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Musical chairs ends with principal appointment for Grand Rapids Symphony bassoonist Victoria Olson

Grand Rapids Symphony Principal Bassoonist Victoria Olson grew up in a musical family.

Her mother, Vicki Olson, is a violist. Her father Robert Olson, a professor of music and director of orchestras at the University of Missouri-Kansas City since 1990, was conductor of Kansas City Ballet for 14 seasons.

Her father also was a bassoonist earlier in his career, though Victoria had never heard him play until he took his instrument out one day when she was 13 years old.

“He was getting ready to sell it,” she recalled. “I had never seen it or heard him play it.”

Intrigued with the four-and-a-half foot tall instrument, Victoria soon began playing it. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s a fun, quirky, beautiful instrument,” said Victoria, who is in her second full season with the Grand Rapids Symphony and her first full season as principal bassoonist.

It’s also a unique instrument that’s not for everyone.

“For a child to choose bassoon, you have to really like it,” she said. “And you have to have the desire to be different.”

But it has its rewards.

"The sound is really beautiful,” she said. “The tenor register is so reminiscent of the voice.”

One of the peculiar challenges of playing bassoon, as well as oboe and English horn, is that the players have to make their own reeds. Musicians who play clarinet and saxophone usually buy reeds and then customize them to their individual needs. Musicians who play double reed instruments make theirs from scratch.

Victoria estimates she spends an average of an hour a day making reeds though usually in two or three-hour blocks of time every few days.

“If you don’t have a good reed, you can only sound elementary,” she said.

A native of Kansas City, Victoria began music lessons with violin at age 3 and piano at age 9 before taking up bassoon.

In 2005, when she was a junior in high school, she spent a summer at Interlochen Fine Arts Camp as an Emerson Scholar and was a finalist in the Interlochen Concerto Competition.

Victoria earned her bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh followed by a master’s degree at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and an Artist Diploma at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Over the past three years, she’s performed with many orchestras in the country including Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony. She has participated in such festivals as the Castleton Music Festival under the direction of Lorin Maazel; the National Music Festival; and the Aspen Music Festival as a New Horizons Fellow.

In her short time in Grand Rapids, she’s been through a series of musical chairs. Though she initially won the third bassoon/contrabassoon position in January 2016, she soon auditioned for and won the assistant principal position in August 2016. But due to a leave of absence, she began the 2016-17 season as acting principal bassoonist.

“My goal always was to play principal,” she said. “I love the solos and working closely with the other woodwinds.”

In February 2017, one year after joining the orchestra, Victoria won the national audition for principal bassoon, becoming the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first principal bassoonist since the retirement of Martha Bowman in May 2015 after more than 40 years of service with the orchestra.

In the end, Victoria only played a few concerts on contrabassoon and essentially none in the assistant principal chair before taking up duties as principal bassoonist.

“Last year was such a blur,” she said with a laugh.

Victoria said she’s happy to be playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. She’s the first principal player appointed by Lehninger since he became Music Director in June 2016.

“I’ve felt like everyone was very welcoming and seemingly happy,” said Victoria, who serves on the music faculty of Grand Valley State University and teaches bassoon privately.

Though Grand Rapids, with about 1 million people in its metropolitan area, is about half the size of Kansas City, which has more than 2 million people in its region, she’s enjoying discovering the area.

“I love ArtPrize and the breweries,” she said. “And the lake is beautiful.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, January 18, 2018

Recap: Passion and precision at its finest with Grand Rapids Symphony’s all-Tchaikovsky program

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The music of Tchaikovsky is beloved by many.

For an audience of classical music aficionados, an evening of Tchaikovsky needs little explanation. But Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger provided one anyway.

“He’s one of my favorite composers. I love his music,” Lehninger said on Friday in DeVos Performance Hall.

But the Brazilian-born conductor had more to say on the subject.

“One of the things I love about this orchestra is its passion,” he said.

That’s the reason for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s all-Tchaikovsky concert on Friday, Jan. 12, and Lehninger hinted that symphony goers will see more of the same in the next two seasons.

If this weekend’s concerts are any indication, buy your tickets as soon as they’re available. Grand Rapids Symphony’s evening of Tchaikovsky on Friday was amazing.

Tickets remain available for the concert in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series, which repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13.

GR Symphony, Tchaikovsky and Gabriela Montero

Pianist Gabriela Montero, appearing in Grand Rapids for the first time, joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major.

It’s the piece that Van Cliburn played in 1958 at the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, making the lanky Texan a household name and his subsequent recording of the concerto the first classical music recording to sell 1 million copies.

It has everything from crashing chords to delicate melodies. Pianists who play it are forces to be reckoned with. Those who play it well are true artists.

DeVos Performance Hall was treated to a true artist, capable of caressing the instrument much as a lover would as well as hammering it as a blacksmith should. The Venezuelan pianist plays with presence and authority. She doesn’t dominate the performance, apart from her first movement cadenza, which held the audience in rapt silence.

The lengthy first movement ended with sustained applause. Purists would call that a faux pas on the part of the audience. True music lovers would say it’s an honest and heartfelt expression of emotion.

Performing Tchaikovsky well is all about passion and precision and knowing which to apply and when. Montero brought passion came to the fore in the lovely lyrical melodies, and she delivered precision with powerful octaves and thundering chords.

In all, it was sublimely romantic and thrilling in equal measure, leading to a lengthy standing ovation.

“I think it just got hotter in Grand Rapids,” Montero told the audience after the applause died down. “Music making isn’t always this intense.”

Nor is it always as much fun as what was to come.

Montero is a celebrated improviser who takes musical suggestions from the audience and then makes music on the spot. Same as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven once did.

 “I love the fragility of it,” she told the audience.

Someone shouted out “Happy Birthday,” and Montero was off to the races.

Beginning with a bit of Bachian counterpoint, she soon segued into classical era clarity. A series of key changes and a sudden mutation to a minor key led to a passionate romantic flavored variation in which the melody slipped into the background.

Montero followed that with modulation back to the major and a rollicking ragtime stride piano as Scott Joplin might have played it in the bars and bordellos of New Orleans.

The audience loved it.

Lehninger returned in the second half with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a uniquely cyclical symphony with a theme that appears in all four movements of the 50-minute work. Some describe that theme as fate, beginning somberly at the beginning of the work but ending triumphantly at the end.

Lehninger began a little hesitantly, and then took off like a shot. The opening movement was delightful, well-sculpted and sensible with hints of wild abandon yet to come.

Principal hornist Richard Britsch was superb with the memorable horn solo in the second movement with rich string accompaniment. The woodwind section was outstanding with the third movement waltz.

The finale is one of those aggressive, take-no-prisoners moments in classical music, full of dramatic climaxes and earthshattering resolutions. Tchaikovsky fretted that he went too far over the top.

But it’s also an opportunity for an orchestra to show what it can do. In the capable hands of a conductor such as Lehninger, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave a full-bore performance that made the piece sound fresh and made your heart pound with excitement. That’s a wonderful thing.

The concert opened with the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Lehninger conducted it like a kid in a candy store with plenty of cash in his pocket. He was having a blast. So was the audience.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 13, 2018

Celebrated improviser Gabriela Montero takes requests, just like Mozart and Beethoven did

Once upon a time, celebrated pianist such as Mozart and Beethoven not only composed music for themselves to play, they also improvised on the spot at the concerts they gave. It was expected.

Franz Liszt, possibly the greatest pianist who ever lived, would strike up melodies from the latest operas and embellish them to the delight of audience. But in the 19th century, improvising at the keyboard began to fade into obscurity. Comparatively few, among them Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, continued to improvise for audiences.

But it didn’t die.

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero began piano studies at age 3, and she gave her first public performance at age 5. In between, at age 4, she began improvising in secret.

Montero began improvising at the piano at age 4. For many years, she kept her improvisational forays a secret. The world-famous Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich encouraged her to do it in public.

“At that point I made the decision,” Montero told the British newspaper The Independent in 2010. “I'm a classical artist, and if the classical world shuns me because I improvise, then that's a risk I have to take, because I have to show myself exactly as I am.”

Pianist Gabriela improvises on the main theme from "Harry Potter."

Montero, who performed at the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama, will show herself exactly as she is in her debut appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 12-13.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and in the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall.

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students for the fourth concerts of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

The all-Tchaikovsky concert features Montero will be soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s one of the best-loved works in the repertoire for pianist and orchestra and for good reason. It’s the piece that pianist Van Cliburn performed in 1957 in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition.

At the height of the Cold War, just months after sending Sputnik into orbit to win the first victory in the race for space, the former Soviet Union created the international competition to prove the superiority of artists and musicians in the Communist world.

But Cliburn, a lanky, 23-year-old Texan, dazzled the Moscow audience performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to capture the top prize.

Cliburn, who returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and a cover story in Time magazine, soon recorded both concertos for RCA Victor. The album became the first classical recording in the world to sell 1 million copies, cementing both works as all-time favorites among classical music lovers.

An excerpt of Gabriela Montero rehearsing the finale of the Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1

Montero, in her native Venezuela made her concert debut with the Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra, earning a scholarship from the Venezuelan government to study in the United States. At age 12, she won the Baldwin National Competition and AMSA Young Artist International Piano Competition, leading to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In 1995, she won the Bronze Medal at the 13th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

In an era of modern recordings and competitions, both of which emphasize note-perfect performances, improvisation has been elbowed out of the concert hall.

“There are so few of us that do it on the concert platform that you become an oddity,” Montero told WQXR-FM in an interview in January 2015.

Improvisation has remained an important part of her career. In her recitals and as encores with orchestras, Montero often spins elaborate creations, sometimes on a given theme, sometimes on one provided on-the-spot by a member of the audience.

Montero’s 2006 recording “Bach and Beyond” for EMI, a recording entirely of her improvisation on themes of J.S. Bach, held the top spot on the Billboard Classical Charts for several months. Two years later, her follow-up CD, “Baroque,” garnered a Grammy Award nomination.

Winner of the 2015 Latin Grammy Award for Best Classical Album, Montero was performer, composer and improviser all on the same recording, performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, contributing an original work, “Ex Patria,” and improvising live in the studio for the album.

Montero has been heard on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” show, improvising on melodies called in by listeners and also has been profiled on CBS TV’s “60 Minutes” in December 2006.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's intimate chamber music is superb in St. Cecilia Music Center

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Forty-five musicians in all were on stage, never more than 27 at a time, but it hardly mattered.

No soloist was in front of the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday evening at St. Cecilia Music Center, though no one noticed.

It was an uncommon concert, a little more chamber music, a little less orchestral, but the result was magnificent just the same under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

Grand Rapids Symphony returned the elegant splendor of Royce Auditorium for The Romantic Concert: Dvořák & Tchaikovsky on Friday, Jan. 5, the second concert of the 2017-18 Crowe Horwath Great Eras series.

The Grand Rapids Symphony itself was the star of the show with music includingTchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments, and a Brass Sextet in E-flat minor by Oskar Böhme.

It was a bonus that the music was composed in the era in which its surroundings were built. St. Cecilia Music Center opened its doors at 24 Ransom Ave. NE in 1894.

The power of a full-size symphony orchestra in a large concert hall, playing as one instrument, is a wonder to behold. But that sonic experience is built upon the work of 70 or 80 master musicians, playing at the highest level, contributing the mastery of their craft to the great whole.

On Friday, Lehninger peeled away at the onion to reveal those layers in three separate pieces of music that focused the spotlight on three portions of the orchestra. The results were breathtaking and delightful.

Tchaikovsky, who loved the music of Mozart above all other composers, paid homage to the German composer in his delightful Serenade for Strings, composed in 1881, two years before St. Cecilia Music Society was founded.

The Russian composer was fond of the Serenade, regarding it as one of his finest works, one that he composed from inner conviction. Lehninger honored the music appropriately

With just 27 string players at his disposal, Lehninger nonetheless filled the hall with free-flowing sound from the lyricism of the outer movements, a particular joy when elements of the opening movement returned at the end. The orchestra contributed both precision and elegance with fast moving passages that were played boldly and rendered beautifully.

Lehninger rendered the harmonic shifts in the waltz with loving care. The finale is brilliantly composed, and Lehninger made sure it was brilliantly played.

Dvorak also wrote a Serenade for Strings. This one for winds is lesser known but it also has its charms.

Just 12 musicians were on stage for Dvorak’s Serenade for Wind Instruments – two oboes, two clarinets, three bassoons, three French horns, plus one cello and one bass. No flutes, but plenty of lower-voiced instruments were just the ticket for the serenade in a minor key, at least at its outset.

The cheeky opening march was filled with good humor. The folk melodies were rollicking. The pastoral third movement was bucolic. The finale was playful. Lehninger gave the piece plenty of attention, and it shows.

A mere six musicians performed the Sextet for Brass by Böhme, a little-known composer who flourished in the early 20th century. The six included principal trumpet Charley Lea playing cornet, a slightly mellower version of the trumpet that’s rarely heard in the orchestra hall. Though just six musicians are featured, the music nevertheless was dramatic, exciting and colorful.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus creates new bonds

By Courtney Collar - 

One week. Five days of school. Twenty-six and a half hours. Five concerts. Two rehearsals. One day off.

This has been the life of the 115 Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus singers in mid-December due to the Grand Rapids Symphony's annual Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops concerts. Sophomore Katie Woods thrives on this schedule.

“Holiday Pops was a long, hard, stressful week,” said Katie, who joined the chorus this year. “It’s a miracle we all have maintained our voices and powered through. It was hard, but I wouldn’t have (wanted to be) doing anything else.”

GR Symphony 2017 Holiday Pops

However, the intensity of this past week is not typical for the chorus. They ordinarily practice every Monday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Calvin College Recital Hall. The SATB chorus works hard on a variety of choral-type songs and occasionally an African song or two. Even with their determination to get a song down, which takes about an hour and a half spread out along weeks of practice, the atmosphere is still light and fun.

“Every rehearsal is just something new,” Katie said. “We’re always kind of laughing about something. It’s fun– it doesn’t feel like work”

All their work goes towards the 12 to 16 concerts they perform in a year. Usually, the concerts are on a Friday or a Sunday.

While the days of their concerts have some consistency, the locations vary. Generally, the Youth Chorus performs all over Grand Rapids. The DeVos Performance Hall, where the Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops took place Dec. 14 through Dec. 17, and the Basilica of St. Adalbert are a couple favorites among the singers.

“The acoustics are incredible (at the Basilica of St. Adalbert),” Katie said. “The vaulted ceilings created an incredible reverberation with our sound that you can’t find anywhere else in Grand Rapids, and that is a singer’s heaven.”

The Youth Chorus rarely performs alone. They are just one branch of the Grand Rapids Symphony. For children, there are four different choruses based on skill and grade. Prelude Chorus is offered for the youngest singers starting in elementary school. Junior Youth Chorus is for fourth through sixth graders. Youth Chorus is for seventh through twelfth grade. A prestigious group of girls called Mandala breaks off of the Youth Chorus.

To Katie, the chorus is so exceptional because of the people who take part in it.

“It has given me a good community,” Katie said. “I found a new community of people that I connect with in a different way than I can with the people here at school because we all share the same passion.”

Junior Abby Stead shares similar sentiments about the chorus.

“I think (the Youth Chorus) made me more confident,” Abby said. “I was quiet everywhere, and you couldn’t get me to say anything. It’s made me better at communicating which was something that was kind of hard for me, especially with people my own age. So being in a group of like-minded people, that just really changed everything for me. I would not be the same person without it.”

Abby originally joined the Youth Chorus in seventh grade and has been singing in it ever since. Freshmen year, she auditioned and joined Mandala. She thinks that the reason that the chorus works so well together is because of their retreat.

The entire Youth Chorus goes to Camp Manitoulin in September to bond and to get to know each other. The weekend is full of campfires, camp activities, and lots of singing.

“The thing is that (the retreat) seems like it is so separate, like just hanging out with the people who are in Youth Chorus would be really different from singing, but it makes everything work,” Abby said.

But it’s not just the other singers in the chorus who make it special; it is the director, too. FHC choir teacher Sean Ivory is the founder and director of the chorus.

“(The Youth Chorus) is one of my favorite things,” said Ivory, who has been directing the chorus since 2007. “It gives me the opportunity to work with young singers who desire to be there and to work hard.”

Because of the singers’ drive, devotion, and skill, Ivory holds them to high standards and has big dreams for them.

“My goal for each student is individual musical and vocal growth, as well as an appreciation for making live music at a high level,” Ivory said. “I also want them to experience working with professional musicians who push them to improve.

Ultimately, I want them to pursue singing in a choir after they leave the (Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus).”

In order to accomplish this, Ivory has given his singers opportunities to work with the Grand Rapids Symphony and the adult Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. Additionally, every couple of years, he provides the chorus with the chance to travel to another country and perform there. In 2013, the Youth Chorus took a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. The purpose was to sing a poem written by children in a concentration camp about their horrid experience.

This year, the Youth Chorus has plans to go to Illinois and Iowa to Ivory’s hometown to sing with his old high school choir. They also plan to go to Iceland to sing during the summer of 2019.

Ivory always works to do what is best for his singers and the chorus. It is for that reason that he writes his own compositions for the chorus. Since the sopranos and altos greatly outnumber the baritones, Ivory writes pieces a few times a year that tailor to their vocal composition.

“Mr. Ivory is just so talented,” Abby said. “I think that he has that connection with music, and he translates that with working with kids really well. He just always makes you feel like he’s paying attention to what you need and what’s happening.

Originally published Dec. 19, 2017, in The Central Trend of Forest Hills Central High School. Reprinted with permission.

Posted by Guest Blogger at Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops is cheery, holiday fun for everyone

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Outside it was cold, snowing and beginning to feel a lot like winter.

But inside it was warm, the halls were decked, the music was cheery, and it definitely was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

That’s because the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops filled the air with favorite Christmas carols, popular holiday tunes, music from movies, music from ballet, and much more for its opening concert on Thursday, Dec. 14.

The Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15-16, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, December 17. Tickets start at $18 adults, but they’re disappearing fast.

In DeVos Performance Hall, trees trimmed with lights flanked the stage and gaily decorated packages surrounded the podium where Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in music carefully selected according to a precise algorithm.

“It’s all stuff I like,” Bernhardt said.

GR Symphony 2017 Holiday Pops

It’s also music nearly everyone likes, performed for a hometown audience by hometown musicians – with just one exception.

Baritone Leon Williams returned to Grand Rapids for his third Holiday Pops with the Grand Rapids Symphony. No doubt he’ll be back for more. Williams is a charmer, colorful performer and a snappy dresser. Most importantly, he can sing anything.

He channeled a little Nat “King” Cole as he crooned “Have Yourself A merry Little Christmas,” and he roused the audience with all the fire and brimstone of a revival preacher on “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

“Little Drummer Boy,” if we’re honest, is among those Christmas songs some could do without. Williams and the Grand Rapids Pops, however, turned the song upside down into a funky tune that electrified the audience.

The Grand Rapids Symphony itself was a delight on music including Bizet’s Farandole from “L'Arlesienne”  and the final waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” a melody that hardly anyone ever hears completely because they’re busy applauding as dancers taking their bows.

With Williams narrating, Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in a colorfully, evocative arrangement of Randol Bass’ setting of "The Night Before Christmas,” a pairing that made the well-known story come to life.

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without carols, and the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus was on stage to sing many. Just half of the 140-voice chorus directed by Pearl Shangkuan was on stage, but those voices were enough to deliver a ravishingly beautiful version of John Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music,” a touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

GRS Holiday Pops Spectacular 2017

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, led by director Sean Ivory nearly stopped the show with an amazing performance of an original tune titled “Hodie” by Leah Ivory.

Inspired by the rhythms of Ivory Coast, powered by Leah Ivory on African djembe, the joyous, free-flowing melodic line, accompanied by a precise rhythmic pulse, was a treasure to experience.

Grand Rapids’ own Embellish handbell ensemble returned with a battery of more than 40 bells and a brilliant Change Ring Prelude on ‘Divinum Mysterium.”  It was as enjoyable to watch 13 ringers at work as it was to hear the arrangement of the hymn tune commonly known as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”

Santa Claus himself stopped by to swap a few jokes with Bernhardt, but St. Nick didn’t pick up a baton to lead the Grand Rapids Pops. Instead, Ric Roane, a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors, strode bravely to the podium.

A clarinetist in his high school, Roane hadn’t touched a baton since conducting his high school band 40 years ago. But he capably led not only the Grand Rapids Symphony but also Embellish in a snappy version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”

Afterward, Bernhardt make Roane take the “Guest Conductor’s Oath.”

“I promise … Never to tell anyone … How easy this is.”

Of course, that’s not true at all. What’s true is the good ones make it look easy, and that’s one of the many reasons why the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops is fun for everyone.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, December 15, 2017

Come home for the holidays with Grand Rapids Symphony's Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops

If you love Christmas, you love Christmas carols, sung by a choir.

Join the Grand Rapids Pops for its Wolverine World Wide Holiday Pops, and you get to hear not one but two choirs sing Christmas music.

What’s more, you get to sing along too.

The Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops, a West Michigan holiday tradition, returns for five concerts opening this Thursday in DeVos Performance Hall.

Five shows through Sunday, Dec. 17, draw entire families from children to parents, grandparents and great-grandparents for holiday cheer led by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, leading the Grand Rapids Pops in such favorites as Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and highlights from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

What’s more, it’s home-grown entertainment for a hometown audience. Nearly every musician on stage is part of the Grand Rapids Symphony family or part of the West Michigan community.

The adult Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, conducted by Pearl Shangkuan, joins the orchestra to sing G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus from The Messiah, but that’s not all.

Bernhardt will conduct two of his all-time favorite holiday works for chorus and orchestra, Randol Bass’ “Gloria,” and John Rutter’s, “What Sweeter Music,” both near the top of the show.

“The biggest reason is the chance to do them with our wonderful Symphony Chorus,” Bernhardt said. “Pearl does magic with them, and I get to go along for that wonderful ride!”

The longtime guest conductor for the Boston Pops first conducted Bass’s “Gloria” with the venerable Boston Pops, without rehearsal, as a last-minute substitute for its then-music director Keith Lockhart.

“It was an absolutely amazing experience, so the piece is meaningful for the experience alone,” Bernhardt said. “However, Randol Bass has written a ‘Gloria’ that is contemporary in feel, yet traditional in message and joyous in expression. He writes beautifully for the orchestra, and it’s a fantastic concert opener. I really love it.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will be featured on John Rutter’s “Star Carol,” and both adult and youth choruses will sing music from the 1990 movie Home Alone with the orchestra.

Just one out-of-town guest appears at this year’s Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops. But he’s hardly a newcomer to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage. In fact, he’s made seven past appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony for classical and pops concerts alike.

Singer Leon Williams, in his third Holiday Pops concert, joins the Grand Rapids Pops to sing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” in DeVos Performance Hall, which will be decked with boughs of holly for the Christmas season.

The adult Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, conducted by Pearl Shangkuan, joins the orchestra to sing G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus from The Messiah.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will be featured on John Rutter’s “Star Carol.”

Both choruses will sing music from the 1990 movie “Home Alone” with the orchestra.

Embellish handbell ensemble, directed by Stephanie Wiltse, will join the Symphony Chorus on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and will perform a virtuoso Change Ring Prelude on ‘Divinum Mysterium’ by Fred Gramann on a battery of handbells and chimes.

The Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 14, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15-16. Matinees will be at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16-17 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults.

Student tickets for concerts on Thursday, Dec. 14 and for the matinee on Saturday, Dec. 16 are available for $5. Full-time students of any age are able to purchase tickets for those two events on the night of the concert by enrolling in the GRS Student Tickets program.

Families with children are invited to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Holiday Pops Spectacular on Saturday, Dec. 16, just before the 3 p.m. matinee concert. Beginning at 1:30 p.m., children can enjoy festive treats, arts and crafts, games, and much more leading up to the concert at 3p.m. Tickets for the Holiday Pops Spectacular plus the Holiday Pops start at $20.

Tickets are available at the GRS ticket office at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, across the street from Calder Plaza. Buy tickets by calling (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or by going online at GRSymphony.org.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Join the Grand Rapids Symphony in Carnegie Hall when Marcelo Lehninger leads the orchestra back to the Big Apple in April.

When the Grand Rapids Symphony went to New York City’s Carnegie Hall more than 12 years ago, the orchestra not only brought its musicians, it also brought along much of its audience.

Music Critic Bernard Holland couldn’t help but notice. His review in the New York Times began, "The Grand Rapids Symphony came to Carnegie Hall on Saturday night and brought a good part of the city with it."

Not quite. But then-Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and his wife, Susan, were among more than 1,000 people in the audience of just over 2,000 who had purchased tickets through the Grand Rapids Symphony’s ticket office, just to see their hometown orchestra take the Big Apple by storm.

Grand Rapids Symphony in Carnegie Hall 2005

Now it’s your turn.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony, plus the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, back to New York City in April for a return appearance in Carnegie Hall.

“All the important American orchestras and all the great international orchestras perform at Carnegie Hall,” Lehninger said. “Therefore, it’s a very prestigious event for us.”

You’re invited to join us in one of the world’s greatest concert halls on Friday, April 20, 2018, for an amazing musical experience you’ll never forget.

Our good friends at Witte Travel & Tours in Grand Rapids have organized travel packages just for you to come to New York City to see the Grand Rapids Symphony along with special guest Nelson Freire, one of the world’s most eminent pianists.

Packages range from concert tickets and pre-concert and post-concert receptions to packages including airfare to New York City and hotel accommodations along with concert tickets and receptions.

Airfare choices even include the option of returning to Grand Rapids on Saturday, April 21 or remaining one more day in the “City that Never Sleeps” and returning on Sunday, April 22.

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Carnegie Hall Patron Packages are on sale now through Friday, Dec. 15.

Here’s why you should get a Patron Package from Witte Travel.

  • It Saves Time – You don't need to shop around to make reservations for flights, hotels or concert tickets. Select a package that suits your travel needs. 

  • Early Ticket Availability – Tickets to the Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall are not yet for sale anywhere else.

  • Insider Access – Witte’s travel packages include two private receptions with other patrons, Grand Rapids Symphony musicians and staff.

  • Prime Location – Stay right where the action is.  Your accommodations at the JW Marriott Essex House are two blocks from Carnegie Hall, and the post-concert reception will be held in the luxurious hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

  • Competitive Price – Visiting New York City isn’t cheap. Save money by taking advantage of group airfares and group hotel rates, including all taxes and fees. 

  • Peace of Mind – From the airport to the hotel to the concert hall and everything in between, Witte Travel & Tours takes care of the details. All you have to do is enjoy the experience.

Registrations and a deposit of $110 are due by Friday, Dec. 15, 2017.

Go online to bookings.wittetravel.com and enter booking code: 041918bort

For more information, call Whitney Llewellyn, Group Tour Specialist, at (616) 954-9676 or email whitneyl@wittetravel.com

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates the season with Grand Rapids Ballet and 'The Nutcracker' Ballet, Dec. 1-10

Of all of the Christmas traditions you know and love, one of the most beloved is seeing and hearing The Nutcracker.

In West Michigan, what you see is Grand Rapids Ballet dance its version of the story of Clara and her magical Nutcracker Doll.

What you hear is the Grand Rapids Symphony performing Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s magical score.

“When done right, it’s magic,” said GRS Associate Conductor John Varineau, who for many years has conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony in Grand Rapids Ballet’s annual production of the holiday favorite.

The enduring Christmas tradition opens Friday, Dec. 1 for eight performances over two weekends through Sunday, Dec. 10, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Three years ago, Grand Rapids Ballet unveiled a new production of The Nutcracker, co-designed by illustrator and Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsburg, author of The Polar Express, and by Eugene Lee, a Tony Award-winning set designer, who has designed for such shows as Sweeney Todd, The Lion King and Wicked.

'The Nutcracker' Ballet

Val Caniparoli, one of America’s leading choreographers, who has worked with Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Lyric Opera of Chicago, choreographed the ballet hat debuted in December 2014.

Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director Patricia Barker designed costumes for the production that sold out several shows during its premiere season. Some 21,000 saw the debut of Grand Rapids Ballet's first new production of The Nutcracker in three decades.

“Allsburg and Caniparoli were adamant from the beginning to focus on the original story of The Nutcracker,” Barker said. “Lee is also part of the vision and ensures from beginning to end you see the complete storyline of Clara coming of age and going through a wonderful adventure.”

Premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, The Nutcracker was not an immediate hit. One reason may have been because its premiere was part of a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, which was performed first followed by the ballet. The company’s prima ballerina, Antonietta Dell’era, didn’t appear on stage until the end of the Second Act, and the performance didn’t end until just past midnight.

On the other hand, the music from The Nutcracker was an immediate sensation. In preparation for the performances, Tchaikovsky carefully smuggled from Paris a newly invented celesta, the mini keyboard that produces the delicate, twinkling bell sounds used in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

Several months before the ballet’s premiere, Tchaikovsky conducted a highly acclaimed concert version of the musical score that featured much of the ballet’s most popular music including the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Russian Dance,” “Arabian Dance” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”

For many years, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” was far more popular than the ballet itself. Tchaikovsky himself, who died less than a year after its debut, didn’t think it was his best work, believing his Sleeping Beauty Ballet was better.

The Nutcracker was seldom performed in Europe for decades. But in the 1950s, another Russian, choreographer George Balanchine, brought it to the United States, creating a version for New York City Ballet that debuted in 1954.

Though its original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German, and its music was composed by a Russian and choreographed by a Frenchman and his Russian assistant, it was American audiences that made The Nutcracker a holiday tradition.

Grand Rapids Ballet’s production, featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1-2, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 2-3.

Performances continue next week at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 9-10.

Tickets start at $20. Call Grand Rapids Ballet at (616) 454-4771 or go online to grballet.com/nutcracker.

Caniparoli, who has served as a principal character dancer with San Francisco Ballet, returned to Grand Rapids in November to prepare for December’s performances.

“He continues to finesse and develop the strength of the work, especially as the dancers' talents evolve and emerge,” Barker said.

Choreographers typically revise their work, sometimes for particular dancers, but also because the passing of time gives them new insight into their earlier work.

Caniparoli hopes fans discover something new in this year's production.

“’Oh, I haven't seen that before,’” he said. “That's the fun part.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus celebrates 10th season of music making

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus has never been busier.

The Grand Rapids Symphony, the largest performing arts organization in West Michigan and the second largest in the Great Lake States, gives thanks this season for the 224 young singers in the choral organization led by Sean Ivory and Jackie Sonderfan Schoon.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus performs four times this November and December, twice with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Performance Hall.

In just nine years, the Symphony’s newest affiliate organization has become an indispensable and integral part of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Its members have joined the orchestra for music including Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which helped launch the organization in 2007, and for events such as LiveArts, a multimedia, multi-genre extravaganza that filled the Van Andel Arena to capacity in April 2015.

“Being able to give kids the opportunity to work on larger choral works with orchestra, or on our own smaller projects, makes it all worthwhile,” said Ivory, founder and current director of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony Chorus as well as vocal music instructor at Forest Hills Central High School in Ada. “And it helps them develop an appetite for live symphonic music, which I think is vitally important to the art form.”

Part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music, a network of 17 access points for people of all ages to engage with orchestral music, the GRSYC’s three choirs, plus a select ensemble, form a graded, tuition-based program that maintains a tradition of choral excellence for young singers in West Michigan. The Youth Chorus, under Sean Ivory, currently has 115 singers.

Two training choirs, the Prelude Chorus, numbering 42 singers, and Junior Youth Chorus, with 67 young musicians, are directed by Jackie Sonderfan Schoon.

Following its own fall concert on Nov. 3, GRSYC singers joined with the Grand Rapids Symphony for its performance of The Snowman on Nov. 11 in DeVos Hall, part of the 2017-18 DTE Energy Foundation Family Series. Members of its select ensemble, Mandala, performed Howard Blake’s haunting song “Walking in the Air,” which helped make the animated short famous.

The entire choral program gives its own Holiday Concert in the Basilica of St. Adalbert on Sunday, Dec. 10 with performances at 4:30 p.m. and at 7 p.m. The Prelude Chorus only performs at the afternoon program.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus will return to DeVos Hall with the Grand Rapids Symphony for five performances of the popular Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops, Dec. 14-17.

In addition to performances at home, singers in the program have toured nationally and internationally. The GRSYC traveled to Trinidad in April 2016 and will journey to Iceland next year. Earlier this year in March, the Junior Youth Chorus was one of several choruses from across the country that premiered Dan Forrest's Jubilate Deo in New York City’s Carnegie Hall with eminent youth choir director Henry Leck as guest conductor. 

“These are works and events the singers remember fondly for years,” said Ivory, who also is principal conductor of the Calvin College Oratorio Society and an adjunct professor at Calvin College.

Singers who have graduated from the program include Elisabeth Keen, who studied international development at Calvin College and now lives in Perth, Australia, where she works with Youth With A Mission. Another graduate, Rebecca DeBoer, currently is a student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. In addition to pursuing environmental studies, she sings in the famous St. Olaf Choir led by Anton Armstrong, a former professor of music at Calvin College as well as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in the 1980s.

“My hope is that the high level of artistry we expect from members of the GRSYC will translate into a lifetime of appreciation, if not continued participation, in a choral group or live orchestra concerts,” said Ivory.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, November 21, 2017
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