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Grand Rapids Symphony takes audience from Bach to beyond in 2018-19 Great Eras opener at St. Cecilia Music Center

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach needs no reason, justification or explanation. You need not wait for a particular season, a special event or an anniversary date. Bach is the man.

You hear a lot of Bach in the cathedral. Not so much in the concert hall. Sadly, Bach flourished and died well before the modern symphony orchestra came into its own. One wonders what he might have composed for the orchestras that Beethoven and Brahms had at their disposal.

The Grand Rapids Bach Festival returns in March with a week devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But the Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 2018-19 PwC Great Eras Series with a taste of what’s to come.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger was on the podium for The Baroque Concert: Bach and Beyond on Friday, Oct. 12, in St. Cecilia Music Center, which the Grand Rapids Symphony also performed the following day at the Jack H. Miller Center at Hope College in Holland.

Earlier on Friday, Lehninger and the orchestra performed a portion of the evening program at St. Cecilia to open the 2018-19 Porter Hills Coffee Classics series.

Principal Oboist Ellen Sherman was the guest soloist in Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe in C minor. Lehninger led a clean performance of precision and clarity by the Italian composer, a contemporary of J.S. Bach’s and one that Bach admired.

The expressive, Italian passion was provided by Sherman, whose impeccable phrasing and sweet, mellow tone was a joy to experience as she held court among a small ensemble of just 15 musicians. The tasteful intensity of the finale was delightful. The bouquet of flowers Sherman was presented at the end was well deserved.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger slowly is introducing Grand Rapids to the music and culture of Latin America, and there’s no better place to start than with Heitor Villa-Lobos, who is to Brazilian music what Aaron Copland is to American music.

Lehninger led the orchestra in two movements of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras No. 9, one of several works that Villa-Lobos wrote using wrote using Brazilian folk melodies coupled with Bach’s compositional techniques.  The music reminds the listener of how universal Bach’s music is as well as how remarkable Villa-Lobos’s music is.

Lehninger skillfully led the 27-member ensemble through the syncopated, mixed meters that demanded virtuosity from the players and a cooperative spirit from the entire orchestra.

Mention Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 and its likely only musicians and Bach devotees immediately will recognize the piece. Mention Bach’s Air on a G String – the second movement of the suite – and everyone who listens to classical music on public radio will know exactly what you’re talking about.

It’s an adorably sophisticated piece of five movements full of brass flourishes and genteel melodies, all based on dance forms, entirely for the pleasure of listening and enjoying. When Bach wanted to entice an audience, or possibly, the town elders of Leipzig, whom he worked for, he could woo with the best.

The Grand Rapids Symphony gave a charming performance of the piece that many in the audience came specifically to hear. They did not leave disappointed.

Royce Auditorium in the historic, late 19th century St. Cecilia building, is a wonderful place for music of the Baroque, the Classical Era and the early Romantic Era. The program opened with a blast of brass, a Fanfare and Chorus from Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nun (“Dear Christians, rejoice now”) by Bach’s predecessor, Dietrich Buxtehude, and a Canzon Septimi toni a 8 by Giovanni Gabrieli of the high Renaissance.

Just eight brass players – three trumpets, three horn, one trombone and one tuba were on stage, but the music, which filled Royce Auditorium from side to side and from top to bottom was just heavenly.

The 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series continues in January at St. Cecilia with The Classical Concert and music of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, October 13, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony's Great Eras Series opens with 'Bach and Beyond' on Oct. 12-13

Johann Sebastian Bach, of all the great composers of classical music, reigns supreme. Yet the composer that Beethoven called “the immortal god of harmony” had his favorite composers as well.

When Bach happened upon a Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra by an Italian composer named Alessandro Marcello, he was intrigued enough to arrange it for himself for solo keyboard.

Bach, of course, isn’t available to play his version. But the Grand Rapids Symphony does have principal oboist Ellen Sherman.

Sherman will be soloist in the original version of Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe with the Grand Rapids Symphony for The Baroque Concert: Bach and Beyond at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12 in Grand Rapids and at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13 at Hope College in Holland.

Music by Bach, by his contemporaries, and by a modern composer inspired by Bach open the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in the concerts including Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, which is especially popular with audiences because one of its five movements is well-known as Bach’s Air on the G String.

Principal oboist of the Grand Rapids Symphony since 2001, Sherman performed Marcello’s Oboe Concerto with her very first orchestra as a full-time professional musician in Santiago, Chile.

A recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, just beginning her master’s degree at The Juilliard School of Music in New York City, Shearman learned about the audition from a notice posted on the elevator door. Representatives of the Santiago Philharmonic had travelled to the capital city of Chile to New York City to hold auditions.

Sherman was offered the job, though at first she was reluctant to give up her graduate studies.

“I had just started,” she recalled. “The Dean said, if you don’t go, you’re crazy.”

With Juilliard’s promise to re-admit her when she returned, Sherman was off to the country on the west coast of South America that she knew nearly nothing about.

“Everybody said I had to go,” she recalled with a laugh. “Except my mother.”

But her year and a half in Chile, one of about 15 musicians from North America in the orchestra, turned out to be a fabulous experience during which Sherman performed three of Mahler’s symphonies.

“I loved it. I really did,” she said. “But I was 22.”

Sherman’s career included stings with the Utah Symphony and as principal English hornist with the New Zealand Symphony. She also has served as principal oboe with the Memphis Symphony, Virginia Symphony and New Hampshire Symphony.

A longtime member of the Carmel Bach Festival, Sherman has participated in numerous music festivals around the country, including the Colorado Music Festival, Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and the Carmel Bach Festival. She also played with the Boston Ballet and Opera Company of Boston, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and the Boston Classical Orchestra

The concert includes Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 by Brazil’s most famous composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, who composed a set of suites of music that fuse Brazilian folk and popular melodies with harmonic and contrapuntal methods of composition that were used in the high Baroque era. Between 1930 and 1945, Villa-Lobos composed nine such suites for instrumental ensembles of varying sizes. Suite No. 9 for string orchestra was the last one he composed.

Additional music on the program is Dieterich Buxtehude’s Fanfare and Chorus and Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi toni a 8.

Highlights of the evening concert will be performed at 10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 12 as The Baroque Coffee Concert to open the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Porter Hills Coffee Classics series. Concerts in the series last one hour and are held without intermission.

Doors open at 9 a.m. for complementary coffee and pastry before the 10 a.m. concert.

On Saturday, Oct. 13, the Grand Rapids Symphony will travel to Hope College in Holland to repeat the full program. The Baroque Concert at Hope College will be held at 8 p.m.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Recap: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Grand Rapids Symphony, deliver one of the greatest nights of music ever heard in DeVos Performance Hall

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

DeVos Performance Hall, since it opened in 1980s, has seen many great performances by the Grand Rapids Symphony. Friday’s concert featuring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger surely will go down in history as one of its very best.

Thibaudet, Lehninger and the Grand Rapids Symphony – plus a musical saw – together conquered Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, a crowd pleasing, folk-flavored work that’s nonetheless one of the most difficult works for piano and orchestra ever composed.

The DeVos Hall audience erupted in an enthusiastic standing ovation following the performance on Friday, Oct. 5. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6. Tickets remain available.

GR Symphony and Jean-Yves Thibaudet and 'Scheherazade.'

The Piano Concerto by the Armenian composer is so difficult and so demanding, few pianists ever touch it. It’s neglected, not because it isn’t a wonderful piece of music, but because it’s so hard to pull off. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, one of the greatest living pianists, who opened the Seattle Symphony’s season in September with it, is its current champion.

The French pianist, together with Robert Froehner, who performs on musical saw, may have been the only musicians on stage who have ever performed it before. But you would not know that from Friday’s concert. Lehninger, conducting it for the first time, led an exciting, adventurous performance, powered by Thibaudet’s incredible artistry, but solidly supported by the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony, baptized under fire.

The evening included a masterful reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” On any other night, it would have been the hands-down highlight of the evening.

Thibaudet, one of the living legends of the piano, regularly performs with the world’s top orchestras and greatest soloists. He’s made more than 50 recordings and is featured piano soloist in many major Hollywood films. It’s due to his friendship with Marcelo Lehninger and the growing reputation of the Grand Rapids Symphony that West Michigan got to experience his artistry.

He’s a bold, determined and fearless performer who tackled intricate melodic material intertwined with elaborate harmonic constructions with power and panache. The first movement final cadenza asks a pianist to do everything that a piano is capable of doing, and Thibaudet does it all superbly. Not only that, Thibaudet performed long passages with his eyes locked on Lehninger, clearly determined to engage collaboratively with the musical forces surrounding him.

Thibaudet’s acumen at pianistic color was astonishing. The soft second movement, both brittle and beautiful at the same time, was heartwarming.

Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto seldom is performed, and when it is, it usually is heard without the eerie, haunting sound of a musical saw, which is the closest approximation to the instrument Khachaturian had in mind from his native Armenia.  In lesser hands, the appearance of a saw in the second movement would be a novelty that lessened the gravity of the performance. Froehner’s musical skills as a sawyer were such that his presence added immensely to the beautiful performance.

The final movement, dramatic, explosive and jazz-flavored, was a roller coaster ride down Mount Ararat with Thibaudet leading the way.  Few pianists are capable of producing thunder in the left hand and lighting in the right hand with such ease, but Thibaudet at moments becomes an orchestra all on his own, delivering a performance of orchestra versus orchestra. Only in the end, in this contest, everyone wins.

“I’ve never been to Grand Rapids before,” Thibaudet told the audience after several minutes of applause. “I won’t forget it.”

By way of a thank you, he offered an emotionally enchanting performance of Maurice Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess.”  Grand Rapids won’t soon forget him either.

To hear a fine performance of “Scheherazade” is to leave the hall having fallen in love with orchestral music.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s exquisite showpiece is inspired by tales told by Scheherazade to the Sultan as recounted in “The Arabian Knights” or “One Thousand and One Nights.”

It’s exotic and evocative, and a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Lehninger led a sensuous performance full of exciting climaxes and gorgeous solos, most notably by concertmaster and violinist Jamie Crawford, whose sweet violin represents the Sultana weaving her stories for the Sultan. Beguiling and bewitching are words that came to mind listening to Crawford play on Friday.

But many other notable moments were contributed, including solos by clarinetist Suzy Bratton and oboist Ellen Sherman. When you have veterans such as flutist Chris Kantner and newcomers such as bassoonist Victoria Olson both charming the listeners in equal measure, you have an ensemble you can count on to hold an audience spellbound.

With music so ravishingly beautiful, it’s easy to let a performance of “Scheherazade” slip into overwrought cliché. Lehninger conducted “The Tale of the Dervish Prince” with passion but well within the boundaries of good taste, letting the music supply the emotional content.

Despite the mental and physical challenges of the Khachaturian, the Grand Rapids Symphony played its best with the “Festival in Baghdad, and the Sea,” giving full measure to its over-the-top moments as well as its subdued finale.

The concert opened with Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to "Abu Hassan," a little-known comic opera. It also may have been another first performance of this work for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Nimble strings and agile winds gave a glittering start to the evening. It’s a short overture, but it was thrilling.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, October 6, 2018

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, one of world's best-known, best dressed pianists, joins Grand Rapids Symphony, Oct. 5-6

One of the world’s most famous pianists, Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s concert seasons are filled with appearances with important orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and collaborations with such major artists as Renee Fleming and Sarah Chang.

The French-born pianist has been a soloist on many film soundtracks such as the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly.

Thibaudet also is one of world’s best-dressed concert artists, thanks to the couture of Vivienne Westwood.

Come to the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday Oct. 5-6 and see what Jean-Yves is wearing when he performs Aram Khachaturian Piano Concerto with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger welcomes his old friend to Grand Rapids for concerts that also include Rimsky-Korsakov’s sultry Scheherazade.

Tickets start at just $18 adults, $15 students. Call (616) 454-9451 for tickets or go online to

Khachaturian’s folk music-flavored Piano Concerto pits pianist against orchestra in an epic musical battle in the crowd-pleasing work that includes the unusual appearance of a musical saw.

In September, Thibaudet performed the seldom-heard Khachaturian Piano Concerto with the Seattle Symphony. Afterward, the Seattle Times praised the performance as a “high-intensity, impeccably phrased reading from Thibaudet, who was utterly in command from the tips of his fantastic fingers to his glittery shoes.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet says he’s loved fashion since “I was a little boy.”

“I met a lot of designers when I was a teenager, went to a lot of shows — and fashion became a part of my life,” he said to Houston Culture Map for an article titled “The Frenchman in Red Socks” in 2012.

“I think that fashion is also important because of how classical music is viewed as rigid and old fashioned,” he said. “Why is it that men are relegated to wearing tails, which are more than 300 years old, and ladies can wear dramatic gowns and have costume changes at every break? And why would I have to look like a stupid penguin because that's how things are? That's just ridiculous.”

“Rigid clothes just give the wrong impression of classical music, dusty, old and boring,” he said. “People can relate to you more in clothes that they can identify with.” Thibaudet has more to say in a TV interview in 2015 in Boston.

Winner of the Lyons Conservatory Gold Medal in 1974 at age 12, Thibaudet entered the Paris Conservatory as a teenager.  Three years later, he won the premier Prix du Conservatoire, and at age 18 won the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York City.

He’s recorded more than 50 albums including operatic transcriptions for solo piano by Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni and jazz arrangements and transcriptions of improvisations by Bill Evans and Duke Ellington.

A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, the country’s highest honor for artists, he was elevated to the grade of Officer in 2012. In 2010, the Los Angeles resident was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.

A familiar face on the Hollywood scene, Thibaudet has appeared as a featured soloist in films including The Portrait of a Lady, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Wakefield and Atonement. Here are segments for Dawn and for Your Hands Are Cold from Pride and Prejudice.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, inspired by tales from The Arabian Nights or The 1,001 Nights, tells the story of the Sultan and Scheherazade, the daughter of the Sultan’s Vizier. Convinced that all women are false and faithless, the Sultan vows to put to death each of his wives after their wedding night. But when But Scheherazade ends their wedding night by telling the Sultan a fantastic story that she lives unfinished.

Curious, the Sultan postpones her execution to hear the rest of the story. That goes one for 1,001 nights until the Sultan falls completely in love with Scheherazade and abandons his original plan.

The colorful score, with an oriental flavor, enchanting orchestral colors, and captivating melodies, feature solo violin as Scheherazade. The Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance will feature Concertmaster and violinist Jamie Crawford as well as principal harpist Elizabeth Wooster Colpean.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite is popular among ice skaters. The American ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White skated to music from Scheherazade in the final round of the 2014 Winter Olympics leading to the Gold Medal, the first ever for the United States in ice dancing.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Free concerts! See the Grand Rapids Symphony's four ArtPrize entries Friday and Saturday at The Morton

In Grand Rapids, ArtPrize is one of the biggest cultural events of the year, bringing artists from all over the world to West Michigan to participate in the $500,000 competition.

Grand Rapids Symphony has entered the 10th annual exhibition and competition in a big way, sponsoring not one or two, but four musical entries in ArtPrize 2018.

Grand Rapids Symphony will give live performance of music by four emerging composers on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28-29 at The Morton in downtown Grand Rapids.

Naturally, admission is free.

The composers and the titles of their words are Emmanuel Berrido (Danza Ritual), Tyler Eschendal (Zarathustra Mixtape), Jiyoung Ko (Remembrances), and Daniel Leo (Blowing Mad Clouds).

Guest conductor Jacomo Bairos, who led the Grand Rapids Symphony’s appearance at UICA at ArtPrize in 2016, will return to lead the orchestra in all performances that are part of the Grand Rapids Symphony's ArtPrize 2018 entries.

Grand Rapids Symphony at UICA for ArtPrize 2016

“Every piece in the repertoire that audiences love and that orchestras play regularly once was a brand-new work that no one had ever heard before,” said Grand Rapids Symphony President Peter Perez. “The Grand Rapids Symphony is excited to participate in this voyage of discovery that might reveal a piece that audiences of tomorrow will love and that orchestras of the future will play regularly.”

The four composers, including two with Michigan ties, were chosen in collaboration with the American Composer’s Orchestra in New York City from an international candidate pool of 159 applicants.

The American Composer’s Orchestra is an organization devoted exclusively to performing new music. Its EarShot program identifies and promotes the most promising orchestral composers who are emerging on the national stage.

Tyler Eschendal, who was born in 1993, is a composer and percussionist originally from the suburbs of Detroit who now lives in Los Angeles. His Zarathustra Mixtape uses fragments of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is better known as the opening theme from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Jiyoung Ko, who was born in 1982 also is a Michigan-based composer. Her Remembrances explore memories and emotions through music.

Daniel Leo, who was born in 1991, is a violinist and composer whose music has been performed in Carnegie Hall and in Weill Recital Hall in New York City. His Blowing Mad Clouds creates a sound world that is both “fantastical and bizarre, yet tangible and frighteningly real.”

Emmanuel Berrido, who was born in 1986, is a Dominican-American composer. His Danza Ritual explores Afro-Caribbean religious dances.

Performances will be held at The Morton, 55 Ionia Ave. NW. Each will last about 45 minutes.

Programs will be at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday.

Performances will continue at 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and will resume at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturday evening.

Composers selected will be in residence in Grand Rapids from Sept. 25 through Sept. 30 with the Grand Rapids Symphony during ArtPrize. Participating composers will receive mentorship from established composers, feedback sessions with GRS musicians, and participate in public readings.

The ninth annual ArtPrize opened Sept. 19 and ends on Oct. 7. Last year, ArtPrize 2017 displayed more than 1,300 works of art in 175 locations in downtown Grand Rapids that were created by more than 1,500 artists from 42 U.S. states and 47 countries.

Since ArtPrize was launched in 2009, Grand Rapids Symphony has participated several times in the annual exhibition and competition. During ArtPrize 2016, members of the Grand Rapids Symphony performed for ArtPrize’s Blue Bridge Music Festival, and the full orchestra gave free performances of new and contemporary music under guest conductor Jacomo Bairos at Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

In addition to an entry in ArtPrize, a composer may be considered for a commission by the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 2019-20 concert season.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Recap: With John Pizzarelli, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s ‘McCartney and More’ is much, much more

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

John Pizzarelli does a wicked Paul McCartney impression from the mannerisms and cadence to the Liverpool accent.

“If you’re going to do Paul McCartney, you’ve got to do Paul McCartney,” Pizzarelli explains.

As good as it is, the singer and guitarist does an even better job playing McCartney’s music.

The Grand Rapids Pops opened its 2018-19 Fox Motors Pops on Friday, Sept. 21, with “McCartney and More” featuring songs by the Beatles plus McCartney’s post-Beatles catalog led by Pizzarelli and his quartet plus the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The concert led by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, and again at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23. Tickets, beginning at $18 adults and $5 students, are available at the door.

If you love Paul McCartney’s songs, you’ll love this show.

Moments after he took the stage on Friday, Pizzarelli summed up the night’s playlist in one sentence:

“You’ll know all of them,” he said.

If you love jazz guitar, you’ll also love this show. Pizzarelli, son of the legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, is his father’s equal in every respect.

Best of all the, “McCartney and More” is more than meets the ear or eye. Not only does it have McCartney’s stamp of approval, it was his idea. After Pizzarelli recorded the2012 album “Kisses on the Bottom” with the former Beatle, Sir Paul himself suggested that Pizzarelli record McCartney’s songs in the jazzy style of the Great American Songbook. The result was the album “Midnight McCartney,” a title that Sir Paul also coined.

McCartney got it right in asking Pizzarelli to do the project. The material is cleverly constructed. Pizzarelli pairs The Beatles’  “Can’t Buy Me Love” with an accompanying riff from Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball.” You can hear hints of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” in “I Feel Fine,” and “Things We Said Today” echoes Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”

Pizzarelli croons beautifully on songs such as “My Love Does It Good.” When he scat sings and plays in unison, it’s awesome.

Pizzarelli, who appeared with McCartney on TV live for the Grammy Awards, is more of a guitarist than a singer. Songs such as “Get Back” were snappy and funky at the same time. “The Long and Winding Road” was lovingly accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

One of the best songs of the night for orchestra was “Heart of the Country,” probably the least known songs on the show that also included “And I Love Her” and “No More Lonely Nights.”

“Let ‘Em In” made for a great finale, though the encore, “With A Little Luck,” wasn’t to be missed.

Pizzarelli great stories of being in the studio with Paul McCartney

In the early days of recording in Abby Roads, John Lennon and McCartney wrote the songs and then had to teach them, in a hurry, to George Harrison and Ringo Starr in the studio and record four songs in three hours.

When the Beatles did the first take of “And I Love Her,” George Harrison suddenly kicked it off with a four-note intro on acoustic guitar.

“Nobody told George to do it,” Pizzarelli recalled McCartney saying. “He just did it.”

Several years ago, when Pizzarelli met McCartney for the very first time, Sir Pau immediately mentioned Pizzarelli’s 1998 tribute album, “John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles.”

“You made a Beatles CD,” McCartney said to Pizzarelli, before pausing for a moment.”

“It’s very good,” Sir Paul added, to Pizzarelli’s relief.

The same goes for “McCartney and More” with the Grand Rapids Symphony. It’s very good.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli brings music of Paul McCartney to Grand Rapids Symphony

Jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli has played and recorded with such luminaries as Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Frigo and Buddy DeFranco. He was the opening act on Frank Sinatra’s last tour.

But Pizzarelli, age 58, grew up listening to The Beatles, and eight years ago, he collaborated with Paul McCartney on his album Kisses on the Bottom, which was released in February 2012.

“It was quite an experience listening to him talk about the Beatles and how they made records,” Pizzarelli said to MLive in October 2012.

Two years later, the English singer/songwriter unexpectedly got in touch with the American jazz guitarist with “this crazy idea to run by you.” The idea was for Pizzarelli to make an album of McCartney’s post-Beatles songs in his own jazzy style.

“He said if I liked the idea maybe I could call the record Midnight McCartney and include a dishy little picture of me against the Manhattan skyline,” Pizzarelli recalled with a laugh.

It didn’t take much to sell him on the idea, said Pizzarelli who performed McCartney’s song My Valentine with Sir Paul on TV for the 54th annual Grammy Awards in 2012.

“He’s a fine musician with amazing musical instincts and has done pretty much everything you could possibly imagine,” Pizzarelli said to Guitar World in August 2015.

Pizzarelli joins the Grand Rapids Symphony for McCartney and More at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday September 21-22 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, September 23, the opening concerts of the 2018-19 Fox Motors Pops series.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leads the Grand Rapids Pops in songs by Paul McCartney, performed by Pizzarelli and his band with the Grand Rapids Symphony in the jazzy style of the Great American Songbook.

Midnight McCartney, which won the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, includes lesser known tunes such as Junk, Warm and Beautiful and, of course, My Valentine. The New Yorker declared it “may be the best collection of McCartney covers ever recorded.”

“The material is still very good. Paul is such a smart songwriter and these songs are so well written,” Pizzarelli said. “When you have strong hooks and great melodies that are really pliable, you’re able to reinterpret them in an interesting way.”

In addition to being a solo artist with some 20 recordings of his own, Pizzarelli has been a special guest on more than 40 recordings for such pop artists as James Taylor, Natalie Cole, Kristin Chenoweth and Rickie Lee Jones. He collaborated with Donna Summer and Robert Flack on the Grammy Award-winning CD, Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mr. Rogers in 2005.

Not long after recording “Kisses from the Bottom,” Pizzarelli was in the studio recording Double Exposure, featuring music of Bill Joel, Michael McDonald and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

“They were the pop stars of the 1970s and 80s, and they were the people I enjoyed listening to,” Pizzarelli said in 2012. “I thought it would be great to find ideas from their songs and play them as jazz songs.”

He took a similar approach with Midnight McCartney, which All describes as music that’s “designed for play in the smoky late-night hours, when everything turns sweet and mellow.”

Working on the project, which also featured such legendary artists as Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and Diana Krall, a great opportunity, said Pizzarelli, prior to his appearance in Grand Rapids in November 2012 at St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium as its 2012 Great Artist.

Naturally, McCartney came into the studio with ideas about how he would record a particular song. But Sir Paul was open to suggestions from the rest of the musicians, Pizzarelli said to MLive.

While recording More I Cannot Wish You with McCartney singing the song written by Frank Loesser, Pizzarelli tossed out his own ideas.

“I played these little harmonic notes. He’d sing, standing there, and I’d answer,” Pizzarelli recalled in 2012. “He’d point at me and say, ‘Yeah, look what you’re doing there!”

“If you did something he liked,” Pizzarelli said, “he’d really let you know.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony says farewell to Rich DeVos and opens season with bold, beautiful music by Bernstein, Barber and Beethoven

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The Grand Rapids Symphony would not be the orchestra it is today were it not for Rich and Helen DeVos.

Forty-five years ago, the DeVoses funded the first five full-time musicians in the Grand Rapids Symphony – two violins, a viola, a cello and a double bass – for a mere $40,000. It was the beginning of the transformation of the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra to a professional ensemble.

A few years later, they were major contributors to the former Grand Center Convention Center and DeVos Hall, which became the Grand Rapids Symphony’s home when it opened in 1980. For decades, Rich and Helen DeVos were stalwart supporters and dear friends of the orchestra.

“I think it is safe to say that in the modern history of the Grand Rapids Symphony, no one has had a deeper or more profound effect on this orchestra than Rich and Helen DeVos,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau, speaking to the opening night audience on Friday, Sept. 14.

The Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 89th season with a tribute to Rich DeVos, who died on Sept. 6, a little more than 10 months after Helen DeVos passed away last October. In his memory, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a poignant performance of Maurice Ravel’s eloquent Pavane. It was a performance that left the audience in complete silence afterward.

GR Symphony's Beethoven's 7th

But the evening began in grand fashion with the traditional season-opening performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the audience singing along.

Opening his second season at the helm of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Lehninger led the orchestra in a colorful evening of music by Bernstein, Barber and Beethoven. The concert titled Beethoven's 7th repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday Sept. 15. Tickets remain available.

Violinist Karen Gomyo and her exquisite Stradivarius violin joined the orchestra for a magnificent performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It’s a shrewd bit of programming to show off the French-Canadian and Japanese violinist who studied at The Juilliard School under Dorothy Delay, who taught Itzhak Perlman, Midori Goto, Sarah Chang, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Nigel Kennedy, and a long list of great violinist.

The neo-romantic concert work demands a luscious, liquid tone and a tuneful approach to melody in the first two movements. It asks for heroic feats of technical bravado in the finale. We could spend all night arguing which is her greater strength, but it wouldn’t matter in the end because Gomyo is brilliant at both. Her violin playing sings and sizzles at the same time.

Principal Oboist Ellen Sherman contributed a lovely melancholy solo in the slow movement. We’ll hear more from her next month at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Baroque Concert on Oct. 12.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the capstone for the evening. Though it’s slightly overshadowed by some of his other symphonies, it’s no less brilliant. It also clips right along. The slow movements aren’t slow at all. The fast movements are a Formula One race in the concert hall.

Lehninger led a bubbly, buoyant performance, clearly happy to back on the podium with the Grand Rapids Symphony. He deftly handled the overlapping themes of the first movement.

The allegretto was featured in the climactic scene of “The King’s Speech,” which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s the very definition of musical gravitas, and Lehninger delivered the solemnity and seriousness with hymn-like radiance.

The finale is a full-bore, full-throated march. Lehninger pushed the musicians, and the Grand Rapids Symphony played with vivacious vitality.

The evening opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a piece he composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1980s. It’s quintessential Bernstein – angular and ambitious with clever nods to the work of other composers and creative departures that border on the outrageous.

Lehninger led an aggressive, extroverted performance. Friday’s audience chuckled at the wit of the movement titled “Turkey Trot,” marveled at the energy of the “Samba” and enjoyed roller coaster of a ride that is the Sousa-flavored finale, titled, naturally, “The BSO Forever.”

In 2012, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched its Legacy of Excellence Campaign to raise $40 million to build a permanent endowment to secure the orchestra’s future. Rich and Helen DeVos provided a $20 million lead gift to open the campaign that concluded in 2016. Though they no longer will be seen at Grand Rapids Symphony concerts – and they were seen often – their presence will continue to be felt forever.

“I can’t think of any other person than Rich DeVos who was so in love with “his community” and who was so dedicated to lifting up and improving this community,” Varineau told the Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience on Friday. “He was a visionary. Everywhere we look, there is evidence of Rich’s love for Grand Rapids. We will miss him terribly.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, September 15, 2018

Violinist Karen Gomyo and her Stradivarius violin open Grand Rapids Symphony 2018-19 season

Classically trained musicians have a close, intimate relationship with their musical instruments. They have to.

When violinist Karen Gomyo first was introduced to her Stradivarius violin, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But it was close.

“I’m incredibly attached to it,” she told San Francisco Classical Voice prior to a performance in 2012.

Gomyo performs on a Stradivarius violin titled the “Aurora, exFoulis,” which was built in 1703. When she first began playing it, it hadn’t been played much for decades.

“It felt to me that it was a well-behaved, polite instrument that had a lot of potential, she said. “Over the next few years, the more it was played on, the more it started to shine from within.”

Gomyo will join the Grand Rapids Symphony to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto to open the orchestra’s 2018-19 season on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14-15 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 for the opening of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

Tickets for Beethoven’s 7th  start at $18 for adults, $5 students. Tickets are available from the Grand Rapids Symphony box office at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or by going online at

In memory of philanthropist Rich DeVos, who died last week at age 92, the Grand Rapids Symphony will remember its stalwart support with remarks and special music. 

Associate Conductor John Varineau, who is in his 34th season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, will offer brief remarks on the second half of the concert. Afterward, Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Maurice Ravel's Pavane, a brief, beautiful work that lies somewhere between a hymn and a folk song.

A moment of silence will follow, leading to the performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, a piece that accompanied the climactic scene of the 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” As actor Colin Firth, as King George VI, overcomes the stammer he's had since childhood to announce to the British people on radio that his country was now at war with Nazi Germany, the allegretto movement from Beethoven's symphony lends gravitas to the moment.

“It’s such a wonderful way to start a season,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. “Not only with Beethoven, but with that Beethoven Symphony.”

Lehninger also will lead the orchestra in Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a cheeky work full of nods to other composers, inside jokes and extraverted humor was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1980.

Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a French-Canadian father, Gomyo moved to Canada with her family at age 2 and lived in Montreal. When the world-famous violin teacher Dorothy DeLay accepted Gomyo at The Juilliard School at age 11, Gomyo and her mother moved to New York City.

At 15, she became the youngest violinist ever accepted on the management roster of Young Concert Artists. In 2008 at age 26, she was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Gomyo has performed with top American orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra in the United States as well as with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony, and Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

Gomyo, who served as violinist, host and narrator for a documentary about Antonio Stradivarius titled The Mysteries of the Supreme Violin, performs on a Stradivarius violin that was bought for her exclusive use by a private sponsor.

“I would describe my violin as having a very pure tone. That doesn’t mean quiet; it certainly carries very well in a hall. But it’s a silvery tone. It has a lot of warmth,” she told San Francisco Classical Voice

Unlike many Stradivari, the instrument never was owned previously by a renowned violinist. Through the entire 20th century, it only had three owners, which also is rare for an instrument of this caliber.

Gomyo said it took her years to get acquainted with the instrument because an instrument such as a Stradivarius has its own character.

“It comes with a strong personality and you can’t impose yourself on it,” Gomyo told Utah based classical music writer Edward Reichel in October 2015. “You have to let it speak.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony mourns the death of Rich DeVos

Rich DeVos, businessman and community leaders, philanthropist and patron of the arts, was a dear friend and stalwart support of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

With a heavy heart and great sadness, the Grand Rapids Symphony mourns the passing of DeVos, who was associated with the Grand Rapids Symphony for nearly 50 years.

Richard M. DeVos, co-founder of Amway, died Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. He was 92 years old.

Both Rich DeVos and his wife, Helen DeVos, who died in October 2017, believed in the power of music to sustain and nurture the soul.

“Rich and Helen DeVos’s vision for the Grand Rapids Symphony gave us the orchestra we have today,” said Peter Perez, President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony. “Their guidance and support truly was transformational.”

“The orchestra that traveled to New York City in April for a critically acclaimed concert in Carnegie Hall simply would not exist without their support,” Perez said.

In 1974, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation provided the initial funds to hire five full-time musicians – two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a double bassist, beginning the process of transforming the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra into a professional orchestra. Four of the five were organized as the DeVos String Quartet. Today, the four principal players of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first and second violins, viola and cello sections continue to perform as the DeVos String Quartet.

The couple was instrumental in building DeVos Performance Hall, the orchestra’s principal performance venue, which opened in October 1980 as part of the former Grand Center Convention Center.

Significantly, the DeVos Foundation also funded the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first full-time development director to raise money for the orchestra.

Today, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 10-concert classical series is known as the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

In 2001, the Grand Rapids Symphony presented a Bravo Award, its highest honor, to Rich DeVos.

Rich and Helen DeVos guaranteed that their vision for the future growth and success of the Grand Rapids Symphony would live on into the future. In 2012, the orchestra launched its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign to build a permanent endowment to secure its future.

The DeVoses led the campaign with a $20 million leadership gift. Within four years, the Grand Rapids Symphony met its goal, securing an additional $20 million in cash, gifts, ongoing pledges and estate plans from more than 150 individuals, couples, corporations and foundations.

“Helen’s love of music drew us into the organization, and we’ve experienced the Symphony’s growth into an orchestra recognized nationally for the quality of its concerts and educational programs,” said Richard DeVos at the conclusion of the campaign in April 2016. “We’re glad to help preserve and sustain our orchestra, which helps create a positive atmosphere for growth in our community.”

Rich and Helen DeVos often were seen in the audience at Grand Rapids Symphony concerts. They were together at a concert in DeVos Performance Hall just a couple weeks before Helen’s death.

Music director Marcelo Lehninger first met and had dinner with Rich and Helen DeVos shortly after he was appointed Music Director in 2016. Both were keenly interested in his career and his background.

“They were very kind, both of them,” Lehninger recalled. “And they were people of such great faith. That was very powerful.”

“We talked about the power of perseverance,” Lehninger said. “Rich said he accomplished all he did because he was perseverant.”

“They loved this community, and they invested in this community,” Lehninger said. “The fact that they invested in the Grand Rapids Symphony made it possible to have the symphony orchestra we have today.”

Rich DeVos will be remembered next week when the Grand Rapids Symphony opens its 2018-19 season with Beethoven’s 7th on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14 and 15 under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.


Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, September 6, 2018
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