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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, July 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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


Eva Aguirre Cooper, Community Affairs Director at WOOD TV8, accompanied the Grand Rapids Symphony to New York City for the two-day trip that takes viewers behind the scenes from rehearsals to receptions, including interviews with musicians, conductors, audience members and a brief appearance by members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus on NBC-TV’s “Today Show” with Hoda Kotb.

Hundreds of supporters, patrons and fans traveled from Grand Rapids to New York City for the Carnegie Hall performance on Friday, April 20. Hundreds more from the New York City area were special guests of the Grand Rapids Symphony thanks to its Symphony Scorecard program.

Special guests also included Mauro Vieira, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations, and Frederico S. Duque Estrada Meyer, Deputy Permanent Representative, both based in New York City.

GR Symphony at Carnegie Hall 2018

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

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, whose director, Pearl Shangkuan, has conducted and sung previously in Carnegie Hall, made its debut singing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears your Heart).

The 134-voice chorus also joined the orchestra to sing Gabriel Faure’s Pavane in F-sharp minor as an encore for the audience of over 2,300. The encore was in memory of Grand Rapids Symphony Vice President Roger Nelson who organized the orchestra’s return to Carnegie Hall prior to his sudden, unexpected death in March 2017.

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

GR Symphony Friends 2018 Kitchen Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony Friends on Facebook.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, May 21, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

What does one say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, May 19, 2018

Music by Beethoven and inspired by Beethoven celebrate triumphs over adversity in Grand Rapids Symphony's season finale, May 18-19

One of the most important composers in the history of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven also suffered the bitterest of all blows a musician can face. In his late 20s, Beethoven realized he was going deaf.

In a fit of despair, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers, even contemplating suicide over the loss of his hearing. The letter known today as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” was never sent. It was discovered among Beethoven’s papers after the composer’s death.

In the rambling prose, the composer who later would be known as one of the most important artists in the history of Western Civilization pours out his anguish and despair.

“But in the end, he declares his will to go on for the sake of the art he has yet to produce,” said Alexander Miller, an oboist with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

It’s a sentiment that Miller, a nationally known composer, understands all too well.

In 2009, Miller was diagnosed with a papillary craniopharyngioma, a rare brain tumor leading to surgery to remove a golf ball-sized mass behind his sinus cavity. That was followed by a long, difficult recovery involving persistent headaches, low energy, quirky and unreliable vision, and a ringing in his ears, rather like Beethoven suffered.

When Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 was premiered in May 1824, the 54-year-old composer was completely deaf. Though he was seated next to the conductor, the alto soloist had to turn Beethoven around so that he could see the thunderous applause he no longer could hear.

When the Grand Rapids Symphony premieres Miller’s latest work, “Testament,” on Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19, its composer, who will celebrate his 50th birthday in September, will be in the hall to hear the music as well as the audience reaction to it.

The Grand Rapids Symphony closes its 2017-18 season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plus the premiere of Miller’s “Testament,” Beethoven’s 1802 ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ for Bass-Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will conduct the two works that also feature the 140-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, prepared by Pearl Shangkuan. Soloists for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor John Matthew Myers, and baritone Richard Zeller.

The Ninth Symphony, which the Grand Rapids Symphony last performed in 2011, is Beethoven’s only symphony that uses vocal soloists and chorus. Considered one of Beethoven’s greatest works as well as one of the most important compositions in the history of classical music, it’s a revolutionary piece of music that uses the text of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which celebrates the universal brotherhood of all humanity.

“When I conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, I’m always immersed in these emotions that Beethoven’s music does like no other,” Lehninger said.

Miller’s “Testament,” a 16-minute piece, features Zeller, who has spent 12 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and has performed with orchestras of Boston, Cleveland and Chicago as well as internationally with the orchestras of Toronto and Montreal and the philharmonics of Tokyo, Czech and Korea.

The Grand Rapids Symphony commissioned Miller to write the piece for the program to be paired with the Beethoven Symphony No. 9. Lehninger suggested Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” as a possible source of inspiration.

The statement has a “raw energy,” according to Miller who became GRS assistant principal oboist in 1992.

“Questions about what it takes to go on living despite a deteriorating condition are topics I can relate to,” said Miller, who blogs about his experiences with brain surgery and recovery at HusbandAmused.com. “Especially after two brain surgeries, the never-ending follow-up care, and the side conditions I have since developed.”

The “Heiligenstadt Testament” is a document that Lehninger said he rereads regularly, especially before performing a work by Beethoven.

“Beethoven knew he was a very difficult man, personality wise,” Lehninger said, adding that the composer became even more difficult in his later years as his hearing slowly deteriorated.

“He knew it would be better for the people he loved to be away from them because he knew he would hurt them,” Lehninger said.

Nevertheless, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was chosen to be performed on Christmas Day in East Berlin. Leonard Bernstein conducted an international cast of soloists, choristers and instrumentalists in a performance broadcast throughout the world.

“We should all be friends and get along and respect each other and fight together for a common goal,” said Lehninger of Beethoven’s intentions.

The concert opens with another contemporary work inspired by Beethoven. “Variações Temporais, Beethoven Revisitado (Temporal Variations, Beethoven Revisited)” by Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda.

Composed in 2014, it’s a witty, 10-minute series of short, orchestral portraits, each inspired by a particular work of Beethoven’s. Lehninger conducted the world premiere performance of this work with the most important orchestra in Brazil’s largest city the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in July 2014.

Tickets for the Grand Rapids Symphony Classical Series concert start at $18 adults or $5 students. Call (616) 454–9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org. “Inside the Music,” a pre-concert conversation, will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in the DeVos Recital Hall.

Besides the Grand Rapids Symphony, Miller’s music also has been performed by the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Alabama and Santa Barbara among others. Many have performed his “Fireworks,” which the Grand Rapids Symphony played for its first performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in May 2005. His 1998 work “Let Freedom Ring” for Narrator and Orchestra, based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, has been performed by such celebrity narrators as James Earl Jones, Danny Glover, William Warfield and Harry Belafonte and was recorded by former President Bill Clinton prior to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Since his 2009 surgeries and recovery, Miller has composed “Scherzo Crypto” for the San Antonio Symphony and “Rocomoji for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston. In 2013, the Grand Rapids Symphony opened its season with Miller’s ‘Madam Bovary’ Concerto for Cello and Orchestra featuring principal cellist Alicia Eppinga.

“Living with a difficult medical condition becomes a decision,” Miller said. “One decides to endure, to go on. Holding onto the knowledge that we actually have a choice in the matter — that ace up our sleeve — is often the coping mechanism that saves us from ourselves.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hear Grand Rapids Pops play 'Star Wars' and more, movie music of John Williams, May 11-13

Grand Rapids Symphony Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt doesn’t mince words when he talks about film composer John Williams.

“He’s my hero,” Bernhard says with a smile.

Bernhardt comes by that belief honestly. During his 14-year tenor as conductor of the Boston Pops, Williams in 1992 hired Bernhardt to be a guest conductor of the most famous pops orchestra in the world.

Ever since, Bernhardt has continued to guest conduct the Boston Pops nearly every season for the past quarter century. Williams, of course, has continued to compose music for film.

Their collective efforts come together this week on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s stage.

Bernhardt will be back on the Grand Rapids Pops podium this week with Star Wars and More: The Music of John Williams with some of Williams’ best-known and most-loved music, plus a few surprises in for good measure.

The Fox Motors Pops series shows are at 8 p.m. May 11-12 and at 3 p.m. May 13 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org or GRPops.org

Two years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony's first concert devoted to the movie music of John Williams sold out several performances, leading to the creation of an all-new show. With the film music of John Williams, there plenty of material to shose from. Winner of five Academy Awards and 24 Grammy Awards, the Juilliard School-trained composer, conductor and pianist has composed film music for some of cinema’s all-time blockbuster franchises including the Indiana Jones series and the Harry Potter series as well as the Star Wars series.

GR Pops 'Star Wars' and More 2016

Drawing inspiration from composers such as Wagner and Tchaikovsky, Williams’ capacity to write evocatively and create characters out of musical thin air seems to know no bounds.

“John Williams, I think, is the greatest American film composer we have and one of the greatest that’s ever lived,” said Steven Reineke, music director and conductor of the New York Pops.

In a small way, Williams has filmmaker Stephen Spielberg to thank. Before Williams sat down to compose the score for the original Star Wars film, Spielberg suggested Williams listen to English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, which the Grand Rapids Symphony performed in February in DeVos Hall.

The rest is musical and cinematic history.

“John has a way to capture the visual element of the film, and the feelings, the emotions … and transfer that into music,” Reineke told AM New York. “So when you take the music out of the film and play it on a concert stage with no visuals and just listen to it, it takes you right back to that film and what it’s about – you can picture it in your mind.”

In Williams’ first film to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score, a two-note theme announces the entrance of a menacing shark in the 1977 film Jaws. In his second film to win the Oscar for Best Original Score, a French horn solo, brief and longing, introduces the young Luke Skywalker, gazing out at a binary sunset on a desert planet in the 1977 film now known as Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope.

The Julliard School-trained composer’s score for Star Wars, with its sweeping sonic landscape, helped define the entire franchise, which now encompasses eight films plus a ninth now in pre-production.

The Grand Rapids Pops this weekend will perform highlights from all three of the Star Wars trilogies. Selections include “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars: A New Hope, “Battle of the Heroes” from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and “The Rebellion is Reborn” from The Last Jedi.

Continuing on the Star Wars theme, costumed characters from the Star Wars franchise will patrol the lobby of DeVos Hall, greeting guests and posing for pictures at each show. Characters from the Great Lakes Garrison of the 501st Legion, a worldwide Star Wars costuming organization, are expected to include Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, Rey, assorted Storm Troopers, and more.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt  also will conduct the Grand Rapids Pops in music from films including Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsFar and Away, Angela’s Ashes and more.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will sing vocal music including “Double Trouble” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and “Exultate Justi” from Empire of the Sun.

The most recent Star Wars trilogy, which includes the 2015 film The Force Awakens followed two years later by The Last Jedi, will see its third and final installment premier in December 2019. Williams, now 86, says that the as-of-now untitled Star Wars IX, directed by J.J. Abrams, will be the composer’s last Star Wars film.

“We know J.J. Abrams is preparing one now for next year that I will hopefully do for him, and I look forward to it,” Williams said recently on the University of Southern California’s Classical music radio station, KUSC-FM. “It will round out a series of nine and be quite enough for me.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Recap: Polish pianist, Gilmore Artist joins Grand Rapids Symphony for marvelous performance of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Frederic Chopin is one of those musicians, same as Paganini, same as Liszt, which we’d dearly love to go back in time and hear perform. Contemporary accounts say the three were virtuosos who were lightyears ahead of their peers.

Today, I’m a little less fussed about hearing never getting a chance to hear Chopin perform. Because I’ve heard Rafał Blechacz play Chopin. If it’s possible to channel the reincarnated soul of an artist for 35 minutes, Blechacz did so.

The Polish-born pianist made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut on Friday, April 27 with a magnificent performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. One that was amazingly adept and astonishingly beautiful at the same time under the baton of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

The performance, part of the 2018 Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in DeVos Performance Hall.

In 2014, Blechacz was awarded seventh Gilmore Artist Award, one of the most lucrative prizes in classical music worth some $300,000. The quadrennial prize also is one of the most unusual major awards in music. Performers do not compete for the prize. Nominations are made in secret. Jurors travel the world to observe pianists in their natural habitat, so to speak. In the end, the Gilmore judges pick one artist worthy of a major, international career.

The Gilmore Foundation’s track record is rather good. The past 20 years have produced such pianists as Leif Ove Andsnes of Norway, Piotr Anderszewski of Poland, Ingrid Fliter of Argentina and Kirill Gerstein of Russia.

Blechacz, however, rocketed to fame in 2005 as the winner of the 15th International Chopin Piano Competition, becoming the first native Pole in 35 years to win the prize. Not only did Blechacz win the competition, he won all four of the subsidiary prizes for best performance of a mazurka, a polonaise, a nocturne and a concert.

Friday’s performance demonstrated it was well deserved.

To play Chopin, you must be a brilliant player. Blechacz dazzles with technical virtuosity and mesmerizes with musicality, becoming one with the instrument. The long, majestic opening movement was full of elegant effervescence. The lovely middle movement was full of nostalgia and wistfulness. The finale was heroic and heavenly.

When Blechacz performs, you forget that a piano is a percussion instrument with 88 little hammers clanging away at strings. You sometimes also forget there’s an orchestra there as well, and that’s not always bad. Chopin was barely out of his teens when he completed his two piano concertos. He had no particular gift for orchestration and no interest in honing it. Mr. Piano was all about the piano.

It’s no easy task for a conductor to make it sound good. Lehninger’s obvious love for the music of Chopin is a big help.

No doubt it would be different to hear Chopin play his own music. I don’t imagine it could be much better than hearing Blechacz.

Lehninger made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut three years ago conducting Dvorak’s mighty Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” On Friday he led the Grand Rapids Symphony in Dvorak’s sunny Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

Lehninger, who conducted from memory without the score in front of him, clearly was in his element, leading a masterful performance of nuanced shaping and phrasing with cheery melody after cheery melody. Whether it was a little melody in the flute dispatched effortlessly by principal flutist Christopher Kantner or a full-bodied string section filling the hall with warm, woody music, it was an inspiring performance.

Certain aspects of the late 19th century work do strike the 21st century ear as sappy and schmaltzy. Yet Lehninger applied tasteful when needed. The end result was a performance of joy and celebration though on a grand scale.

The program opened pleasantly with Canto by composer Adam Schoenberg. Not Arnold Schoenberg, the 12-tone German, whose music tends to be more interesting to read on the page than to hear in the hall. Adam Schoenberg’s music is lyrical and inviting, and the American may be the most performed living composer today.

Canto is something of a lullaby that the composer wrote following the birth of his son, though it’s much more. It’s an atmospheric work with a dreamy soundscape, rather like an active mind gathering its thoughts and calming itself in preparation for sleep.

Its sweet, musical meanderings are tranquil but actively so.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, April 28, 2018

Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus sings for Hoda Kotb on NBC TV’s ‘Today Show’

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus made its Carnegie Hall debut last week with the Grand Rapids Symphony in New York City.

Member of the chorus also made their debut on NBC-TV’s Today Show.

Hours before appearing in the venerable auditorium with Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and the orchestra, members of the all-volunteer chorus rose early and trudged to NBC Studios where the show is broadcast, arriving at 6:30 in the morning on an unseasonably chilly morning.

“I think none of us realized how cold it would be that morning, and what a challenge it would be to get the Today’s Show’s attention,” said Richard Krueger, who sings tenor in the Symphony Chorus. “Once we were there, I feel like we all just decided we were going to get on the air, whatever it took.”

After standing outdoors in unseasonably chilly weather, Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus members, waving signs reading “Wake Up and Hear the Beethoven!” and “Hoda! Let us Bring You Joy!” caught the eyes of producers who work the crowd outside.

Co-host and meteorologist Al Roker soon followed.

“When Al Roker reacted so positively to us, that was big,” Krueger said. “He wasn't just polite like the producers had been, he seemed genuinely enthusiastic.”

In the final half hour of Friday’s show, when the hosts of Today Show stepped outside, two hours of standing outdoors was rewarded when co-anchor Hoda Kotb came over, asking for “my chorus.”

“That was when it felt real, and singing right to her and the camera was really fun,” said Krueger, a parish assistant at Messiah Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids.

“Ages 20 to 80, it’s a diverse, beautiful, group of people, and they have a special thing that they’re going to perform for us,” Kotb told viewers at home.

“That was when it felt real, and singing right to her and the camera was really fun,” Krueger said afterward.

GR Symphony Chorus sings on NBC's 'Today Show'

Singers launched into an unaccompanied snippet from Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9, which the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will perform at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s  “Beethoven’s Ninth,” the final concert of the 2017-18 season on May 18-19 in DeVos Performance Hall.

More than 2,000 people were in the audience on Friday in Carnegie Hall for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel. But many more heard members of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus sing briefly on national TV.

“It’s astonishing that 4 million-plus people may have heard us sing,” Krueger said.

Chorus members including tenor Scott Parmenter, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Allegan, said they soon heard from family and friends who saw them on national TV.

“A 2-year-old girl from my church saw me and kept saying to the TV set, ‘Hi Pastor Scott,’”’ Parmenter later learned.

Chorus members credited Today Show’s producers with keeping them informed on the show’s progress, which made the two-hour wait bearable in temperatures that started in the high 30s and only rose into the low 40s.

 “I'm glad we got the chance to do it, that people I trust say we sounded good on the air, and that we were able to show millions of people that the Grand Rapids Symphony was in New York to take care of business at Carnegie Hall,” Krueger said. “Like our performance that evening, it was an experience I'll remember for the rest of my life.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony, Symphony Chorus, is primed and ready for its return to Carnegie Hall

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Nearly 13 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony traveled to New York City to make its Carnegie Hall debut, a major milestone in the history of the orchestra.

Next week, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony plus the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus back to the Big Apple to make its debut on the international stage, another epic event in the 88-year history of the orchestra.

Based on Friday’s exhilarating performance, the Grand Rapids Symphony is ready.

The Grand Rapids Symphony previewed its Carnegie Hall concert on Friday, April 13, a program of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel that repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets remain available.

With eminent pianist Nelson Freire, Lehninger led an exciting and colorful performance of Spanish and Brazilian-flavored music, all of it dating from the first half of the 20th century.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger, now in his second season in Grand Rapids, and the Brazilian Freire, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest pianists, are uniquely positioned to perform the repertoire of Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer.

That the Grand Rapids Symphony’s appearance in New York City on April 20 is a milestone for the world of classical music is easily demonstrated. Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears your Heart), which features the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, has been performed only a handful of times in Carnegie Hall. Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce, featuring Freire at the piano, has been heard only once before in the 127-year-old hall. That was by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959.

The 73-year old Freire isn’t as well-known as, say, Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. Yet the two of them have appeared in Carnegie Hall in duo piano recitals, not once but twice together. Freire chose to tour and record less than his famous colleague. Industry insiders, however, clamor to hear Freire when they can.

It doesn’t take long to see why. Other pianists dazzle audiences with how they dominate the piano. Freire, on the other hand, charms audiences with loving caresses and delightful musical repartee. Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain calls for the former. Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce demands the latter.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain is an exquisite piece of music that captures the sights and sounds and the flora and fauna of southern Spain. When you hear it, you practically can smell the flowers.

The full effect of Freire’s poetic artistry was on display. He’s an elegant pianist, and when you have technical mastery, you have no need of bravura tricks. His performance was fervent and animated yet masterfully controlled. Freire can be tricky to follow, yet Lehninger was with him every step of the way.

Momoprecoce was inspired by Villa-Lobos’ memories of childhood during the famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a playful, exuberant piece full of childlike wonder. It was conceived to be a work for solo piano, but the composer decided to orchestrate it into a fantasy for piano and orchestra.

It’s an extraordinary piece of music demanding great virtuosity from the soloist. At times the finger work is startling to watch. That virtuosity, however, isn’t always readily apparent to the audience because the piece treats the pianist as part of the orchestra rather than pitting it against the orchestra.  The percussive piano playing might sound mechanical in the hands of a lesser musician, but Freire’s performance was full vigor and vitality, yet it also ebbed and flowed with musical sonority.

Lehninger led an energetic performance that was impressive without becoming oppressive. Even with the presence of extensive percussion, Lehninger kept the orchestra on an even keel that made a powerful impact without becoming harsh or ugly.

Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 10 is a unique work. A “chôros” isn’t a work for chorus. The word translates as “weeping” or “cry.” The music is a popular form of music of the 1920s similar to a serenade. Villa-Lobos made it so much more than street music.

The propulsive piece is brassy and rhythmic. You can hear breezes and birds of the rainforest. You might also say it’s tribal and earthy. Certainly,  it’s a handful for the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which is called upon to recite and chant as well as sing the text of a poem “Rasga o Coração,” which translates as “tears the heart” or “rends the heart.”

It’s not a long piece, but it’s a taxing piece. Lehninger led a dynamic performance full of aggressive solos from many of the principal players plus the singers of the Symphony Chorus singing their hearts out through a feisty and fiery finale.

The concert opened with Ravel’s Bolero, a piece that the Grand Rapids Symphony performed on its season-opening concert in September. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’s also tougher to play than meets the eye.

Lehninger’s reading was particularly transparent, with a softer, understated accompaniment, giving the many solos room to breathe and bloom. It shows off the orchestra very well. Next week’s audience, even if they’ve heard it before, will be impressed nonetheless.

Thirteen years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s goal was to go to Carnegie Hall, play a great concert, and show itself to be worthy of the hall that’s arguably the most important in North America.

The goal this time is to demonstrate the Grand Rapids Symphony can make a meaningful contribution to classical music’s efforts to broaden its international base and expand its horizons.

You might describe the first Carnegie Hall appearance as a tryout. This time, the Grand Rapids Symphony is really getting into the game.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, April 14, 2018
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