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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, February 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of composers since then have followed suit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it has its rewards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, January 18, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The music of Tchaikovsky is beloved by many.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GR Symphony, Tchaikovsky and Gabriela Montero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The audience loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 13, 2018

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

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

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

But it didn’t die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus creates new bonds

By Courtney Collar - 

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

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

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

GR Symphony 2017 Holiday Pops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junior Abby Stead shares similar sentiments about the chorus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Guest Blogger at Wednesday, January 3, 2018

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

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

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

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

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

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

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

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

GR Symphony 2017 Holiday Pops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRS Holiday Pops Spectacular 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, December 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, December 12, 2017
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