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Recap: Second City skewers the symphony in hilarious Grand Rapids Pops show at LaughFest

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Classical music is serious stuff.

Bach, Beethoven and the rest of the boys tackled such matters as salvation of the soul and brotherhood of mankind in their music. Mahler, when he composed his symphonies, set out to compose an entire world.

Mahler apparently had a side gig as well, writing jingles to sell blue jeans.

If that never popped up in college music appreciate class, you’ll just have to take Second City’s word for it.

Mind you, no one said Mahler was any good at selling jeans. But Second City was very good at getting laughs.

The legendary improvisatory comedy troupe joined the Grand Rapids Pops in DeVos Performance Hall for “Second City’s Guide to the Symphony.” It was a great night full of laughs.

The Fox Motors Pops series show, which opened Friday, March 16, took a satirical look at symphony orchestras, classical music, musicians, audiences and more. The show held in conjunction with Gilda’s LaughFest repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17-18. Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available.

The cast of four men and three women  – Marty Adams, Matt Baram, Ashley Botting, Carly Heffernan, Darryl Hinds, Allison Price and Conner Thompson –entertained with sketches including a first date between a man and a woman who try to impress each other with their breadth and depth of knowledge of classical music only to fail miserably as well as hysterically.

The show also included original songs, which sometimes rose to the caliber of a Broadway musical, including a rap between Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons, Wilhelm Friedrich and Carl Philip Emmanuel, over which is the better Bach. (Spoiler alert: It was another brother from the other mother).

At times, “Second City’s Guide to the Symphony,” reached for a grand metaphor that all of life is a symphony. Or how the personal soundtrack that plays in our heads, incidental music in a film score, can change our mood and behavior.

Other times, it was fundamentally down-to-earth. Such as a couple of concertgoers who arrive late and try to sneak their way into the hall past unsympathetic ushers spoiling for a fight.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the orchestra in the show as well as participated in several sketches. Assorted topical references to East Grand Rapids, Hudsonville and Frederik Meijer Gardens worked their way into the script along with an actual introduction to several musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The show took a closer look at audiences from season-ticket holders and classical music aficionados to those whose primary motivation for coming to a symphony concert seems to be to cough, unwrap candy or send text messages only with live music in the background.

Humor sometimes was definitely PG-13. A song about the sheer number of great composers who died young, died penniless or died in agony due to a lack of penicillin was decidedly dark.

Second City is legendary for their improvisational sketches. The cast took an idea from the audience for a freewheeling improvisation that called upon them to make up songs on the spot.

The turned out to be beer, particularly beer from Grand Rapids own Founders Brewery, and the made-up songs included improvisation from saxophonist Ed Clifford, trombonist Dan Mattson, double bassist Mark Bucher and percussionist Bill Vits.

It was, at times, a wickedly difficult show to perform. Varineau and the orchestra got several solo moments, playing selections such as the Overture to Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”

With the Second City cast coming from Toronto, a distinctly Canadian undercurrent of humor permeated the show.

“I’ll start out by saying I’m sorry,” host Matt Baram said at the outset. “I don’t know why, it just feels right.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, March 17, 2018

Second City comedy troupe joins Grand Rapids Pops at Gilda's LaughFest for 'The Second City Guide to the Symphony,' March 16-18

From Bugs Bunny to Monty Python to Victor Borge, classical music and comedy have been long-time pals.

And like the best buddy comedies, the mirth rests on an incongruous pairing. The tradition and rituals of classical music serve as the comedic straight-man, with the irreverent and earnest comedic talent throwing periodic, sometimes earthy, curveballs.

From The Odd Couple to Tommy Boy and more recently to the 21 Jump Street remake, incongruous pairings not only provide laughter, they can also, in an odd way, bring out the best in each other.

At Second City: Guide to the Symphony, Second City and the Grand Rapids Symphony unite in a pairing that brings out the best in comedians and musicians alike, with flair fit for Gilda’s Laughfest.  

Hailed by the Toronto Star in its inaugural run in 2014 as “the funniest two hours I spent in a theatre this year,” Second City: Guide to the Symphony was created by four writers/actors from Toronto’s Second City and was first produced in collaboration with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Peter Oundjian.

It’s possible that the arrival of the famed Second City, who has produced such comedic greats as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Martin Short, and dozens of others, could come at no better time.

Laughfest, which opened March 8 and featured its signature event with Trevor Noah on March 10, ends Sunday, March 18, just a few hours after the final performance of Second City: Guide to the Symphony.

Grand Rapids Pops presents Second City: Guide to the Symphony on March 16-18 in DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW. Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 16-17 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 18. Tickets start at $18.

With the online promo code, an additional 10% of all sales will be donated to Gilda’s Club.

A blend of original sketch comedy with orchestral works by the great masters and new music and songs by Mathew Reid, Second City: Guide to the Symphony satirizes all things symphony: the musicians, the repertoire, the personalities, and even the audiences.

The show is lighthearted and satirical; earnest and sassy, with nod and wink humor meant for ages 15 and older.

With Associate Conductor John Varineau on the podium, the music of Mozart, Mahler and Glinka provides the straight-man for strange uncles, mutinous high school orchestras, and erotically-charged rock-n-rollers in sketches that lampoon, satirize, and above all, celebrate the symphony orchestra.

Described by the Toronto Star as “a beautifully written, skillfully staged and an impeccably performed piece of musical theatre,” the show has reached symphony new-comers unfamiliar classical music greats, as well as regular symphony-goers; most recently in Washington D.C. where the National Symphony Orchestra performed with the comedic talent from Toronto’s Second City.

“Self-aware… a fun departure from what unconverted members of the audience assumed a symphony was,” wrote the Washington Post about the filled-to-the-brim performances at the National Symphony Orchestra.

It’s worth noting that Laughfest, in addition to providing comedic relief, brings together diverse audiences each year in March and celebrates laughter as “an essential part of emotional health and wellbeing.”

Comedian, conductor, and pianist Victor Borge summed it up like this: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”

It’s with laughter that buddy comedies find their rhythm. It’s with laughter that an incongruous pairing of people realize that they’re actually really good together. Like Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers; like Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black; like Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids, it’s a moment where laughter closes any distance that was there.

This weekend, Second City performers, together with the Grand Rapids Symphony, provide a show filled not only with mirth and satire, but with moments that close any distance there was.

Written by Jenn Collard, Grand Rapids Symphony Public Relations Intern


Posted by Marketing Intern at Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony salutes songs of Ella Fitzgerald at 17th 'Symphony with Soul' show

The songs of Ella Fitzgerald are timeless.

Songs such as S’Wonderful are everlasting, not only because they’re shining examples of the Great American Songbook, but also because they were performed and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald.

The same can be said for Symphony with Soul, Grand Rapids Symphony’s enduring concert of American music celebrating diversity and promoting inclusion in its community.

“We have challenged ourselves to ask, as well as to answer the question, how do we make the Grand Rapids Symphony yours, mine and ours?” said President and CEO Peter Perez at the Celebration of Soul gala and dinner that preceded the Symphony with Soul concert on Saturday, February 24.

GR Symphony's 2018 Symphony with Soul

The 17th annual concert in DeVos Performance Hall led by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt featured the Grand Rapids Symphony performing music by Duke Ellington, joined by the Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus, singing in the gospel tradition.

Two special guest singers joining the orchestra for Ella, A Tribute, a salute to songs of Ella Fitzgerald.

“It’s beautiful to see how it’s grown,” said Duane Davis, who has been part of Symphony with Soul since its debut in 2002, speaking in DeVos Hall on Saturday.

The evening concert was preceded by Celebration of Soul gala, a dinner and awards ceremony honoring people and institutions who have worked tirelessly to advance multicultural understanding and equity.

Honorees included Herschell Turner, Skot and Barbara Welch, and Celebration! Cinema who were presented with the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award, named for the co-pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center church who died in 2010. MaLinda Sapp, together with her husband, gospel singer Bishop Marvin Sapp, had been honored perviously with the award, which later was renamed in her memory.

“I’m still pleased to be part of this event,” Sapp said at the Celebration of Soul gala. “It’s doing great things for our community.”

GR Symphony's 2018 Celebration of Soul

In recent years, Symphony with Soul has welcomed special guests who need little introduction such as Lalah Hathaway, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony last year. This year’s star was the First Lady of Song, but the singers channeling Fitzgerald’s music were no less impressive than such past special guests as Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Broadway star and jazz vocalist Aisha de Haas, who has performed in the national tour of Newsies, and singer Nova Y. Payton, who sang at the dedication of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, brought the audience to life with their opening number, It Don’t Mean A Thing.

Songs including How High the Moon and Satin Doll wowed the audience of nearly 1,600, interwoven with stories of Ella Fitzgerald’s life. Born in 2017, she rose from a poor inner city girl to a world famous singer and jazz vocalist who would win a total of 13 Grammy Awards including Grammys for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance, Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album and a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Payton’s medium tempo performance of Blues in the Night was torchy and touching at the same time while her operatic delivery on Summertime was simply stunning.

Haan's sassy version of A-Tisket, A-Tasket was a delight, and her Fitzgerald-influenced interpretation of Over the Rainbow was very beautiful and very Ella.

Fitzgerald was the best improvisational scat singer of her day, and both Payton and Haan were worthy interpreters, bringing down the house with sweet and sultry scat singing on Blues Skies and Lady is A Tramp.

Bernhardt, appearing for the second time at Symphony with Soul, led the orchestra and audience in a joyfully uplifting chorus of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing to open the evening.

Though it isn’t Christmas, it’s always the right season for music by Duke Ellington. The supersized Grand Rapids Symphony, equipped with a saxophones and extra brass to fill out a big band, entertained with highlights of Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite.

A highlight of the program was a performance of Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholars led by Jill Collier Warne, director of Creative Connections.

The Mosaic Scholarship Program, made possible through a gift from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, provides talented African-American and Latino students with musical instrument rental, private, one-on-one lessons with a professional musician from the Grand Rapids Symphony, and tickets to Grand Rapids Symphony concerts.

Once a year, the entire group of scholars comes together under the leadership of Creative Connections to compose and perform an original musical composition. The end result always is fascinating, and this year’s performance was no exception to see how 20 teenage musicians came together to weave a tapestry of melody, harmony and rhythm in a large scale musical work.

“In truth, not one note of that was written a week ago,” Bernhardt told the audience, garnering a second round of applause for the Scholars.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus led by Duane Davis was joined by narrator Eddie L. Stephens, Jr., for Davis’ original work, Portrait of a Leader, a salute to Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a moving journey through King’s work with excerpts from his famous speeches and musical excerpts from hymns such as In Bright Mansions Above, There Is a Balm in Gilead and We Shall Overcome, tied together by Davis and affectionately played by the orchestra.

The piece calls to mind the upcoming 50th anniversary in April of King’s assassination in 1968.

"It’s amazing after all this time,” Davis told the audience, “we’re still trying to get it right.”

Through music, the Grand Rapids Symphony is doing what it can to get it right.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholars, with Creative Connections, find their voice

Instrument cases and winter coasts were pushed up against the wall, and black chairs were arranged in a circle. On a cold, gray Saturday morning, 17 Grand Rapids Symphony Mosaic Scholars held their instruments – woodwinds, strings, and horns – and sat in a large circle inside a recital hall at DeVos Performance Hall.

After each Scholar played the opening seven-note sequence from Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” as performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, they shared their expectations and dreams for the week ahead of them.

“I want to step outside of my comfort zone,” said one student.

“I’m excited to push myself creatively,” said another Scholar.

“I’m excited for making a bigger family of Mosaic Scholarship,” came another earnest statement.

Part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music Initiative, the Mosaic Scholarship program provides local African-American and Hispanic music students, ages 12-18, with 24 one-on-one lessons with symphony musicians over the course of one year. Selected through an application and audition process, Scholars, with the help of music lessons, enhance their musical capabilities while simultaneously developing skillsets that empower both personal and professional success.

In addition to the individual lessons, scholars have the opportunity to form an ensemble that performs an original composition at the Grand Rapids Symphony's upcoming Celebration of Soul dinner and Symphony with Soul concert, both on Saturday, February 24. This year’s concert, titled Ella, a Tribute, celebrates Ella Fitzgerald’s phenomenal, prolific music career with special guest vocalists Aisha de Haas and Nova Y. Payton.

Symphony with Soul is at 8 p.m.Tickets for the Grand Rapids Symphony's 17th annual concert start at $18 adults, $5 students.

Facilitated by Creative Connections, an international organization that provides unique opportunities to creatively explore and express stories, ideas, and emotions through music, the Mosaic Scholars begin their work of creating musical alchemy with a week-long, intensive process that is as off-beat and meaningful as it is effective.

Grand Rapidian Jill Collier Warne began Creative Connections in 2009 with several colleagues from the Peabody Institute of The John Hopkins University in Baltimore, including Traverse City native Daniel Trahey. As its director, Warne, working with Trahey and Camille Delaney and Peter Tashjian in Grand Rapids, provides the conceptual framework that guides the student-centered creative process.

That framework rests on a simple premise: Empowered students can create meaningful, original music, and, along the way, form a community that helps nurture them as musicians and young adults.

Students engage in multiple workshops where they are treated as creative collaborators – the generative force of the musical enterprise. Watching students as they crafted compositional elements in real time was watching a team be formed right before your very eyes.

“I have an idea,” one lanky, jovial Mosaic Scholar began as he walked into the circle formed by his fellow Scholars on Saturday morning.

After telling drummer Peter Tashjian what kind of beat he wanted, all of the Scholars played along, trying the same seven-note sequence in an entirely new way.

Not long after, another Scholar stood and suggested a different, jazzier feel for the music, something akin to Bernstein’s West Side Story, with unusual intervals and jagged beats – at once compelling and interesting. The musical backbone of the original composition the Scholars would create was beginning to take shape. 

Large-group and small-group workshops gave scholars the chance to try those new compositional elements: rhythmic sequences inspired by cadences of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, lyrics inspired by a free-write association with the word, “dream,” and melodies inspired by Ella Fitzgerald’s extensive jazz catalogue.

With this synthesis of social justice themes and free-form musical possibilities, the Mosaic Scholars were encouraged to take risks, both individually and corporately, toward the shared endeavor of music-making.

Speaking to Johns Hopkin’s The Hub in 2013, Warne explained that she’s learned to trust the process of facilitating students’ creativity.

“I think that kids are super empowered by it because the whole process is saying ‘yes’ all the time, and any idea goes. Why not go for something that maybe some other teacher might say was impossible or that you’ve never really been given the opportunity to try before?”

Such an opportunity is rare.

In May, the Mosaic Scholars also will perform at their free recital at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 12 in DeVos Recital Hall. There they will perform solo pieces they have been perfecting in their lessons by familiar classical composers.  

All symphonic music, like team sports, is collaborative by nature. Still, those enterprises, particularly at the middle and high school levels, ask students to collaborate on something that’s already been created. How often does the high school football coach ask his cadre of players to design and then practice entirely new plays for the upcoming football game?

“Let’s look at Belichick’s latest Super Bowl footage, young men, and then, in small groups, you can riff off those plays and brainstorm five original plays we’ll use next week in the playoffs.” 

How often does the band or symphonic director invite her students to fashion new melodies and rhythms for the upcoming concert?

“Now, after listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, go ahead and create your own opening sequence that is exhilarating and cinematic to be performed at our next concert.” 

It’s likely, such phrases have rarely, if ever, been uttered.

Perhaps it’s an approach that high school music and athletics should take. To watch the Mosaic Scholars as they came to trust each other, forming, as one Scholar put it, “a musical family,” was remarkable; a creative enterprise with long-lasting impact.    

Written by Jenn Collard, Public Relations Intern


Posted by Marketing Intern at Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Recap: Tasteful, elegant music fills St. Cecilia Music Center for Grand Rapids Symphony's Classical Concert

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The Classical Era in Classical Music is a favorite for many music fans, including Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

What’s not to like? Music the Viennese masters is substantial and satisfying, but it’s also light and cheery.

You can’t go wrong with Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart, especially not when it’s played by the Grand Rapids Symphony in St. Cecilia Music Center. It’s the right music played by the right orchestra in the right setting.

The third concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Great Eras series went swimmingly on Friday, February, 16, with delightful melodies and superb ensemble playing by the core of the orchestra, with the added bonus of Principal Second Violinist Eric Tanner  as soloist.

The program featured Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, Two Rondos by Mozart, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Highlights were performed earlier on Friday morning for the Porter Hills Coffee Classics Series.

Remarkably, few years separated the lives of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of whom spent time in Vienna, the world’s most important city for music in the late 18th century. All three knew each other to some degree and influenced each other.

Beethoven’ Symphony No. 8, for instance, though a late work by Beethoven, bears an unmistakable Haydnesque flavor and structure.

What’s more, Lehninger took a light, zippy approach to the performance, especially the trio. He preceded it with a colorful, often humorous explanation of how conductors pick tempos for Beethoven’s music. Suffice to say, the jury’s out

 But at this concert, Lehninger opted for a fast-paced performance. Still, clarity, clarity and more clarity was the result, thanks to magnificent ensemble playing. Lehninger deftly handled interior lines and counter melodies and made the most of propulsive passages.

The end results was a passionate but refined performance, and a reminder that even Beethoven’s less-frequently heard symphonies still are magnificent.

Tanner, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1996 and was appointed Principal Second Violin in 1999, made his eighth solo appearance with the orchestra to play two Rondos by Mozart, one in B-Flat, one in C major. The Grand Rapids Symphony is blessed with many fine soloists. Tanner is one of them.

Both were tasteful and elegant performances yet also focused and determined. Tanner wrote composed his own solo cadenzas for both, and all were well in character with the music. He played both with a flourish.

The middle of the program was given over to Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 to recognize that 2017-18 is the Grand Rapids Symphony’ 88nd season. It’s among the lesser heard, though not unknown, of Haydn’s 104 symphonies, a truly astonishing figure.

One of the pleasures of listening to Haydn is he never stopped learning and growing as a composer. You’re always aware that he’s trying out new ideas to see what works, and it’s just as delightful for the audience to share in the discover hundreds of years later.

Lehninger’s approach was full of good cheer, even with the sturdy German approach to the minuet. The finale was a really big finish.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 17, 2018

GR Symphony violinist Eric Tanner is soloist for evening of Beethoven, Haydn & Mozart on Friday

In the late 18th century, professional musicians typically were composers as well as performers, generally writing music for themselves to play.

Even when they performed their own virtuoso works for soloist and orchestra, composers such as Mozart and Beethoven typically improvised solo cadenzas on the spot to show off their skills as both performer and composer.

Today, concerto soloists almost always play a previously composed solo cadenza. Violinist Eric Tanner, however, will play his own cadenzas with the Grand Rapids Symphony when he performs two Rondos by Mozart.

“This was the tradition during the Classical era, so I thought it was fitting to try my hand at it too,” said Tanner, who is Principal Second Violinist of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The 2017-18 Crowe Horwath Great Eras series continues with The Classical Concert: Beethoven, Haydn & Mozart at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 16, in St. Cecilia Music Center, 24 Ransom Ave. NW.

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

Tickets start at $26 for the Great Eras series and $16 for Coffee Classics. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony ticket office at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by the three Viennese masters for the third concert in the four-concert series held in Royce Auditorium.

The program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, the latter in honor of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 88th season in 2017-18.

Tanner steps in front of the orchestra as soloist in Two Rondos for Violin and Orchestra, one in B-flat Major and one in C Major, both by Mozart.

Tanner, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1996 and was appointed Principal Second Violin in 1999, is making his eighth solo appearance with the orchestra. His previous solo appearances include performing the Brahms’ Double Concerto together with his brother, cellist Mark Tanner, in 2005, and performing as soloist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in 2007.

Eric Tanner has held positions in the Florida Philharmonic, New Orleans Symphony, Springfield Symphony and American Sinfonietta. He served as Concertmaster of the North Miami Beach Symphony where he performed the Bruch Violin Concerto with the orchestra. 

Along with violinist Joshua Bell, Tanner was a finalist in 1982 in the first annual SEVENTEEN Magazine and General Motors Concerto Competition, in addition to other competitions and awards. 

Along with serving as second violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s DeVos String Quartet, Tanner is first violinist of the Perugino String Quartet, which was founded at Grand Valley State University, where he also taught violin from 1997 to 2011. With the Perugino Quartet, Tanner has performed in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts at the invitation of the Juilliard Quartet. 

No one is certain why Mozart wrote either of these two Rondos, which is a musical form with a principal musical theme that alternates with a series of contrasting themes.

It’s likely Mozart wrote them for his friend and colleague, the Italian violinist Antonio Brunetti, who was leader of the court orchestra at Salzburg, where Mozart began his adult career as a musician.

The Rondo in B-flat dates from about 1776 followed by the Rondo in C, which was composed in April 1781, just before Mozart left Salzburg to become a freelance musician in Vienna.

“It’s very probable the Rondo in C was written for Brunetti for a special concert at the palace to show visiting dignitaries from Vienna that Salzburg wasn't just a distant hick town,” Tanner said with a smile.

Tanner, who had never performed these pieces until recently decided to tackle the challenge of writing his own cadenzas for both.

"I wrote them before listening to any recordings of other cadenzas, of which there are many," he said. "I'm happy to say that, except for one small harmony adjustment, I didn't make any changes to what I'd written after listening to the others."

"I hope the audience will enjoy something fresh, and I'll be interested to hear what people think afterwards," he added.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The magic of Harry Potter returns to Grand Rapids Pops with 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' Friday and Saturday

Last season, when the Grand Rapids Pops brought the Harry Potter Film Concert series to town, the Grand Rapids Symphony sold out three performances of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the musical score played live by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

When Harry Potter battled talking spiders and giant snakes, dealt with a charming but inept Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and finally faced the memory of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, an audience filled DeVos Performance Hall.

Now, Pottermania is back for more.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the series, comes to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage for three performances on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 9-10.

Tickets, starting at $18, are available, but they’re going fast for three shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday with a matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, Ron and Hermione, now teenagers, return for their third year at Hogwarts, where they are forced to face escaped prisoner, Sirius Black, who seems to pose a great threat to Harry.

Harry and his friends spend their third year learning how to handle a half-horse, half-eagle creature known as a Hippogriff, repel shape-shifting Boggarts, and master the art of Divination. They also visit the wizarding village of Hogsmeade and the Shrieking Shack, considered the most haunted dwelling in Britain.

In addition to these new experiences, Harry faces a werewolf and must overcome the threats of the soul-sucking Dementors. With his best friends, Harry tackles advanced magic, crosses the barriers of time and alters the course of events for those around him.

This weekend, the lobby of DeVos Performance Hall will be decorated in trappings of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Guests can take photos with a Sorting Hat or sample specialty drinks inspired by the world of magic in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions.

Created by author J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon unlike any ever seen before. Rowling’s seven books have sold more than 400 million copies and counting, making Rowling the world’s only billionaire author.

The Harry Potter Film Concert Series, created by CineConcert in conjunction with Warner Bros. presents the original film in high-definition on a 40-foot screen with a full-scale symphony orchestra performing musical score by Williams, who also created film scores for “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” as well as for many of the films to follow in those franchises. He also scored “Saving Private Ryan,” “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List” among a galaxy of blockbuster films.

“I think that John Williams is one of the great geniuses of all music, not just film,” Freer said in an interview on last year.

Grand Rapids Symphony was among the first orchestras in the world to present Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone after the series debuted in June 2016.

It since has become a worldwide phenomenon, scheduled to include hundreds of performances across more than 35 countries around the world through 2018.

Still, it’s hard to imagine audiences anywhere could be as excited to relive the tale of the boy who lived as they were for the Grand Rapids Pops debut in January 2017 that sold out three performances totaling more than 7,000 people, many dressed in wizard’s robes or in the house colors of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Odds are everyone who attended has seen the movie before, possibly many times over. The shared experience makes it special. So does the live music, which generates excitement because it’s fresh and new. It’s familiar but also a little bit different.

Even as you get caught up in the experience of watching a lively game of Quidditch or the deadly drama of a game of Wizard’s Chess, you’re aware nonetheless that what you’re hearing is coming at you live. The air crackles with excitement.

What’s more, the truly surround sound of a 90-piece orchestra in a concert hall reveals aspects of the music not as apparent in the original movie soundtrack. The first time the Grand Rapids Symphony performed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s, nearly everyone stayed put for more than five minutes of end credits to listen to the Grand Rapids Symphony play. When was the last time you saw that in a movie theater?

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Recap: Fun and good times with Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

It’s almost impossible to believe how old Gustav Holst’s The Planets is. The symphonic suite sounds fresh from the cinema and a killer opening weekend for the latest sci-fi blockbuster.

In fact, the English composer began work on the seven-movement work in 1914 at the end of the horse-and-buggy era. The Planets only sounds like the soundtrack for a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before because film composers have drawn inspiration from its rhythms and energy.

Composers such as John Williams have chosen wisely. The Planets is a big work that packs a big wallop, and even more so with the full forces of the Grand Rapids Symphony under the capable baton of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

The fifth concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series ended with a standing ovation lasting nearly 5 minutes on Friday, February 2. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 3 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Lehninger, in his second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, came to have fun. When he entered the hall to conduct Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 on the first half, Lehninger scampered up the podium like a kid about to board a roller coaster. He just couldn’t wait.

The audience was ready to have a good time as well. Scattered applause followed nearly every movement throughout Friday’s concert from start to finish.

Though it’s a well-known piece to concert goers, Lehninger’s performance was thoroughly enjoyable. The insistent energy and ambitious scope of “Mars, The Bringer of War,” was exciting, making full use of a big orchestra that filled the stage. The robust melodies and deftly executed mixed meters of “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” left the audience gasping at the end. “Uranus, The Magician,” was stately and lively at the same time and full of sparkling moments.

The same was true for the softer movements. Exposed solos in Venus, The Bringer of Peace,” were delightful. The nimbleness and agility of “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” was mesmerizing. In the final movement, “Neptune, The Mystic,” the voices of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, singing off stage, entered the performance so unobtrusively, it took minutes for many in the audience to realize what they were hearing.

The Planets really has nothing to do with the actual planets. Rather, Holst, an amateur astrologer, was inspired by the astrological significance of the planets and their effects on the human psyche. Not surprisingly, it’s music that pushes the emotional buttons.

Nevertheless, the performance of the 48 minute work was accompanied by video of outer space and interplanetary exploration created by the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Some of the footage was animated, but much of the film was actual video. The journey across the Martian landscape or through the rings of Saturn at times was breathtaking.

The Planets is a big piece and a tough piece. Before giving the downbeat for the Holst suite on the second half, Lehninger joked from the stage that the hard music was over. He wasn’t entirely joking.

It’s not that the music of the Classical Era was difficult to play, note by note, phrase by phrase. The trick is, the music is so transparent, it’s a challenge to put together artfully.

The concert inspired by celestial bodies opened with Haydn’s Overture to Il mondo della luna or The World on the Moon, a cheery piece seldom heard in the concert hall. The performance was crisp, lively and clean with a bit of drama but all in good order.

It continued in the first half with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, which would be his final composition in the symphonic form before his untimely death at age 35. It also would become the most popular and arguably the greatest of his symphonies.

Its nickname had nothing to do with the planet or with astrology. It was dubbed “Jupiter” for its size and scope. At 30 minutes in length, it was really big. It also was really beautiful.

The opening, alternately martial and lyrical, was clean but not antiseptic

The soothing andante that followed featured an enchanting interplay of winds. The earnest minuet cleverly sets the stage for the finale, and Lehninger made the most of its arrival on the scene.

The finale, a large-scale fugue, is a wonder that has amazed music lovers for more than two centuries. In lesser hands, it would be an academic tutorial in counterpoint. In Mozart’s hands, it’s five themes worth of magnificent music.

Lehninger led a performance full of passion, yet played with such precision and poise, it was satisfying for both the heart and the head.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 3, 2018

Hear Grand Rapids Symphony play the music that inspired film music from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek'

When the words “Star Wars” first burst onto the movie screen to the sweeping accompaniment of a symphony orchestra in 1977, the first blockbuster film, with a soundtrack to match, was born.

Composer John Williams would go on to become one of the most important film composers of modern times. One of the secrets to his success was how he drew inspiration from classical music.

The driving rhythms of Williams’ Imperial Death March in Star Wars were inspired by Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets. Specifically, from the opening movement, “Mars, Bringer of War.”

In fact, Star Wars producer George Lucas encouraged Williams to use Holst’s seven-movement suite for inspiration while composing the score for the epic space adventure. Listen to some comparisons in this YouTube video.

Plenty of composers since then have followed suit.

“Gustav Holst can be seen as unintentionally being one of the greatest movie composers of all time, inspiring many film scores of the last 50 years,” according to blogger Nathan Spendelow on the website Inside Film.

Grand Rapids Symphony presents Holst’s The Planets on Friday and Saturday, February 2-3, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the multimedia program featuring video of outer space courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium.

The full-length video accompanying the seven-movement suite includes images of the planets, its moons, and the spacecraft that have visited each, including photographs of Jupiter taken during the Juno mission and images of Saturn from the Cassini mission.

Animations and simulations of galaxies, nebulae, other deep space objects, and flights through the stars are part of the video, with including content and imagery from Evans and Sutherland, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Tickets for The Planets, the fifth concert of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concert start at $18 adults, $5 students for the 8 p.m. concerts.

Lehninger also will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, nicknamed “Jupiter,” and Haydn’s Overture to Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon).

Members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will be featured in The Planets.

Holst, though not a believer in astrology, was inspired by the astrological associations of the planets when he composed his seven-movement suite more than 100 years ago.

Three of the seven movements, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” and “Neptune, the Mystic,” are among the most frequently quoted compositions of all time.

Film scores for such well-known movies as Aliens, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and The Terminator all suggest inspiration from The Planets. In the original Star Wars film, “Episode IV: A New Hope,” the music in the concluding act that sees Luke Skywalker firing his proton torpedo into the exhaust port of the Death Star, becoming louder as the tension builds, follows the same format as “Mars” from The Planets.

Other TV shows and movies that quote directly from The Planets include the 2010 TV series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and the 2008 film Hellboy II: The Golden Army with Ron Perlman and Selma Blair.”

The 1983 film The Right Stuff, the story of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris, uses excerpts from “Jupiter,” “Mars” and “Neptune.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Best songs, best singers come to Grand Rapids Pops stage for Blockbuster Broadway, Jan. 26-28

The great Broadway shows have staying power. If you see it once and fall in love with it, years later you’ll feel the same.

That’s why shows such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music and A Chorus Line return again and again.

The same is true for singers and actors who bring the shows to life. When a show is revived, sometimes you see the same faces and hear the same voices again.

Jessica Hendy was a young actress, fresh from college, when she joined the chorus of the original Broadway production of Cats in 1999. Though it debuted in 1982, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber still was going strong when she served as an understudy for Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, on Broadway as well as on the national tour that ended in 2000.

When Cats was revived in 2016, Hendy was cast again as an understudy and replacement for Grizabella after years of living and acting regionally in her native Cincinnati.

“Getting back on Broadway is kind of the great affirmation that I made the right choice,” Hendy told WCPO-TV in Cincinnati in July 2016.

Hendy, who has appeared previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, returns to West Michigan for Blockbuster Broadway, a salute to show-stopping tunes from Broadway’s biggest hits.

The Fox Motors Pops series show is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 26-27, and at 3 p.m., January 28, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Four stars of the Broadway stage and New York City cabaret will join the orchestra for songs from Wicked, Annie, Jersey Boys, Chicago and Cats among others.

Associate Conductor John Varineau leads the Grand Rapids Pops in tunes you love in three performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 26-27, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, all under Associate Conductor John Varineau.

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students. For tickets and more information, call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to

The cast includes Scott Coulter and Kelli Rabke. Like Hendy, who also has starred on Broadway as Amneris in Elton John’s Aida, Rabke recently revived her career.

A native of West Orange, New Jersey, Rabke has appeared on Broadway in 1994-95 as Eponine in Les Misérables and as the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. On television, Kelli played the recurring role of Bernadette on The Young and the Restless and can be seen in countless commercials. After taking time away from show business to start a family, Rabke returned to the stage with No Place Like Home, her cabaret debut.

“I was definitely nervous,” she said to New Jersey Stage Magazine in September 2016. “And I still am. Every time I get on stage I’m nervous and I think that’s a good sign. It shows that you continue to care. The day that I’m cavalier about standing in front of people and singing, I’ll probably need to sit back down.”

Scott Coulter has performed all over the world in the revue Stephen Schwartz & Friends with Schwartz, and with  Debbie Gravitte, who has performed previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony; and Liz Callaway, whose sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, appeared last season on the Grand Rapids Pops stage.

Coulter, who has received five awards from Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs and five Bistro Awards, was director and star of A Christmas Carol: The Symphonic Concert with the Baltimore Symphony, the Emmy-nominated PBS production that premiered in December 2013.

Coulter has performed previously in West Michigan at Farmers Alley Theater near Kalamazoo in March 2012. But her first appearance was in 1991 when he spent the summer in Kalamazoo, playing Jack in a production of Into the Woods with Kalamazoo Civic Theatre.

In 2012, Coulter told MLive that his years in theater in shows such as Into the Woods influence his cabaret work.

“I think of my style as musical storytelling. I do pretty familiar material, but people often tell me they felt like they head the song for the first time or in a new light,” he said. “I love hearing that.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 23, 2018
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