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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

Join the Grand Rapids Symphony for its Carnegie Hall sendoff concert featuring Ravel's 'Bolero,' Friday and Saturday

The Grand Rapids Symphony is bound for the Big Apple next week.

It’s not quite April in Paris, but April in New York City is the next best thing. That’s because New York City is one of the world’s most important centers for classical music, and Carnegie Hall is its mecca.

But this week, you can hear the Grand Rapids Symphony perform its Carnegie Hall concert here in DeVos Performance Hall along with eminent Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday in music including Ravel’s Bolero. Next week, the orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall for its second appearance, along with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which will make its debut in the 2,800-seat auditorium.

“It’s very important for the orchestra and the prestige of the Grand Rapids Symphony to go there with such an important soloist,” Lehninger said. “It’s a good moment to go back to Carnegie because it’s time to show the industry this orchestra and what it can do.”

Carnegie Hall is where the world’s best artists and top orchestras go to perform. Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini both conducted there. Violinist Jascha Heifetz, just 16 years old, made his American debut on its stage. Pianist Van Cliburn triumphantly performed there after winning the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

Freire, who has performed in the 127- year-old hall four times previously, will join the Lehninger and the orchestra to perform music by their country’s most famous composer, Heitor-Villa Lobos.

“If we want to raise the profile of the orchestra in the industry, we have to go to New York,” said Lehninger, who previously conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra there in 2011. “I think we’re ready for the next step.”

But you can hear the entire program of Brazilian and Spanish-flavored music first in Grand Rapids at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students, for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Carnegie Hall Preview – Bolero Encore.

The programs in both Grand Rapids and New York City will end with Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears Your Heart) featuring the 140-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus directed by Pearl Shangkuan.

“Chôros” is a style of Brazilian music similar to a serenade.

“It was street music, very popular in the 1920s and 30s,” Lehninger said. “Villa-Lobos took it to its next step.”

Nelson Freire, who has appeared in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, is a childhood friend and, later, a musical colleague of Lehninger’s mother, Sônia Goulart, a noted pianist and teacher in her own right.

In 2016, Freire and Lehninger toured Australia, giving concerts with all of Australia’s most important orchestras, including in Sydney and Melbourne.

“I grew up listening to him playing,” Lehninger said. “We have almost a father-son relationship. He became a wonderful friend and mentor and someone I love deeply.”

Twice, Freire has shared the stage in Carnegie Hall with Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich in duo piano performances. But the Brazilian pianist is less of a household name than Argerich, arguably the most famous Latin-American concert pianist of all time.

“He’s kind of a kept secret. Everyone in the industry knows and respects him, but he never reached the celebrity status because he never wanted to,” Lehninger said. “But he’s played with the most important orchestras and in the most important cities all over the world.”

In fact, Freire recently was engaged to appear at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo on April 28 as a replacement for the previously scheduled pianist Murray Perahia.

Until recently, Freire was less inclined to make recordings, which is how many artists become well known. Nonetheless, he’s one of just 72 pianists featured on the 200-CD box set, Great Pianists of the 20th Century, issued by Phillips in 1999.

“He’s that phenomenal,” Lehninger said.

Freire will be soloist on two pieces, Spanish composer Falla’s Noches en los Jardines de España and in Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce.

Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a piece for piano and orchestra that Lehninger describes as a “poem with piano.”

“It’s not for the kind of soloist you’d expect when you play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff,” he said. “The piano is another instrument in the orchestra.”

Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce is a series of vignettes of children on parade, wearing costumes, and playing instruments, led by the Children’s Carnival King, called “Momo.”

“Villa-Lobos loved children,” Lehninger said. “He never had children, but he composed many pieces for, or inspired by, children.”

Several years ago, Lehninger led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in a performance of Momoprecoce with Freire at the piano. It was the first time the BSO had ever performed the work that captures a child’s impressions of Brazil’s famous Carnival.

“It’s a unique program, which we chose as a good possibility to take to Carnegie Hall,” Lehninger said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's 20th Century Concert is a sensational addition to Great Eras series

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Great Eras series concerts are just what the name implies: Concerts devoted to a particular period in music.

For many years the three-concert series has celebrated the music of the Baroque, the Classical and the Romantic eras each season, though not necessarily in that order.

But this season, the Grand Rapids Symphony embraced the 20th century with a fourth program for the Crowe Horwath Great Eras series. It took the entire season, which opened last September, to get there; but it was well worth the wait for the final concert of the series for the 2017-18 season.

The 20th Century Concert, featuring music of the Americas, both North and South, was held Friday, March 30, in St. Cecilia Music Center. The program, which also featured music by Russians living at home and abroad, was a great success and ended with a standing ovation.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger programmed four pieces. Each totally different. Each was sensational.

The full orchestra was a pleasure to hear performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Trumpet, Piano and Strings, starring Principal Trumpet Charley Lea and guest pianist Michael Brown. A smaller ensemble was charming playing the original version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

Deciding which of those two was the audience favorite could take longer to determine than the length of the concert itself.

The Concerto No. 1, tricky for the conductor, is a brilliant showpiece for piano. It’s clear Shostakovich wrote it for himself to play. It’s a substantial, meaty piece of music, which generally means it’s also a handful. Lea on trumpet supplied brilliant brass interjections into the fabric of the neo-Baroque work. But a heavier burden falls on the pianist.

Brown, a past Rising Star of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, returned to West Michigan to give a performance that was clean and precise but still with an undercurrent of passion just below the surface. A gifted pianist, Brown has substantial skills as a soloist. But he also proved an able collaborator, which is critical when the soloist is playing entirely off the beat from the rest of the ensemble.

Lehninger led an exciting performance.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring needs no introduction to an American audience that watches TV and eats beef. But Lehninger set aside the familiar concert suite for full orchestra in DeVos Performance Hall and programmed instead the original version that Copland wrote to accompany dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company. It has just 13 instruments.

It’s more like chamber music than orchestral music, demanding a higher level of interaction, not just with the conductor, but between the other musicians. Luckily for the audience, a stage full of principal or assistant principal players has the talents and experience to get the job done. Though the sophisticated music is familiar, the simplicity of the texture is not. Lehninger led a nimble performance of engaging music that captivated the audience.

Those two pieces also were heard on Friday morning for the Porter Hills Coffee Classics concert, a one-hour version of the evening program, held without intermission.

For the evening program, the concert began with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Prelude to Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. The Bach prelude that launches the work for strings is well known. But Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s best-known composer of concert music, takes the prelude through space and time from 18th century Thuringia in Germany to 20th century Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger takes delight in the music of his home. Grand Rapids audiences will hear a lot more soon.

Igor Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra rounded out the program. It’s a whimsical romp and a sardonic tour through four different dance rhythms, a march, a waltz, a polka and a gallop. Now imagine it performed under the Big Top in a circus tent. It’s that kind of piece.

Even in small piece, Stravinsky writes for a full orchestra with plenty for everyone to do from piccolo to tuba. The full Grand Rapids Symphony sparkled with vivacity, vim and vigor throughout.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, March 31, 2018

Recap: Marcelo Lehninger leads Grand Rapids Symphony in magnificent performance of 'Ein Heldenleben'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

In symphony orchestra concerts, it’s usually the soloists and conductors who get the lion’s share of the glory.

The virtuoso soloists are the aerialists, working without a net, flying high above the ground. The conductors are the ringmasters running the show and guiding the audience through the performance.

But this week, with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, all the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony were putting their heads into the mouth of the lion.

A Hero’s Life is everything and then some.

The stage was packed with musical heroes. A total of 102 instrumentalists, the biggest orchestra of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2017-18 season, filled the stage from end to end.

The Grand Rapids Symphony played magnificently under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, conducting a work by Strauss for the first time in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday, March 23. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24.

Ein Heldenleben was the sixth and final tone poem Strauss composed over 10 years in the 1880s and 1890s. A Hero’s Life was his final word on the subject of producing a lengthy, one-movement instrumental work that tells a story in music. He threw everything including the kitchen sink into it.

By everything, Strauss composed a semi-autobiographical piece about a hero who overcomes adversity and triumphs over his enemies. If it isn’t clear that Strauss was telling his own story, he quotes from nine of his previous compositions.

A performance is a big undertaking with eight horns, five trumpets, four oboes and a pair of tubas to perform. A total of 60 stringed instruments were on stage.

It’s also a big deal to perform. Ein Heldenleben is an enormously complex work with intricate and intriguing solos from nearly every principal player. Violins, at one point, have to turn their low G string down to G flat. Orchestral musicians spend lifetime learning and relearning excerpts to take auditions.

It takes a big, talented band of musicians just to get through it, let alone play it well. Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in one of his finest performances to date since his appointment as music director less than two years ago.

The opening section, “The Hero,” with all its swashbuckling glory, sent chills up your spine with Lehninger wielding his baton as Grail Knight might wield a lance, yet sculpting in sound a three-dimensional portrait of the hero.

The woodwinds were nimble but determined, cackling fiercely, as “The Hero’s Adversaries.”

A middle section is a portrayal of Strauss’ wife who sang professionally as a soprano. She was a complex woman, and though they had a successful marriage, it was a complicated relationship. Strauss, the master orchestrator, depicts Pauline in all her glory in the movement titled “The Hero’s Companion.”

Crawford, the master violinist, gave a captivating performance as the flirtatious, occasionally perverse, lady. It’s a solo that could keep a violinist from a good night’s sleep, but Crawford played it as if it were as easy as pie.

Off-stage trumpets played a brilliant fanfare to usher in the section titled “The Hero at Battle,” capped off by the thrilling horn theme from Don Juan.

Strauss in all his glory comes to the fore in the fifth section, “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” full of bits and pieces from his earlier tone poems and other works. It’s music that, when originally composed, wasn’t intended to go together, so good conducting matters. Lehninger skillfully wove the disparate threads into a remarkable coat of many colors.

The finale, “The Hero’s Retirement,” came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, wonderful rage giving way to sensuous sounds, brought home by a nostalgic duet between Crawford on violin and Richard Britsch on horn. The two instruments, in their natural setting, hardly balance, but Crawford and Britsch made it seem effortless.

Friday’s audience gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation that went on for several minutes.

Principal flutist Christopher Kantner was the other hero of the night as soloist in Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G Major. It’s the barnburner of all flute concertos. Every flute player who intends to have a professional career learns it.

It’s beautiful music, well composed, never mind that Mozart was in his early 20s when he wrote it. Kantner, meanwhile, was in his 20s when he joined the Grand Rapids Symphony as principal flutist in 1976.

A couple generations of concert goers in West Michigan have heard his solo work, but we’ll never get enough. Kantner’s flourishes were relaxed; his cadenzas were melt-in-your-mouth delights. A remarkable performance both angelic and masculine at the same time.

The concert opened with more Mozart, only this was music by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, a 20th century Brazilian composer who really was named “Mozart,” though he went by M. Camargo Guarnieri in life.

Guarnieri’s Abertura Festiva or Festive Overture might have been music that Bela Bartok would have composed had he moved to Brazil and spent his adult years there. It keeps its Latin American flavor but it’s well crafted.

It was an exhilarating opener. Lehninger’s performance was clean and propulsive, and the audience delighted in it.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, March 24, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Classical music is serious stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, March 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jenn Collard, Grand Rapids Symphony Public Relations Intern


Posted by Marketing Intern at Wednesday, March 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such an opportunity is rare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jenn Collard, Public Relations Intern


Posted by Marketing Intern at Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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

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

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

Now, Pottermania is back for more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, February 7, 2018
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