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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Reimaginings - GR Bach Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countertenor Daniel Taylor sang the Quoniam Tu Solus with buoyancy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, March 25, 2019

Singer goes on stage with Grand Rapids Symphony hours after winning $10,000 Keller Award at Grand Rapids Bach Festival

Singers participating in the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival’s inaugural Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award were promised a $10,000 cash prize meant to encourage and promote their careers as professional singers.

Contestants also were told they may be offered a future appearance with the biennial festival created by Linn Maxwell Keller in 1997.

For soprano Nola Richardson, winner of the first Keller Award, that future appearance came less than two-and-a-half hours later with The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Grand Rapids Symphony on Thursday, March 21.

Richardson, 32, of New York City, was awarded the $10,000 prize that afternoon following the second and final round of competition in Grand Rapids as part of the 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, led by Artistic Director Julian Wachner.

In presenting the Keller Award, countertenor Daniel Taylor, chairman of the jury, said that Richardson had performed “with a sense of undeniable joy.”

GR Bach Festival 2019 Keller Award winner

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, a singer previously engaged to perform Thursday evening with the Grand Rapids Symphony had to cancel her appearance in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in A Major as part of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

On Thursday afternoon, Richardson, had sung the soprano aria, “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” from the Bach Mass in A Major as one of her three competition selections.

Though Wachner was not one of the judges for the Keller Award, he had served as master of ceremonies at the competition’s semifinal round on Tuesday and at its final round on Thursday, both held in the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Grand Rapids.

“Upon her winning the award at 4:30 p.m., I said to Nola, ‘You have a gig tonight,’” said Wachner, who also is Director of Music and Arts at New York City’s famous Trinity Church Wall Street.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Richardson joined three other soloists, The Choir of Trinity Wall Street from New York City, and the Grand Rapids Symphony in a concert before a full house in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Grand Rapids.

Praised by the New York Times for her “beautiful tone” and the Washington Post for her “astonishing balance and accuracy,” “crystalline diction” and “natural sounding ease,” soprano Nola Richardson has performed Bach’s Cantata No. 51 and Scarlatti's Su le Sponde del Tebro with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; “Simply Sondheim” with the Boston Pops; and Handel's Messiah with the Colorado Symphony.

Richardson participated in the premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Carroll in Numberland alongside soprano Dawn Upshaw at Tanglewood, and she made her Kennedy Center debut in Handel’s Radamisto with Opera Lafayette. With Yale Schola Cantorum, she’s performed Arvo Part’s Passio on tour to Russia, Estonia and Latvia.

The native of Australia was a top prizewinner in the Audrey Rooney Bach, the Bethlehem Bach, and the Handel Aria Competitions, and she as appeared with the American Bach Soloists, Seraphic Fire, Clarion, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the American Classical Orchestra, the Colorado Bach Ensemble, and the Blue Hill Bach Festival.

Mezzo soprano Linn Maxwell Keller, who graced international concert halls and opera houses in her career, sang at major Bach festival throughout the United States including the Oregon Bach Festival under Helmuth Rilling. In 1997, she founded the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival as a week-long, community celebration of the music of J.S. Bach.

In memory of Keller, who died in 2016, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival established the $10,000 Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award. The inaugural competition, to encourage and support gifted, young singers in pursuit of professional careers in music, made its debut at the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival, running March 17 through March 24 in Grand Rapids.

Six singers, all between age 18 and 34, performed in two rounds of competition in the Cathedral of Saint Andrew. The jury of countertenor Daniel Taylor, baritone Stephen Salters, and Lori Lee Curly, president of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival’s Board of Directors, unanimously chose Richardson as the winner of the inaugural Keller Award.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, March 22, 2019

Young singers compete for $10,000 Linn Maxwell Keller Award at 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival

Linn Maxwell Keller loved to sing, and she did it well. During a long and successful career, she graced stages from Grand Rapids to the grand opera houses of major European cities.

The founder of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival also sang in major Bach Festivals throughout the United States, including the Oregon Bach Festival under Helmuth Rilling.

In memory of Keller, who died in 2016, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival established the $10,000 Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award. The inaugural competition, to encourage and support gifted, young singers in pursuit of professional careers in music, brings six singers to Grand Rapids this week for the 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

“This is a major, monetary gift or award, particularly for a singer,” said Julian Wachner, Artistic Director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

GR Bach Festival Keller Award

Six singers, all between age 18 and 34, will perform in two rounds of competition in the Cathedral of St. Andrew. A semi-final round at 2 p.m. Tuesday March 19, will select finalists who will advance to the final round at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 21.

Both performances are open to the public with free admission. The $10,000 Keller Award will be announced at the end of the final round.

The four women and two men coming to Grand Rapids include one singer who originally is from Australia and another originally from Japan.

The six singers are:

Soprano Nola Richardson, who has performed with American Bach Soloists and Seraphic Fire and was a top prizewinner in the Bethlehem Bach and Handel Aria competitions.

Soprano Motomi Tanaka, who has appeared with the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra and Chorus and was a featured Young Artist with ARTEK’s Madrigal Madness in New York City.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Myers, who has been a studio artist with the Boulder Bach Festival Chamber Ensemble and debuted with Eklund Opera in the title role in Handel’s Ariodante.

Mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, a  prize winner at the Thomas Quasthoff’s International Das Lied Competition in Heidelberg, Germany, and a finalist in the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition in London.

Tenor Scott Brunscheen, who performs regularly with Haymarket Opera as well as with Chicago Opera Theater, Long Beach Opera and the Caramoor Bel Canto Festival.

Baritone Clayton Kennedy, who is a frequent soloist in Arte Musica Foundation’s series The Complete Cantatas of J.S. Bach, and who has been a soloist with Ensemble Caprice and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

“We’ve had so much interest, and we have a fantastic slate of semi-finalists from all over North America,” Wachner said.

Linn Maxwell Keller’s original vision for the Grand Rapids Bach Festival included not only performances but also educational opportunities, which led to the creation of the $10,000 prize.

The mezzo-soprano originally from Indiana eventually would sing in Bach festivals in Carmel and in Rochester among other places.. But her career received a major boost when she won the “Joy in Singing” Competition in 1976, which included a debut performance in Alice Tully Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“That’s what launched her career,” said her husband, Fred Keller. “It’s the element that gave her the credibility she needed, and she always was very grateful for that opportunity.”

Over 150 memorial gifts and donations from friends, family and fellow musicians were contributed to establish the prize, which will be awarded at future Grand Rapids Bach Festival’s in Keller’s memory.

“The idea of having an award named after Linn honors that with the potential to boost another singer’s career,” Keller said. “Our family is thrilled to be able to honor and recognize Linn now and in the future.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Recap: Grand Rapids Bach Festival opens with Julian Wachner and an amazing evening of organ music

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

During his lifetime, Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t well-known as a composer. But in the region of Germany in which his last name was synonymous with musician, Bach was widely regarded as the greatest organist of his day.

In West Michigan, the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival opened with a magnificent solo organ recital by its new Artistic Director Julian Wachner. Some 450 people filled the Basilica of St. Adalbert for an amazing evening of music by Bach plus virtuoso organ works by Maurice Duruflé and Charles-Marie Widor.

The 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival promises eight days of wonderful music, including solo cantatas, choral music and solo organ recitals you’d naturally expect. But the festival that opened March 17 also includes MarimBach featuring Grand Rapids Symphony percussionists playing the music of Bach on marimbas.

Activities also include BachBends, a program of yoga to the music of Bach, and KinderBach, a play-based program for young children and adults. If that isn’t enough, six young singers on Tuesday and Thursday will compete for the $10,000 Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award.

But the first evening of the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival belonged to Wachner and the “King of Instruments.”

The program especially was a treat for the audience. Though the organist ion the Basilica of St. Adalbert is situated in the loft to the rear of the congregation, closed-circuit TV, using three cameras and three strategically placed screens, gave the listeners a close look at Wachner’s fingers and feet throughout the performance.

Much as Bach was Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig for the final 27 years of his life, supervising music at four churches in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, Wachner is director of music and arts at New York City’s famed Trinity Wall Street Church in the financial district of lower Manhattan.

Like Bach, Wachner also is a composer, and the Bach Festival will hear some of Wachner’s music on Thursday for a program titled Mass Reimaginings at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which will feature the 28-voice Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

And like Bach, Wachner is an accomplished virtuoso who performed an elegantly tasteful version of Durufle’s Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, and a show stopping performance of Widor’s Toccata from Symphonie No. 5, which made good use of the resources of St. Adalbert’s Wicks pipe organ.

Naturally, music by Bach filled a large portion of the program.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, is a work of considerable musical and theological significance, but Wachner proved to be a match for the florid artistry of the prelude, and he was a noble interpreter of the hymn tune commonly known as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

No less impressive was his performance of Bach’s Fantasia in G major, Piece d’Orgue, a three-part work, which Wachner imaginatively said implies three stages of life from childhood to adulthood to old age. The first part was a delightful section for manuals only, suggesting children at play. The dense, polyphonic middle section called to mind the challenges and complexities of maturity. The finale, growing softer with a slow, descending progression in the pedals called to mind the quiet of final years and the peaceful conclusion to a long life. Taken together it made for an interesting musical journey led by a master performer.

The program opened with a familiar melody, Wachner’s Fanfare Variations on Jean-Joseph Mouret’s Rondeau, which is well-known to viewers of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece.

Bach in his day was renowned as an improviser at the keyboard. It’s a tradition that Wachner not only continues to practice, he excels at as well.

Prior to the performance, he solicited written ideas from the audience for the promised performance. From them, he selected two themes with little in common for his “Improvisation in Three Movements.”

It opened with Irish hymn tune Slane, commonly known as Be Thou My Vision, in an imaginative interpretation of the traditional melody, often fragmented into bits that poked through the accompaniment. That segued into a sly, subversive improvisation on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which took the audience a while to catch on to until he made it crystal clear with an obvious statement of the melody using the organ’s chimes.

The finale, which blended the two incongruous melodies, was the most imaginative of all with a little of the former and a little of the latter. The audience loved it.

Prior to the performance, Wachner asked the audience to sing a verse of “Be Thou My Vision” and kicked it off. He was delighted to discover they not only could sing it, they were willing to do it.

“I’m not sure that would happen in New York City,” he said with a laugh.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Grand Rapids Bach Festival opens with eight days celebrating the music of J.S. Bach

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is transformative.

It has motivated the work of nearly every great composer to follow in the history of Western Classical music. It continues to inspire those who hear it more than 269 years after Bach’s death.

The 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, the first under its new Artistic Director Julian Wachner, returns this week with eight days with a week of concerts and activities celebrating the life and work of the composer whose music represents the pinnacle of the Baroque Era.

An affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival will present the inaugural Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award, a $10,000 cash prize in memory of Keller, an accomplished singer who founded the festival in 1997.

Julian Wachner, a keyboardist, conductor, composer and a Grammy nominated recording artist, serves as Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s historic Trinity Church Wall Street, and Wachner will bring his 28-voice choir to Grand Rapids during the eight-day festival opening March 17. The Bach Festival Artistic Director chair is sponsored by John & Mary Loeks | Studio C.

“Bach has been a lifelong fascination and passion of mine,” said Wachner, who grew up in a musical family. “I started playing Bach before I could speak.”

2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival

New York City’s Trinity Church Wall Street is famous. The church founded in 1697 was the setting for the climax of the 2004 film National Treasure. Its St. Paul’s Chapel, located across the street from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, has become a pilgrimage site since 9/11.

Under Julian Wachner, Trinity Church Wall Street also has a rich musical tradition, performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach not just a couple times a year but each and every week.

“We’ve done all of the choral and orchestral music of Bach, all 200 cantatas, and all the huge masterworks as well,” said Wachner, Director of Music and Arts and Trinity Church.

The 12th biennial festival, the first under Wachner as Artistic Director, is underway this week with concerts and activities celebrating the life and work of the composer whose music represents the pinnacle of the Baroque Era.

Guest artists include countertenor Daniel Taylor, a Sony Classical artist, who appears on more than 100 recordings; and organist Isabelle Demers, back by popular demand following her appearance at the 2017 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

“There have been incredible artists who have joined the Festival including pianist Angela Hewitt and the Bach Collegium Japan under the direction of Maestro Masaki Suzuki,” Wachner said. “It is an incredible honor to follow in all of their footsteps in being part of this wonderful festival.”

Julian Wachner, a keyboardist, conductor, composer and a Grammy nominated recording artist, also gives a solo Organ Recital at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 18, in the Basilica of St. Adalbert with music of Bach plus virtuoso organ music by Maurice Duruflé and Charles-Marie Widor.

Mass Reimaginings at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church features a performance of Bach’s Mass in A Major, which is notable for featuring two flutes along with countertenor Daniel Taylor, bass-baritone Dashon Burton, and choir and orchestra. It’s one of four Lutheran masses Bach composed later in life by drawing upon music he had written previously and replacing the texts.

“I actually see is that Bach was, toward the end of his life, trying to select his ‘best of’ album,” Wachner said. “’These are my favorite cantata movements that I wrote over a lifetime, and I want to memorialize them.”

Wachner also will lead the orchestra in his own Epistle Mass, composed for Trinity Church Wall Street.

In addition to the mass sung by choir, baritone Stephen Salter sings a new text by Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Royce Vavrek.

“It’s a letter from the last person on earth, to a future alien race, should they happen to find it,” Wachner said. “It’s apocalyptic, but joyfully so.”

The Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street travels to Grand Rapids for the performance.

“We’re so happy that we were able to make this collaboration possible,” Wachner said. “It seemed like the logical thing to do, and Trinity was very happy to be a part of it.”

Bach Magnificat, the festival finale concert at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, in the Basilica of St. Adalbert includes Bach’s setting of the Magnificat in D Major with guest soloists including soprano Molly Netter, tenor Brian Giebler, joined by Taylor and Burton.

“The Magnificat is an incredibly virtuoso work, filled with so many emotions and feelings and colors and orchestrations,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece.”

Also on the program is Bach’s Cantata No. 110, “May Our Mouth Be Full of Laughter.” It’s another piece of that Bach adapted from an earlier work. Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience that attended last October’s Baroque Concert: Bach and Beyond will recognize the opening of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, which GRS Music Director Marcelo Lehninger conducted in St. Cecilia Music Center.

“I thought it would be very interesting for people to hear that same music dressed up in a slightly different way, with added text,” Wachner said. “And once you hear it with added text, it’s hard to imagine that it exists as a purely instrumental work.”

Four acclaimed vocal soloists join the Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus for the program.

“They’re fantastic. They’re great,” Wachner said of the chorus. “And their director, Pearl Shangkuan, is world famous. Not everyone in Grand Rapids knows that, but she is.”

Among other concerts, the Grand Rapids Symphony percussion section presents MarimBACH, an evening of 18th century music on marimbas and other mallet instruments, at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 19, in Fountain Street Church.

The 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival welcomes back French-Canadian organist Isabelle Demers for a solo recital at 12 noon on Wednesday, March 20, in Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids.

Three guest vocal soloists, soprano Molly Netter, countertenor Daniel Taylor, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, will perform three cantatas by Bach for a program titled Noontime Bach at 12 noon on Friday, March 22, in First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids.

Besides musical performances, “Bach in the City” will include such activities as BACHBends yoga and KinderBACH for young children and adults. Locally, the Donut Conspiracy and Love’s Ice Cream have created special, limited-time taste treats especially for the 12th biennial festival.

A special $40 Bach Pass, in addition to priority seating at all concerts and entry to two exclusive post-concert receptions, includes discounts at local restaurants including MeXo Restaurant, Littlebird Restaurant, and Linear Restaurant as well as at Apothecary Off Main on Monroe Center.

Organized in 1997 as a three-day celebration of the music of Bach, the first Grand Rapids Bach Festival engaged German organist, scholar and conductor Karl Hochreither, a noted authority on Bach’s church music, to serve as music director for several of the early festivals.

Linn Maxwell Keller died in 2016, but the Grand Rapids Bach Festival she founded lives on.

“It's established as long as the people of Grand Rapids want this festival,” Keller told The Grand Rapids Press in 2003. “As long as people are blessed by it and enjoy the music, it looks like we'll be around for a while.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, March 18, 2019

Gilmore Young Artist returns to Grand Rapids Symphony as piano soloist with Rachmaninoff's beloved Piano Concerto No. 2

Like so many other kids, George Li began piano lessons at age 4. Though it soon was clear he had a special gift, for years, it was just a hobby.

One day at age 11, while performing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, the Boston native had an epiphany.

“All of a sudden, in the middle of the performance I felt different,” he said in a 2018 interview with National Public Radio. “I was kind of transported in some other reality. And I felt all these emotions within the piece and within myself.”

That's when Li's light bulb switched on.

“After that moment I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” he said.

So far, the rest of his life has only been a dozen years, but they’ve been momentous.

Li, the Silver Medalist in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, returns to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage for a concert titled Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich on Friday and Saturday, March 15-16 at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance hall. 

Li will be soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the most popular works for piano and orchestra in the entire repertoire. 

“I’ve never worked with him, but I’ve heard such incredible things about him,” Music Director Marcelo Lehninger said recently.

Lehninger also will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The concerts open with Moxie, a short, satirical work by American composer Kristin Kuster.

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

Seven years ago, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants was named a Gilmore Young Artist of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Just 15 years old, the youngest-ever Gilmore Young Artist made his debut at age 16 with the Grand Rapids Symphony, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A for the symphony’s Rising Stars Series.

Three years later, Li took the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition. The following year, the pianist from Boston won an Avery Fisher Career Grant. In 2017, Warner Classics released his debut recording.

Two weeks ago, on Feb. 27, Li made a splash in Santa Barbara playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Russian National Orchestra on a U.S. tour. Two weeks from now, on March 27, he performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the London Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall under Vasily Petrenko.

Now 23 years old, Li just graduated from college – from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in music from New England Conservatory through a joint degree program.

Following a performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald praised his “overarching musical concentration that engendered clarity of shape and melodic lines of expressively calibrated nuance. When required, his playing is brilliantly virtuosic but that alone does not create the absorbing listening he and the SSO under David Robertson created.”

Lehninger said he’s looking forward to having the rising star back in Grand Rapids to perform the well-known piece.

“Every pianist plays it,” Lehninger said. “So I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do with it.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, March 14, 2019

GR Symphony's 'Celebration of Soul' gala honors three for a lifetime of service to diversity, equity and inclusion

Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp, a pastor and counselor, a psychologist and college professor, a wife and mother, was an inspiration to all of those whose lives she touched in a life that was all too-short.

In 2006, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched its annual Celebration of Soul Gala to honor members of the community who have worked tirelessly to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in West Michigan.

The 14th annual Celebration of Soul Gala, held Saturday, Feb. 16, honored three more individuals with the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award.

Architect and jazz musician Isaac V. Norris, conductor and educator John Varineau, and teacher, photographer and jazz musician Noel Webley Jr. were honored in the gala held at the JW Marriott’s International Ballroom.

GRS Celebration of Soul gala 2019

The concert preceded the 18th annual Symphony with Soul concert, with special guests, Black Violin, held in DeVos Performance Hall.

The threads that weave the three honorees together into the fabric of the Grand Rapids Symphony family are access and inclusion, said Grand Rapids Symphony President Mary Tuuk.

“Each in his own way has created and fostered an open-door policy connecting people through music,” she said. “Their legacy, along with the work of our past honorees, and our honorees yet to come, guides and inspires us as we expand access to orchestral music and increase music’s capacity to foster inclusion.”

Isaac V. Norris, for more than 25 years, has successfully owned and operated his own architectural firm, Isaac V. Norris and Associates, located in the urban core of Grand Rapids.

In his career, he has designed many facilities in the city such as The Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, The Rapid-BRT Transit Stations, the Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, and many local LEED-certified affordable housing developments.

A lifelong resident of Grand Rapids, Norris, while still attending Creston High School, interned for Judson Jones, who was the only African-American architect working in Grand Rapids. Following his mentor’s example, Norris has taken many other young architects under his wing.

“It’s hard to be what you cannot see,” Norris said more than once while accepting his award.

John Varineau, associate conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony and director of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, has been a part of the orchestra for 34 years.

He also has taught in most area colleges and continues to teach at Calvin College where he conducts the Calvin College Orchestra as well as the Calvin Community Symphony.

With former music director David Lockington, the late Cedric Ward, and others, Varineau was a co-founder of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s annual Symphony with Soul concert, an effort to begin bringing music to everyone in the community.

“David Lockington pushed us to understand what that word means – everyone,” Varineau said. “In these bitterly divisive times, let us celebrate the fact that art and music have the power to unite.”

Noel Webley Jr, a native of Grand Rapids, taught art in the Grand Rapids Public Schools for 33 years before retiring. In 1972, he began playing jazz bass in his father’s nightclub, and he continues to be an active musician in the area.

In 1984, his hobby of photography became another professional pursuit when he joined the staff of The Grand Rapids Press as a regular freelance photographer, shooting many Grand Rapids Symphony concerts and events over the years.

One of the many students he taught at Ottawa Hills High School over the years was MaLinda Sapp.

“Even at that age, she was one of the kindest and classiest young ladies,” Webley recalled.

The three join a long list of artists, musicians, educators, journalists, ministers, philanthropists, and social justice crusaders who have received the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award, among them Herschell Turner, Edye Evans Hyde, Bishop William Abney and Patricia Pulliam.

Such institutions as the Grand Rapids Urban League, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Baxter Community Center, Cherry Health, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and companies including Celebration! Cinema and Huntington Bank also have received the award.

In 2010, shortly before her death, MaLinda Sapp and her husband, Bishop Marvin L. Sapp, co-founders of Lighthouse Full Life Center Churches in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, were honored with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Legacy Award.

In her memory, the Grand Rapids Symphony named its Legacy Award after her.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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
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