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Recap: Tito Puente Jr., Grand Rapids Pops, turn Cannonsburg into ‘mambo mountain’ at D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Few people know the difference between mambo and salsa. Once the music starts, even fewer care.

No matter which style percussionist Tito Puente Jr. and the Grand Rapids Symphony played, the audience simply couldn’t sit still at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops on Thursday, Aug. 2.

I’ve been at the Picnic Pops for every year for its 24-year-history, and I don’t ever remember seeing so many people dancing at Cannonsburg.

“This is mambo mountain here tonight!” Puente Jr. told the cheering audience, and he was right.

Tito Puente Jr., son of the legendary Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente Sr., joined the Grand Rapids Pops for a hot and spicy evening of mambo, merengue and more made famous by the elder Puente Sr. who was known as “The King” or “El Rey.”

Whether that meant “The King of the Timbales” or “The King of Latin Jazz” or one of any number of possible titles bestowed on the elder musician from El Barrio in Spanish Harlem, Puente Sr. was a pioneering bandleader who not only bought Afro-Cuban jazz to mainstream America, he helped invent the genre.

Tito Puente Sr. died in 2000, but his music did not. Beginning with Mambo Gozon, Puente Jr. pounded out the same energetic, high-voltage entertainment from his timbales that his father once did.

GRS Picnic Pops with Tito Puente Jr.

Aside from a few departures, such as Cuando Calienta el Sol, made famous by Luis Miguel, the special-event concert at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops took audiences back to the days of the Palladium in New York City.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Pops in more than 90 minutes of energetic music full of percussion dogfights on tunes such as Ran Kan Kan, and blazing brass and sultry saxophones, including plenty of solos in the orchestra, on tunes such as Babarabatiri, another of Puente Sr.’s biggest hits.

Back in the day, Puente Sr. had such famous Cuban singers as Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymon, better known as “La Lupe,” and Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa,” on stage with him. Puente Jr. had Puerto Rican-born Melina Almodovar.

The singer known as “La Muñeca de la Salsa” or “The Doll of Salsa” was a sensation all her own, belting out Quimbara with all the fire and sass of Celia Cruz while lighting up the stage in a glamorous gown.

Oye Como Va was made famous by guitarist Carlos Santana’s 1971 recording, but Puente Sr. wrote it and recorded it a decade later. It was the final number of the night, and it brought the house down.

Puente Jr. told the audience at Cannonsburg he was inspired to carry on the work of his father who earned seven Grammy Awards, garnered 14 nominations, and played on hundreds of recordings.

Puente Sr.’s his final concert in April 2000 was with the Músicos de la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico in San Juan just a few weeks before his death.  

“I’m going to take it to the maximum level,” Puente Jr. recalled his father saying. “The symphonic level.”

That’s exactly what the Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops audience got at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Sunday, August 5, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Pops and Mickey Thomas rock Cannonsburg with '80s Rewind'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

When Mickey Thomas of Jefferson Starship first sang We Built This City in the 1980s, he was referring to rock 'n roll in San Francisco. When Thomas joined the Grand Rapids Pops for 80s Rewind, he was singing about orchestral pops as well as rock 'n roll for the community of West Michigan gathered at Canonsburg Ski Area.

Either way, Thomas and the Grand Rapids Pops were a big hit for the second concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.

The Grand Rapids Symphony remembered the 1980s, with music by George Michael, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, the Scorpions, and, of course, Jefferson Starship. Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in plenty of big hits by some of the biggest acts of the 1980s.

Thomas was the star of the show, but his backing band did a great job of rocking the hills at Canonsburg for an audience that was on its feet by the end of the night on both Thursday and Friday, July 19 and 20.

80s Rewind! at the GR Symphony Picnic Pops

Certainly, a celebration of music of the 80s could last for days, but in the 110-minute show on Thursday (a little shorter on Friday due to rain), the Grand Rapids Symphony and special guests served up plenty of the best of the 1980s with songs that had the audience singing along most of the night.

The funny thing about the show was that the performers singing songs of the 1980s were too young to remember the 1980s. In fact, vocalist Benjamin Caron told the audience he was born in 1987, which was good for a laugh. Nevertheless, it just goes to show that the best songs from that era are timeless and embraced by listeners spanning many generations.

Perhaps the most important skill for singers leading tribute shows is their ability to be musical chameleons, covering a wide range of singers. Christine LaFond especially was convincing with her interpretation of singers as diverse as Irene Cara and Grace Slick

Caron had the audience worked up early in the show channeling George Michaels singing Faith from his solo career as well as a lively version of Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Michaels’ first big hit with Wham! On the flip side, he gave a fair impression of Bono singing one of U2's biggest hits on With Or Without You

LaFond was just as impressive on her version of Pat Benatar's Shadows of the Night, charming the audience in a performance topped only by her version of the epic rock anthem What a Feeling from Flashdance.

The entire ensemble revved the audience up on the Scorpions' Rock You Like a Hurricane. And when they got to Celebration by Kool and the Gang, the audience was ready to have a good time.

That set the stage for Mickey Thomas, who only came with five songs, but they were five really good ones.

Plenty of aging rock 'n roll singers at the end of their career struggle to hit the high notes that made them famous back in the day. Thomas, however, still has the goods. As he kicked off Find Your Way Back to open his set, it was immediately clear he had no trouble finding his way back.

LaFond joined Thomas on the duet Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, which Thomas originally sang with Grace Slick. But LaFond sounded so much like the Chrome Nun, you'd easily believe you were listening to both original singers.

The best surprise of the evening came when the band and orchestra kicked off Don't Stop Believing, which brought the audience to its feet with a roar. It didn't matter that it wasn't Mickey Thomas's song or Jefferson Starship's song. Thomas easily convinced the audience he could sing Steve Perry, and the band and Grand Rapids Symphony proved it could fill in for the rest of Journey.

When Thomas launched into We Built This City, the audience came roaring to its feet, dancing on the hill, dancing in front of the stage, having the time of their lives.

Which is exactly what the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops is all about – kicking back, relaxing and having a good time in the great outdoors with great music.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, July 23, 2018

Recap: 2018 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops opens with fireworks, 'The 3 Maestros,' and an all-American experience

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Picnics are as American as baseball and apple pie. Grand Rapids Symphony’s Picnic Pops may be even more so.

At the opening concerts of the 2018 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, the immortal words of Emma Lazarus – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty, rang out across the hills of Cannonsburg Ski area.

A singer of Italian heritage, Daniel Narducci, sang a stirring version of “God Bless America,” a song written by a Russian Jew, in a performance that inspired an entire audience to slowly rise to its feet.

An African-American attorney recited the words of a former prairie lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by music composed in the darkest days of World War II by the a son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.

And a Brazilian-born conductor led music composed by a Russian, celebrating a victory over the French, played for an American audience, who enjoyed the fireworks that followed.

That sums up the impact of the all-American, star-spangled experience that the Grand Rapids Symphony provided to open its 24th season of “Symphony under the Sky” on Thursday and Friday, July 12-13.

GR Symphony's 2018 Picnic Pops and Classical Fireworks

Slightly muggy but warm and dry weather greeted audiences for the concert titled Classical Fireworks and The 3 Maestros featuring Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, and Associate Conductor John Varineau all sharing the podium.

Three conductors meant three times the fun for the Grand Rapids Pops audience.

Homegrown entertainment included Lehninger conducting an exciting performance of “Mambo” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Varineau presiding over an elegantly polished version of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube Waltz, and Bernhardt leading a thrilling version of the Flying Theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

But there was so much more.

Musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony gave a sparkling performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to ‘Candide,’ four-and-a-half minutes of music that’s a workout for an entire orchestra.

Varineau, with clarinet in hand, conducted and soloed on the poignant Viktor’s Tale from John Williams’ score to the film “The Terminal,” and he led the orchestra in “An Armed Forces Salute,” a spirited medley of melodies from the different branches of the U.S. Military.

Narducci, a baritone with a handsome voice, joined Bernhardt and the orchestra for a sweet, sentimental arrangement of three songs by Stephen Foster, “The Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh! Susanna.”

Patrick Miles Jr., former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, joined the orchestra to narrate Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” one of the greatest works by one of the greatest American composers. Bernhardt capably mined the drama for all its worth, while Miles, a native of Grand Rapids, narrated in simple, understated fashion Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address and other writings.

Lehninger took the podium to end the evening with a revelatory performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It’s well known and much loved, especially for its dramatic ending with cathedral bells chiming and cannons exploding. But the piece goes through many changes of mood, beginning with fervent prayers of the Russian people for deliverance, followed by the sounds of French invaders, their repulsion by the Russian Army, and the celebration that follows.

Lehninger skillfully guided the Grand Rapids Symphony through its journey, resulting in an unusually satisfying performance for an outdoor setting.

The fireworks that followed were an absolute delight.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Sunday, July 15, 2018

Grand Rapids Pops' 'Symphony under the Sky' returns for 24th summer of D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops

When winter finally recedes, and a timid spring gives way to Technicolor summer, West Michigan throws a party.

Just in time for the party, during the heart of summer, the Grand Rapids Pops offers a cadre of concerts that have delighted an incredible range of audiences, from symphony aficionados to new crowds of people for 23 years.

For its 24th annual summer season, Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops returns in July and August with symphonic blockbusters, pop/rock hits of the 1980s, high-voltage merengue and mambo, and the original songs of Ben Folds.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops is symphonic music at its eclectic and exuberant best, offering West Michigan a relaxed, casual setting for guests who come to Cannonsburg Ski Area with a cooler in one hand and a blanket in the other.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops begins on July 12-13 with Classical Fireworks and the 3 Maestros and ends on August 3 with the highly influential and wickedly fun Ben Folds. In between, concerts feature a celebration of the 1980s in with 80s Rewind!, a symphonic mashup of Beethoven v. Coldplay, and the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Tito Puente Jr. in a one-night only event.

Prior to the start of concerts, gates at Cannonsburg Ski Area open at 5:45 p.m. for picnicking and pre-concert entertainment including free, kid-friendly activities such as face painting, crafts, and a musical instrument petting zoo.

Guests are welcome to pack your own picnic baskets and coolers or purchase food from the grill at the Cannonsburg concession stand. Alcoholic beverages are permitted on the grounds, and parking is free for concertgoers.

D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops kicks off the program with all three Grand Rapids Symphony conductors – Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, and Associate Conductor John Varineau – on stage in Classical Fireworks and the 3 Maestros, on Thursday and Friday, July 12-13 at 8 p.m.

“I’m not sure it’s legal to have three conductors on one program,” Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt explained, “but we’re going for it.”

The conductors will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in an Americana-themed concert, replete with An Armed Forces Salute, God Bless America, and Tchaikovsky’s show-stopping 1812 Overture. And, with the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in mind, fireworks will fill the sky to celebrate the patriotic spirit of the season, along with the warmth and vibrancy of summer.

Teased hair. Acid washed jeans. Copious amounts of neon and Walkman players that made music portable. The 80s were a decade unlike any other, and the Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates the musical stylings of the decade with 80s Rewind! on Thursday and Friday, July 19-20 at 7:30 p.m.

Special guest Mickey Thomas of Starship performs We Built This City, Sara, and Find Your Way Back with his signature crisp and clairvoyant vocals.

Conducted by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, the Grand Rapids Symphony, together with solo artists and a full band, performs the alternative pop and industrial rock songs that defined a decade, including U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go and Scorpion’s Rock You Like a Hurricane

Don your favorite George Michaels T-shirt and wear a raspberry beret… or just come as you are: Either way, an evening of the 80s awaits. 

It’s no understatement to say that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 – his “Eroica” symphony – changed the classical music world. With his penchant for exploring the universal themes of mankind, the classical composer crafted a work that traverses time and space with a powerful force – a sort of gravitational pull – drawing listeners from all corners of the globe near.

The British rock group Coldplay, while using vastly different sonic structures, explores universal themes such as doubt, fear and ultimately, hope in songs that have garnered seven Grammy Awards and reached millions of fans.

In Beethoven v. Coldplay, conductor, composer, arranger, and producer Steve Hackman fuses the worlds of Beethoven and Coldplay together to stunning effect, offering listeners a symphonic experience punctuated by a trio of rich voices who sing some of Coldplay’s best lyrics from Clocks, The Scientist and Viva la Vida, among several other songs – in an adaptation of Beethoven’s work that is as harmonic as it is creative.

Guest Conductor Steve Hackman conducts the Grand Rapids Symphony in the masterful mashup on Thursday and Friday, July 26-27 at 7:30 p.m.

Tito Puente, eight-time Grammy Award-winning Goodwill Ambassador of Latin American music, began a musical legacy that earned him the moniker, “El Rey” (The King). The son of native Puerto Ricans, Puente Sr.’s story began in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, where he started his musical career. For over 50 years until his death in 2000, Puente composed and performed extensively, furnishing a vivid array of Afro-Cuban sounds with mambo, merengue, salsa, and samba to a global audience.

Carrying this legacy forward, Tito Puente Jr. offers the music of his father with a unique, symphonic flavor. With the Grand Rapids Pops, the original symphonic arrangements of Puente Sr. are on full display as Puente Jr. takes the audience on a musical journey back to the Palladium Ballrooms of New York City.

Associate Conductor John Varineau is on the podium as Puente Jr. and the Grand Rapids Symphony perform salsa, cha-cha, bolero, and mambo together with Puente Jr.’s all-star rhythm and horn section.

Feel free to bring your dancing shoes! With hits like Oye Como Va, Ran Kan Kan and Mambo Gazon, it may just be hard to keep your feet planted in one place.  The one-night only event is on Thursday, August 2 and begins at 7:30 p.m.

Ben Folds, with piano-driven hits from Ben Folds Five and his numerous solo albums, is regarded as a major music influencer of our generation. With memorable songs including The Luckiest, Brick, and You Don’t Know Me, plus his irreverent, improv-performances on YouTube on songs such as Ode to Merton, Folds has garnered a large following. 

The pianist, singer and songwriter’s reach only further expanded with regular appearances as a judge on NBC-TV’s a cappella show The Sing Off, and more recently, when Folds was named as the first-ever Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra.

Folds, who last performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Hal in 2014, returns to the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops for a one-night only performance. 

Folds’ music – with lyrics that alternatively pierce and inspire – ranges from snarky to tender, often in the same song. Coupled with pop-rock sensibilities and a penchant for symphonic music, Folds’ genre-bending music is inventive to the core. 

His most recent solo album, So There, soared to No. 1 on both the Billboard Classical and Classical Crossover charts and features his original Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in addition to symphonic-infused pop songs.

Guest Conductor Jacomo Bairos, who has conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony twice before, leads the Grand Rapids Symphony with Ben Folds on Friday, August 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Single tickets as well as season tickets offering big discounts are available. 

Advance lawn tickets to Classical Fireworks, 80s Rewind!, Beethoven v. Coldplay, or Tito Puente Jr., are $20 for adults or $5 for ages 2-18. Children younger than age 2 are admitted for free.

Members of the MySymphony360, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s club for young adults ages 21 to 35, can attend for $15. Active duty, reserve and National Guard members of the U.S. Military may purchase up to two tickets for $15 each

Members of the community receiving financial assistance from the State of Michigan or U.S. Military households can receive up to four free tickets through the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony Scorecard.

Other individual tickets in advance are $30 for reserved chairs, $51 for individual table seats and $408 for a full table of eight.

Advance lawn tickets to Ben Folds are $40 for adults or $5 for ages 2-18. Children younger than age 2 are admitted for free.

MySymphony360 members can attend for $25. Active duty and reserve members of the U.S. Military may buy up to two tickets for $25 each.

Other individual tickets are $50 for reserved chairs, $60 for individual table seats, and $480 for a full table of eight.

All single tickets for all concerts are $5 more on the day of the show. 

Single tickets are available from the Grand Rapids Symphony office by calling (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 weekdays or (616) 885-1241 evenings; or in person at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100; or online at

Tickets are also available at the gate at the night of the concert for an additional $5 Tickets also may be purchased through Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787, or at Ticketmaster outlets at select D&W Fresh Markets, Family Fare Stores and Walmart. Tickets purchased at these locations will include a Ticketmaster service fee.

Save up to 30 percent off single-ticket prices with a 3-Concert Series subscription for any seat or save up to 15 percent off single-ticket lawn seats with a 6-ticket Flexpass.

The 3-Concert Series subscription is good for any seats to Classical Fireworks, 80s Rewind! and Beethoven v. Coldplay. Subscriptions for lawn seats are $42 for adults or $15 for children ages 2-18. Subscriptions for general admission chair seating are $75. Tickets for an individual reserved table seat are $144 or $1,152 to reserve an entire table for eight.

The Flexpass 6-Pack offers six lawn tickets that can be used in any combination, on any concert night, for Classical Fireworks, 80s Rewind! and Beethoven v. Coldplay. Flexpasses are $102 for adults. Flexpasses cannot be used for the special events in August.

The 3-Concert Series, Flexpass, and individual table and chair tickets can be purchased through the GRS box office by calling (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 weekdays or (616) 885-1241 evenings; or in person at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100; or online at

-- By Jenn Collard, Grand Rapids Symphony Public Relations Intern

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, July 10, 2018

'Blandford Enchanted' fundraiser garners GRS Symphony Friends its second national award in a row

The Grand Rapids Symphony is the recipient of two recent awards for community service and outreach in West Michigan.

Grand Rapids Symphony’s affiliate, Grand Rapids Symphony Friends has been awarded the Gold Book Award of Excellence from the League of American Orchestras for “Blandford Enchanted,” an event that transformed Blandford Nature Center into a Fairy Garden.

It was the second consecutive Gold Book Award for Grand Rapids Symphony Friends, which formerly was known as the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Women’s Committee.

In May, the orchestra was honored at Arbor Circle’s Annual Spring Dinner for its Symphony Scorecard Program, which provides free tickets to area residents who receive financial assistance from the state of Michigan or to members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.

Blandford Enchanted,” held last summer June 2017, was honored earlier this month in Chicago at the annual national convention of the League of American Orchestras.

"It was a honor for Grand Rapids Symphony Friends to be chosen for a second year in a row for a Gold Book Award of Excellence," said Bonnie Monhart, president of Grand Rapids Symphony Friends. "Each year the League Volunteer Council recognizes outstanding fundraising and community engagement events, as well as sharing effective ways to focus on issues facing volunteer organizations of orchestras across the country."

Fairy Gardens are small, but “Blandford Enchanted” took over the buildings and grounds of Blandford Nature Center at 1715 Hillburn Ave. NW. Some 35 meticulously crafted Fairy Houses were displayed display in Blandford Nature Center’s Mary Jane Dockeray Welcome Center. Plenty more was on display outside on the grounds of the 143-acre nature preserve.

In addition to the miniature dwellings created by local artists and designers, live performances by Symphony musicians, a world premier ballet performed by the Grand Rapids Ballet, storytelling, and an evening Lantern Walk all were part of the event attended by over 1,300 in June 2017, raising almost $14,000. 

"The audience was delighted with our Blandford Enchanted Fairy Garden event," said Monhart, who presented before the Volunteer Council at the convention in June in Chicago.

Last year, Symphony Friends was honored with the Gold Book Award for its Rumsey Street Bazaar, a three-day bazaar dubbed “Classics Remixed,” held in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood southwest of downtown Grand Rapids.

The League of American Orchestra’s Gold Book Award recognizes outstanding projects created and implemented by symphony orchestra volunteer associations throughout the United States and Canada. Projects are judged by the Volunteer Council, an organization of community leaders who have demonstrated outstanding support for their symphony orchestras. The Council’s awards honor volunteers who help to insure the success of their organizations.

"Personally, presenting and participating in the Volunteer Council at the League of American Orchestras Convention the past two years was an opportunity to interface with a number of nation-wide symphony volunteer organizations," Monhart said. "I walked away with new ideas for fundraising events as well as tips on managing them. Our very successful Kitchen Tour event this past spring was a spin-off from several other symphony volunteer organization's fundraisers."

Arbor Circle, a Grand Rapids-based community service organization, assists more than 20,000 people per year to overcome life’s unexpected challenges through more than 50 programs in counseling, education and prevention addressing mental health, substance use and family concerns.

Grand Rapids Symphony Friends, formerly known as the Grand Rapids Symphony Women’s Committee, has a long history of supporting the growth of the Grand Rapids Symphony and furthering appreciation and understanding of music. Founded in 1941, the group played a critical role in the orchestra’s growth during the World War II era.  Today, the committee organizes projects and fundraisers including its Encore cookbook celebrating Grand Rapids culinary and culture.

In 2017, Symphony Friends activities contributed $30,000 to the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, July 3, 2018

$1 million grant from the Wege Foundation paves the way for a fundamental transformation for the Grand Rapids Symphony

Paul Doyle, who grew up in Brooklyn, was introduced to classical music by his grandmother who originally was from Trinidad.

When he was in third grade, Doyle attended his first concert in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where the Grand Rapids Symphony appeared in April. He later played French horn through high school.

Today, Doyle is founder and CEO of Inclusive Performance Strategies in Grand Rapids, which develops and implements progressive organizational transformation.

“Our community in Grand Rapids is growing. It’s exploding. But how do we make sure that everyone feels a part of it?” Doyle said.

Grand Rapids Symphony, with help from the Wege Foundation, is launching a new initiative to build diversity, equity and inclusion into every aspect of the orchestra’s operations.

Faces of Grand Rapids Symphony's audiences

The Wege Foundation has awarded the Grand Rapids Symphony a grant of more than $1 million to share live orchestral music with a broader audience. Over the next four years, the Grand Rapids Symphony will create new concerts and events, and develop new music educational opportunities alongside the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music, a matrix of 17 education and access programs that already reach 86,000 children, students and adults across 13 counties in West Michigan.

The first event, “Symphony on the West Side,” will be a free outdoor concert at 7 p.m., Saturday, July 21, in John Ball Park. Associate conductor John Varineau will lead a program of light classical music, featuring guest vocalist Edye Evans Hyde, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 21 in the park on the West Side of downtown Grand Rapids near John Ball Zoo.

It’s just the first of a series of events in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Neighborhood Concert Series.

Today, it’s the duty of an orchestra to connect not only with its usual audience, but with its entire community, according to Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

“A symphony orchestra in the 21st century has become a service organization,” Lehninger said. “We’re here not only to entertain our audience but also to serve our community.”

President Peter M. Perez called the Wege Foundation grant “truly transformational.”

“In the past, a symphony orchestra’s goal was to perform great works of classical music. Today, the Grand Rapids Symphony aspires, not just to play music for the community, but to make music together with its community,” Perez said. “Truly serving our entire community means we have to genuinely and faithfully be a reflection of everyone in the community.”

“The Grand Rapids Symphony is your symphony, and it’s my symphony,” Perez added. “And by working together, we can make it our symphony.”

Past successes in collaborating with community partners include the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony with Soul concert, launched in 2002, and Celebration of Soul dinner and awards ceremony, which has fostered connections between the orchestra and West Michigan’s African-American community for more than a dozen years.

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony touches the lives of 200,000 attendees per year, many more in West Michigan have never experienced a symphony orchestra live and in person.

“The Wege Foundation is pleased to support the Symphony in enhancing the diversity of its programming, musicians and staff, as well as the inclusivity of its outreach,” said Wege Foundation President Mark Van Putten. “By transforming itself the Symphony can help transform West Michigan in enduring ways that reach beyond the performing arts.”

Three years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched Symphony Scorecard to open its concert hall doors to a wider audience by providing free tickets to those with financial challenges or economic barriers. Since 2016, the program launched with funding from the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation has supplied more than 8,000 free tickets to members of the community who receive financial assistance from the state or to the families of men and women serving in the U.S. Military on active, reserve or guard duty.

Everyone is welcome, according to Lehninger.

“Sometime people feel they don’t belong,” Lehninger said. “But I have a passion and a mission to reach the hearts and souls of everyone in this community. We’re trying to show them that, yes, they do belong. Hopefully, they’ll understand that it’s their orchestra, too.”

The Wege grant also will transform the orchestra from within through new positions in the organization. Funds will establish:

A Community Engagement position on staff to develop, manage and coordinate all Grand Rapids Symphony activities to serve an audience that’s growing more diverse every day.

A Musician Fellow who will perform with the Grand Rapids Symphony. During the two-year fellowship, the musician will be mentored by GRS musicians and gain practical experience toward launching a career as a professional musician.

The Wege Grant also will fund the expansion of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s successful Mosaic Scholarship program, a mentoring program for African-American and Latino music students. Created with funding by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, teens ages 13 to 18 are provided with musical instruments and private lessons with GRS musicians along with opportunities to perform and to attend concerts.

A new component, Mosaic Music Majors, will collaborate with music students of color in local universities and colleges to mentor, advise and develop the skills and talents of collegiate musicians seeking to become professionals.

Over the next four years, the Wege grant will be a game changer for the Grand Rapids Symphony, according to Associate Conductor John Varineau, who just completed his 33rd season on staff with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“It’s going to change the way we 'do business' and the way we approach all of our already outstanding artistic products. Without compromising our lofty artistic vision, and without sacrificing our dedication to the best in our symphonic heritage, I am confident that, with the help of the Wege Foundation, the Grand Rapids Symphony is going to look and sound differently,” Varineau said. “In just a few short years, how and what we present will be even more representative of the entire Grand Rapids community so that everyone will be able to truthfully call us ‘our Grand Rapids Symphony.’”

The challenge is to create and sustain intentional relationship building so that the wider community not only participates in Grand Rapids Symphony’s activities, it also sees that it plays a role in supporting and providing for the orchestra.

“We know the ‘why.’ This is working on the ‘how,’ Doyle said. “The key to this work is continuous commitment and effort. It’s about progressive improvement, not postponed perfection.”

“I think we have the opportunity to create a best-practice model,” Doyle added. “For Grand Rapids to be on the front end of enhancing quality of life and community, I think is very cool.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, June 21, 2018

The local tour guide interns with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Two summers ago, I stood in the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano in Rome and descended down a darkened, stone staircase and into a world hidden from the Vespas and crowds outside the nearby Colosseum.

Our Roman tour guide, a passionate expert of Roman history and society, led us from room to room in a fourth century church buried beneath the basilica above it, introducing us not only to the altars and frescos built by early Christians, but to the  meaning of what we were seeing.

To go to Rome, she explained, was to want to be part of the story of civilization and to understand our place in it.

The Sistine Chapel was beautiful as well, though amidst crowds careening their necks and security guards reminding visitors not to use flash photography, I didn’t experience an overwhelming feeling of connection or awe standing under Michelangelo’s masterpieces.

When I think about that trip, I hardly ever think about the Sistine Chapel. Instead, I almost always think about the local guides who were our windows into the local culture, time, and place, who helped us make sense of the masterpieces and see cherished sites through their eyes and with their expertise.

Serving as a public relations intern at the Grand Rapids Symphony for the past eight months has felt a little like being a local guide.

I’m not a classical music expert. After a decade of piano lessons, voice lessons, and singing in two collegiate, audition-only, choirs, I know I have a very modest music background compared to many folks at the symphony. 

But I’ve utilized what I do know – from strategic communication, teaching highly diverse collegiate and secondary audiences, and years crafting writing products – and coupled it with research, lots of listening, and rich conversations with the rest of the Public Relations and Marketing team members, especially my mentor, Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, the Senior Manager of Communications and Media Relations for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

In doing so, I’ve had the unique privilege to serve as a local guide to both traditional and new GRS audiences.

Whether writing press releases for numerous concerts – from An American in Paris, to Ella, A Tribute! To Star Wars and More: The Music of John Williams among others, I’ve had the chance to introduce audiences to music that is as diverse and expansive as it is engaging.

My passion for reaching non-traditional symphony audiences informed much of my work at the Grand Rapids Symphony. From writing about the Second City’s symphonic-driven, sketch-comedy show designed to reach symphony newcomers, to blogging about our summer offerings that attract a widely diverse audience to Cannonsburg Ski Area, press releases I wrote were written with non-traditional symphony audiences at the front of my mind.  

I was particularly delighted to write a narrative-style blog about the work and performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholars at its annual Symphony with Soul concert. Their work, facilitated by GRS musicians and Creative Connections, is a key part of the symphony’s Gateway to Music initiative and invites African American and Latino students to become musicians and, for that performance, budding composers.  

With research from the League of American Orchestras, I’ve generated messaging and possible initiatives that can inform a strategic outreach to Grand Valley State University students, especially to non-music majors. Two blog posts, designed for two distinct platforms, are ready to be used next fall to welcome new collegiate audiences to the adventures of symphonic music.

All of this has given me that rare opportunity to help others see and hear something that is genuinely moving and genuinely meaningful.

There are many reasons why people go to symphony orchestra concerts. But after we enter that darkened hall and the conductor walks to the podium, I think many people are looking for some sort of connection.  A connection to the music. A connection to other people. A connection to the composer and the era in which he or she lived. A connection to one’s emotions as the music unfolds. To go to the symphony is to want to connect.

I’m not a musician or conductor. I don’t make the music happen. Neither did any of my European tour guides build the cathedrals or preserve the historic sites. But they helped me to see what I was looking at through the lens of someone who not only understood it, but loved it, and who knew that a visceral connection was what that place invited.

At its best, the Grand Rapids Symphony invites that kind of connection, and at my best, I got to be a small part of that. I’m so deeply thankful.

A former high school English teacher, Jennifer Collard is a communications specialist and education professional with extensive work with diverse and underserved communities. When she’s not crafting sentences and attending symphony concerts, you can find her brainstorming which perennial plants to grow in her new garden in her newly purchased, little house just outside Detroit. Her digital portfolio and blog is available at

Posted by Marketing Intern at Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Relive the Grand Rapids Symphony’s triumphant return to Carnegie Hall with WOOD TV8’s special broadcast

Nearly 13 years after setting foot on the storied stage of Carnegie Hall for the first time, the Grand Rapids Symphony returned in April with an exciting evening of Brazilian and Spanish music.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the orchestra and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus with special guest pianist Nelson Freire in music, some of which hasn’t been heard in Carnegie Hall since 1959.

WOOD TV8 traveled to the Big Apple with the Grand Rapids Symphony and captured the highlights for a special-event broadcast that aired on Sunday, June 5.

You can see the show, “Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall,” on WOOD TV8’s website, commercial free.

Eva Aguirre Cooper, Community Affairs Director at WOOD TV8, accompanied the Grand Rapids Symphony to New York City for the two-day trip that takes 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.

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.

GR Symphony at Carnegie Hall 2018

Brazilian-born pianist Nelson Freire, who has performed in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, made his fifth appearance in the 127-year-old auditorium, performing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, whose director, Pearl Shangkuan, has 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. The encore was in memory of Grand Rapids Symphony Vice President Roger Nelson who organized the orchestra’s return to Carnegie Hall prior to his sudden, unexpected death in March 2017.

Follow the Grand Rapids Symphony on WOOD TV8’s Connecting with Community page.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony Friends’ ‘Well-Orchestrated Kitchens’ tour raises $17,000 for music education and other programs.

The kitchen is the most important room in the house. It’s meant for working and for relaxing.

Inevitably, it’s where family and friends gather not only to cook and eat but also to talk and spend time together.

Thanks to Symphony Friends, kitchens also were a place to see and be seen earlier in May.

The all-volunteer affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony hosted “Well-Orchestrated Kitchens,” a tour of six fabulous kitchens in Grand Rapids, on May 5.

GR Symphony Friends 2018 Kitchen Tour

Owners of six homes opened their doors to visitors in a fundraiser for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s educational programs.

The event was a success, according to Bonnie Monhart, president of Symphony Friends, which formerly was known as the Grand Rapids Symphony Women’s Committee. The organization raised about $17,000 after expenses.

“It was great,” she said. “The weather could not have been more perfect, and we had a steady stream of people at each house. 

“I think we probably had about 250 in attendance,” she added. “The musicians played beautifully, and, we’ve been receiving a lot of unsolicited positive comments about the event.”

The event featured a tour of six kitchens, uniquely designed, and well-appointed, in the Grand Rapids area. The six included two mid-century remodels, one with an outdoor kitchen, and one with a wine cellar.

Live music by musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony and demonstrations were part of the “heart of the home” tour.

In addition to seeing magnificent kitchens, “Well-Orchestrated Kitchens” offered a variety of food and home-related activities including demonstrations such as flower arranging with Easter Floral and easy appetizers and summer entertaining from Art of the Table.

Last year, Symphony Friends’ spring fundraiser, “Blandford Enchanted” welcomed over 1,300 guests and raised more than $13,000 to support the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and other education programs that are part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music, a network of 17 access points for people of all ages and walks of life to engage with orchestral music.

Earlier this year, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Fifth Grade Concerts welcomed more than 15,000 youngsters to DeVos Performance Hall for a live concert experience.

Follow Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony Friends on Facebook.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, May 21, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

What does one say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, May 19, 2018
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