets are on sale now with select concerts, including the special events with Itzhak Perlman and Ingrid Fliter, on sale to subscribers at a substantial discount.

Subscriptions are available at discounts of up to 27 percent off Classical Series tickets and 17 percent off Pops Series tickets for new subscribers.

Current subscribers have until April 11 to renew their subscriptions, also at substantial discounts. Single tickets go on sale beginning July 29.

Tickets are available at the Grand Rapids Symphony ticket office, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100.

Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, February 1, 2019

Trumpeter Byron Stripling returns to GR Pops stage with 'Ragtime, Blues and All that Jazz'

The great jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong spent his life traveling the world as an ambassador for the musical form that’s America’s greatest contribution to the arts.

Trumpeter and singer Byron Stripling has lived a similar life, performing the timeless music in the style originated by Armstrong and his contemporaries.

“Nothing can ever get old in jazz, because it’s meant to be felt differently all the time,” Stripling said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky in December 2017.

“When I played in Count Basie’s band, we were probably on the road almost 200 days a year, and it never felt old. We played ‘April in Paris’ every night. We played ‘One O’Clock Jump’ every night. Not only did I hear them and feel them as something new at each show; I actually felt I was part of the experience.”

“It’s hard to get bored when the spontaneity is always there,” he added.

You won’t be bored either with Stripling on stage with the Grand Rapids Pops for a show titled “Ragtime, Blues and All That Jazz with Byron Stripling” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 25-26, plus a matinee at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27 in DeVos Performance Hall.

His last appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony was for an electrifying and heartfelt tribute to Louis Armstrong in January 2016. He returns to DeVos Hall for his fourth appearance with the Grand Rapids Pops.

Tickets for the Fox Motors Pops series show start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 or go online to

Stripling’s performance showcases ragtime masters such as Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and blues legends such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters. The show features keyboardist Bobby Floyd who formerly toured with both Ray Charles and with the Count Basie Band.

Stripling was a freshman at Eastman School of Music in Rochester when trumpeter Clark Terry visited the school. Impressed his Stripling’s abilities, Terry invited the 20-year-old musician to tour with him for six weeks in Europe followed by three weeks in the United States.

At age 26, Stripling appeared as Louis Armstrong in the traveling musical show “Satchmo,” touring the country for five months.

Formerly lead trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Thad Jones and Frank Foster, Stripling also has toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and many other jazz greats.

Since his Carnegie Hall debut with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops, Stripling has become a well-known soloist and has been featured with many prominent big bands and orchestras across the world. He has soloed with the Boston Pops, the National Symphony, at the Hollywood Bowl, and on the PBS television special, “Evening at Pops,” with conductor John Williams.

Born in Georgia to a father who was a classically trained professional singer and gospel choir director, Stripling grew up all over the country. In the mornings, his father listened to classical music. But in the evenings, he preferred jazz, so Stripling grew up listening to recordings of such trumpeters as Terry and Gillespie as well as Miles Davis and, of course, Louis Armstrong.

Today, Stripling leads his own quartet. He’s also the artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, one of the oldest continuing jazz ensembles in the country with a regular concert season and multiple performances of each show.

He’s also able to coach younger players the way the legendary players of the past once taught him.

“I’m so fortunate because I caught the tail of the big band era,” Stripling told Columbus Monthly in 2014. “As I would play with these guys, these leaders, they would pass away. That’s one of the great things I’m able to do now. It’s so important for me to pass that on, because I’m not going to be here forever, either.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony heats up winter with sizzling Spanish and Latinx music

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Winter definitely has arrived in Michigan, but if you were in the audience with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, it was easy to forget the chilly winds and flurries headed our way.

Sizzling Spanish music by Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo and lush Latinx music by Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera filled an evening with music to warm every heart in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday, Jan. 18.

In short, it was just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to January in Michigan.

The Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series welcomed the sensational Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas back to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s stage. A concert titled “Rhythm of the Dance” naturally needs dancers. Members of Grand Rapids Ballet were part of the show as well.

See it again at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets for Rhythm of the Dance, beginning at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available.

GR Symphony's Rhythm of the DanceMusic by Spanish and Latinx composers has played a small part in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s repertoire in its nearly 90-year history. Under Brazilian-born Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, that’s changing dramatically.

Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is the world’s best-known, best-loved concerto for guitar and orchestra. Inspired by the gardens of the Spanish royal palace at Aranjuez, it’s full of exciting flamenco rhythms, beautiful melodies and flashy guitar solos. You just can’t listen to it without visualizing it in your mind.

It’s also a thoroughly Spanish work, and hearing a Spanish guitarist bring it to life is a rare treat.

Villegas is a commanding presence on stage as well as an accomplished artist who makes difficult music seem effortless while appearing to have the time of his life performing.

The key to a great performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez is the guitarist has to go the extra mile, make a leap of faith, and trust that the conductor and orchestra will follow. Friday’s performance was an amazing partnership between Villegas and Lehninger that spoke to the humble origins of the guitar and to Rodrigo’s folk-flavored melodies set against the loftier canvas of a well-crafted work for a symphony orchestra.

The first movement is just pure fun to listen to. The achingly beautiful second movement, featuring a gorgeous English horn solo by Kathleen Gomez, unfolded like the sun breaking through the clouds on a gray day. The third movement hummed with energy and expression.

For an encore, Villegas played a waltz from his home in northern Spain that celebrates the harvest. In reality, it’s a set of variations of increasing complexity in which he plays melodies entirely on harmonics or embedded within chords while transforming his guitar into a snare drum and other percussion instruments. It was a performance that had Grand Rapids Symphony musicians craning their necks, straining to see just how the heck he was doing what he was doing.

Astor Piazzolla is to the tango what John Phillip Sousa is the march – the master against whom all others are compared.  Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Josue Justiz joined the orchestra to dance to “Oblivion” while Emily Reed, Levi Teachout and Nathan Young performed to “Primavera Porteña.”

Sultry and sensuous choreography by GRB Artistic Director James Sofranko was equal to the sultry and sensuous performance led by Lehninger. Between the visual and the aural, it was guaranteed to leave pulses pounding a little faster.

An absolute highlight of the evening Gabriela Frank’s Three Latin American Dances for Orchestra. A contemporary American composer of Peruvian descent, Frank’s makes masterful use of an orchestra to depict the environment. You can easily imagine yourself zip lining through the Amazon, surrounded by the sounds of falling rain, calling birds and even buzzing insects.

The final movement “Mestizo’s Waltz” paid homage to the ethnic and cultural diversity of Latin America with folk-flavored music that’s familiar but which Frank elevates into a higher level of musical experience.

The performance under Lehninger’s baton reveals intriguing possibilities for the future of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The program opened with Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 1 from his ballet “El Sombrero de tres picos” or “The Three-Cornered Hat,” a suite that the Grand Rapids Symphony appears to have only performed once previously.

Lehninger led a performance that was flowing, punctuated by insistent musical gestures that were expressive and varied. It kept the orchestra on its toes and the audience as well.

The evening ended with Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from “Estancia.” What Piazzolla was to urban life in Buenos Aires, Ginastera was to rural life in Argentina.

Lehninger led a fiercely rhythmic version of “The Land Workers” and a genteel performance of “Wheat Dance” that focused on orchestral color. The payoff was the final movement, “Malambo,” a frenetic, passionate, almost obsessively driven performance that led the audience to erupt in enthusiastic applause.

This fifth Classical Series concert in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season would be welcome any place, at any time. But especially in the middle of a Michigan winter.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 19, 2019

Enjoy Spanish and Latinx music with the Grand Rapids Symphony plus Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, Grand Rapids Ballet

If there’s one musical instrument that defines Spanish music, it’s the guitar.

If there’s one piece for guitar and orchestra that towers above all others for the genre, it’s Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

Finally, if there’s one guitarist who you really must hear play the work that was inspired by the gardens at the Royal Palace of Aranjuez in Spain, it’s Pablo Sáinz Villegas.

“He is an incredible Spanish guitarist, said Grand Rapids Symphony Marcelo Lehninger, who worked with Villegas last year in North Carolina.

Villegas, a past winner of the Andres Segovia Award as well as the first winner of the Christopher Parkening Guitar Competition, returns to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s stage for Rhythm of the Dance, a program of Spanish and Latinx music from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla Suite No. 1 from The Three-Cornered Hat at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 18-19 in DeVos Performance Hall.

A pre-concert conversation, “Inside the Music,” will be held at 7 p.m. Tickets for the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concert start at $18 for adults and $5 for students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to

The program includes Three Latin American Dances, a contemporary work written by Gabriela Lena Frank, a Grammy Award-winning American composer of Peruvian descent.

The Brazilian-born conductor also will lead the orchestra in Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia.

“It’s such a fun piece,” Lehninger said. The last movement makes you want to jump out of your seat.”

Having lost his sight at the age of 3, Rodrigo was a virtuoso pianist and gifted composer. Though he was not a guitar player himself, several of his works for guitar and orchestra are among the most beloved in the repertoire.

Composed in 1939 and premiered the following year, Concierto de Aranjuez includes one of the most hauntingly beautiful English horn solos in the symphonic repertoire. It was inspired by the gardens at the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the spring resort built by King Philip II in the latter half of the 16th century in the town of Aranjuez, 30 miles south of Madrid.

Pablo Sáinz Villegas, who performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony two years ago this month, returns to perform the concerto that transports audiences to another time and place.

“For me, the guitar is the most wonderful and expressive instrument,” Villegas told Billboard Magazine in 2016. “When I play a concert, people always say, ‘I never heard the guitar sound the way that you play it.’ And that is exactly what I am looking for. We’re talking about an emotional connection through the music using the guitar.”

Born and raised in La Rioja, Spain, a region full of wineries and bodegas in northern Spain, Villegas has shared the stage with such distinguished musicians as Plácido Domingo, who has described him as “the master of the guitar.”

Villegas’s work as an ambassador of the Spanish guitar has taken him across the globe, performing before members of the Spanish Royal Family as well as other heads of state and international leaders such as the Dalai Lama. He has received over 30 international awards.

Five dancers from Grand Rapids Ballet – Cassidy Isaacson, Emily Reed, Josue Justiz, Levi Teachout and Nathan Young – will join the orchestra on stage to dance to Two Tangos, Oblivion and Primavera Portena, by Piazzolla, the Argentinean master of the tango.

“It’s really wonderful when we can partner with other organizations in the community,” Lehninger said.

On his ninth birthday in 1910, Piazzolla received his first bandoneon, an instrument related to the accordion, that his father bought from a pawn shop for less than $20. Piazzolla soon mastered the instrument, performing the music of Bach, Mozart and Schumann as well as folk music of his homeland.

Intending to become a serious composer of classical music, Piazzolla spent a decade writing symphonies, piano concertos and chamber music. After winning a composers’ competition, he was given the opportunity to study with the famed French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, mentor to such composers as Aaron Copland and Philip Glass.

In a 1988 interview with the Washington Post, Piazzolla recalled presenting his work to Nadia Boulanger. “All of a sudden she says, ‘Why don't you play a piece of the music you write in tango? I'm very much interested.’ I played eight bars and she just took my two hands and put them against her chest and said, ‘This is Astor Piazzolla, this is the music you have to go on writing, not that. Throw that into the garbage.’”

“And that's what I did,” he continued. “I threw 10 years out of my life into the garbage. Now I write classical music, or symphonies, but always with a tango taste in it, trying the most to be Astor Piazzolla always.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony marks its 89th birthday on Jan. 11 with music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven

A century ago, the growing city of Grand Rapids needed a symphony orchestra of its own. Several failed attempts were made to organize and sustain an orchestra. But in the final days of 1929, a newly organized Grand Rapids Symphony gave the community the gift of music for Christmas.

Karl Wecker, who taught music at Grand Rapids Junior College, led the orchestra on Dec. 27 in music including Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant” Overture, the two movements of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, and Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz” in Central High School’s auditorium.

Two weeks later, with a successful concert under its belt, the Grand Rapids Symphony Society was officially organized on Jan. 11, 1930.

The Grand Rapids Symphony will celebrate its 89th birthday on stage on Friday, Jan. 11, performing the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in St. Cecilia Music Center.

Today, classical music from the late 18th century remains as popular as it was more than 200 years ago. But not only is the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven the heart of any orchestra’s repertoire, performing the transparent, unadorned music is fundamental to the development of any symphony orchestra.

“It’s so important for an orchestra to work on the classical repertoire. Every time we perform it, the orchestra grows,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

Lehninger will lead the orchestra in The Classical Concert: Viennese Masters, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No. 89, to commemorate the orchestra’s 89th season. The 39-year-old conductor also will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.

The PwC Great Eras series concert will open at 8 p.m. in Royce Auditorium with the overture from Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus.

A one-hour version of the evening program will be performed earlier that day at 10 a.m. Doors open for The Classical Coffee Concert at St. Cecilia Music Center at 9 a.m. for an hour of complimentary coffee and pastries. The concert is part of the Porter Hills Coffee Classic series.

Highlights of the evening concert will be given at 10 a.m. that morning The Classical Coffee Concert, part of the Porter Hills Coffee Classic series, a one-hour program held without intermission. Doors open at 9 a.m. for complementary coffee and pastry.

At the end of the 18th century, continuing into the 19th century, Vienna was the music capital of Europe. It’s where Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all lived and worked for at least part of their careers. Not surprisingly, they also all knew each other.

Haydn was old enough to be Mozart’s father, but they were friends and colleagues for about seven years, occasionally playing string quartet music together, until Mozart’s untimely death in 1791 at age 35. Each admired the other’s music. Haydn declared on a number of occasions that Mozart was the greater composer of the two. Mozart, who later dedicated six string quartets to “Papa Haydn,” wrote that it was from Haydn that he had learned how to compose for string quartet.

The youthful Beethoven, who studied briefly under Haydn and almost certainly met Mozart, was influenced and inspired by both masters in his early works. Though he usually isn't thought of as a composer for theater, one of the big hits of the spring season in Vienna in 1801 was Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus, the only full-length ballet he ever composed.

As it turns out, both of the symphonies by Haydn and Mozart that are featured on this program were written almost at the same time. Haydn composed his Symphony No. 89 in 1787. Mozart completed his Symphony No. 39 months later in June 1788.

An eyewitness, Iwan Anderwitsch, who heard Mozart’s 39th Symphony a few years later in Hamburg in 1792, wrote afterward, “The opening is so majestic that it so surprised even the coldest, most insensitive listener and non-expert, that even if he wanted to chat, it prevented him from being inattentive, and thus, so to speak, put him in a position to become all ears.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, January 9, 2019

WOOD TV8 re-airs 'Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall' on Dec. 26

WOOD TV8 has a Christmas present for Grand Rapids Symphony fans.

If you missed its earlier broadcasts of “Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall,” you have a chance to see it again.

The NBC-TV affiliate’s half-hour TV special airs again at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 26, on WOOD TV8.

Last April, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus to New York City for a performance in Carnegie Hall that featured special guest pianist Nelson Freire.

WOOD TV8 traveled to the Big Apple with the Grand Rapids Symphony and captured behind-the-scenes highlights for a documentary that first aired in June. It was re-broadcast a second time in early September on WXSP-TV, an affiliate of WOOD TV8.

GR Symphony at Carnegie Hall 2018

Now’s your chance to see Lehninger, who previously led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, and Freire, who made his fifth appearance in the 127-year-old auditorium, talk about the Grand Rapids Symphony’s second appearance in the celebrated hall with music including Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, whose director, Pearl Shangkuan, also had conducted and sung previously in Carnegie Hall, made its debut singing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears your Heart).

The 134-voice chorus also joined the orchestra to sing Gabriel Faure’s Pavane in F-sharp minor as an encore for the audience of over 2,300.

Eva Aguirre Cooper, Community Affairs Director at WOOD TV8, accompanied the Grand Rapids Symphony to New York City for the two-day trip, taking viewers behind the scenes from rehearsals to receptions, including interviews with musicians, conductors, audience members and a brief appearance by members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus on NBC-TV’s “Today Show” with Hoda Kotb.

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

Hundreds of supporters, patrons and fans traveled from Grand Rapids to New York City for the Carnegie Hall performance on Friday, April 20. Hundreds more from the New York City area were special guests of the Grand Rapids Symphony thanks to its Symphony Scorecard program.

Special guests also included Mauro Vieira, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations, and Frederico S. Duque Estrada Meyer, Deputy Permanent Representative, both based in New York City.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, December 22, 2018
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