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Recap: Marcelo Lehninger leads Grand Rapids Symphony and Chorus in glorious performance of Verdi's Requiem

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Giuseppe Verdi wrote his Messa da Requiem in memory of a great man.

As fate would have it, the Grand Rapids Symphony used it to bid farewell to a great woman on Friday.

Philanthropist and arts lover Helen DeVos, who died in October, more than any single person, made the Grand Rapids Symphony what it is today.

“I think it is safe to say that in the modern history of the Grand Rapids Symphony, no one has had a more profound effect on this orchestra than Helen DeVos,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau, moments before the performance of Verdi’s monumental Requiem

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony finalized its 2017-18 season nearly a year ago, it happened that the orchestra’s scheduled performance of Verdi's Requiem would be the first concert in its Richard and Helen Classical series following the death of Helen DeVos, who served nearly 20 years on the orchestra’s board of directors.

It’s no surprise that the Grand Rapids Symphony dedicated performances on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18-19, to her memory.

Friday’s performance was glorious, and it ended with a full 5 minutes of applause following the 85-minute performance, which repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19.

GR Symphony presents Verdi's Requiem

A total of 275 musicians on stage, singing and playing their hearts out, rattled the rafters with each reprise of the dramatic “Dies Irae” or “Day of Wrath.” But those same musicians also sent chills through the auditorium with the softest pianissimos beginning with the almost imperceptible opening passages of the setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

It’s Music Director Marcelo Lehninger’s second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, but the performance, in fact, was Lehninger’s first collaboration with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.

The Brazilian-born conductor has said Verdi’s Requiem is one of his all-time favorite works to conduct. It quickly became apparent that his affection for the work is genuine and heartfelt, and his understanding of it is insightful.

The performance offered the promise of wonderful things yet to come in the choral and orchestral repertoire in DeVos Performance Hall. For openers, it was a big leap forward from the Grand Rapids Symphony’s last performance of Verdi’s Requiem in May 2010.

For that season-ending concert, the Calvin College Capella joined the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus to fill out a chorus of 150 singers. For this performance, Capella joined the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus to put 180 singers on stage.

What’s more, this time both choruses were prepared by same director, Pearl Shangkuan. It was immediately clear that both choral ensembles were on the same page and prepared to pull together for a powerful performance with precise diction and a shared interpretation in the brilliant double fugue in the “Sanctus.”

That’s necessary. Because Verdi composed a big work for double chorus and orchestra with four bassoons and eight trumpets four onstage and four antiphonal. In fact, there are 16 brass in all, including a cimbasso, a bass instrument though with a more direct and penetrating sound than a tuba. A pounding bass drum comes back again and again.

Conductor Hans von Bulow, glancing through the score of Verdi’s Requiem prior to its debut, famously dubbed it “an opera in ecclesiastical robes.” It is an opera, minus the costumes, makeup and special effects. History also records that the first time Bulow heard it many years later, he was moved to tears.

In the “Dies Irae,” Verdi unleashes the furies of hell to chase after the faithful with pokers and pitchforks. In the “Sanctus,” he who is blessed and coming in the name of the Lord appears to be making the trip aboard a pirate ship.

Four soloists, each accomplished Verdi singers, were thoroughly impressive on Friday.

Verdi assigns the bass the bleakest passages. Bass Raymond Aceto was positively menacing with a commanding, though seemingly effortless, delivery. Each of his terror-filled recitations of the word “death” in Latin galvanized the audience.

Tenor Carl Tanner, substituting for the previously scheduled Anthony Dean Griffey, sang with formidable voice but also one with notable sweetness in his softest passages.

In his Requiem, Verdi seems to ask the most of the mezzo soprano. Suzanne Hendrix was up for the challenge, singing the “Liber scriptus” with a rich, round voice of Wagnerian proportions, possessing the heft of a contralto and the clarion notes of a mezzo, all in one package.

Julianna di Giacomo, a soprano with soaring height, carried the day with the fear and trembling of the final “Libera Me” in a powerful scene for soloist and chorus. Though the works ends softly, it does not disappoint.

Verdi’s Requiem will return again to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage. It’s a work that will last forever.

For that matter, in West Michigan, so will the memory of Helen DeVos.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, November 18, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony at 2017 BRAVO! Awards honors five remarkable women for their volunteer service to the orchestra

To be successful, an arts organization needs more than great artists who make great art.

It also needs supporters and volunteers who provide the foundation that makes great art possible.

The Grand Rapids Symphony honored five women on Tuesday for their contributions to build and maintain a world-class, professional orchestra in West Michigan at its 2017 BRAVO! Awards.

The extraordinary dedication and exceptional service to the Grand Rapids Symphony of Kate Pew Wolters, Diane McElfish Helle, Karen Henry Stokes, the late Linn Maxwell Keller, and Lori Lee Curley were recognized at the ceremonies, which included a dinner and a performance by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“Each had a passion for the Grand Rapids Symphony,” David Dams, co-chair of the 2017 BRAVO! Awards together with Gina Paul and Larry Robson.

The gala held on Tuesday, Nov. 14, in DeVos Performance Hall, raised $154,000 to support Symphony programming including the Gateway to Music, a matrix of 17 access points for music lovers of all ages and abilities.

GR Symphony presents 2017 BRAVO! Awards

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky plus Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 1 from The Three-Cornered Hat as part of the program.

Kate Pew Wolters, who previously was awarded a BRAVO! Award in 2013, was presented only the second BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award in the history of the awards. The first was awarded in 2007 to philanthropist and benefactor Helen DeVos, who died in October.

“Kate Pew Wolters was cut from the same cloth,” said Larry Robson, co-chair of the 2017 BRAVO! Awards. “A longtime activist for children and education, for social justice and for disabled people, Kate also has been a lover of arts and culture since childhood.”

“Kate also is a woman who knows how to get things done,” added Robson, currently Vice Chairperson of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors who received a BRAVO! Award at the last gala.

During Wolters’ two-year term as Board Chair from 2015 to 2017, the Grand Rapids Symphony hired Marcelo Lehninger as music director; it ratified an unprecedented 5-year collective bargaining agreement with its musicians; it adopted a new strategic plan to guide the orchestra’s operations for years to come; and it wrapped up its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign to build an endowment to secure the orchestra’s financial well-being for the future.

“Kate has the heart of an artist, the soul of a prophet, and the head of a businessman,” Robson said. “It’s an unbeatable combination.”

In accepting her award, Wolters said she recently had discovered an old checkbook register dating back to 1974 containing an entry for tuition paid to Aquinas College as well as a check to buy Grand Rapids Symphony tickets.

“There’s something about live music of any genre that soothes the soul,” she said. “We’re a lucky bunch in West Michigan to have such a wide offering of arts and culture.”

Diane McElfish Helle, a violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony since 1980, became the first member of the orchestra honored with a BRAVO! Award since 1991 when violist Daniel Kovats, who also conducted the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, was honored at the inaugural BRAVO! Awards.

Among her activities for the orchestra, Helle inaugurated the Symphony’s pre-concert conversations held before all 10 programs in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concerts.  In 2012, Helle launched the Symphony’s innovative Music for Health Initiative, which sends small groups of musicians into area hospital to assist music therapists as well as to entertain and comfort patients and caregivers.

In June, Helle was one of five musicians honored by the League of American Orchestras with its Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service.

“Five years ago, she began to write an entirely new chapter in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s history with the launch of our Music for Health Initiative,” said Gina Paul. “Today, with Diane as Program Administrator, our musicians regularly bring the healing power of music to Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and its Neuro-Rehab facility. Recently, the 16 musicians she leads have begun providing similar services to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Grand Rapids Veteran’s Home.”

Helle praised her fellow musicians’ performance of music including an orchestra arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Prelude No. 9, “La fille aux cheveaux de lin.”

“My heart is so full because I’m on stage where I‘ve lived a lot of my life,” she said.

The Pittsburgh native noted her fellow musicians come from all over the United States and beyond to take up residence in West Michigan and enrich the community.

 “Art matters when you make it for your own community,” she said.

That has contributed to the success of the Music for Health Initiative.

“They know it’s the musicians they’ve seen on stage coming to play for them.”

Karen Henry Stokes, a professional pianist who taught at Cornerstone University and Calvin College, has served many organizations from the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

“Karen has a deep and personal understanding of the power of music to enrich and transform lives,” said David Dams, co-chair of the 2017 BRAVO! Awards Gala. “Her efforts certainly have enriched and transformed the Grand Rapids Symphony into a finer institution and one of the crown jewels of arts and culture in West Michigan.

 “As a newer member of the Symphony’s Board of Directors, I can tell you that I’m in awe of Karen Henry Stokes,” Dams said. “Some of Karen’s greatest achievements are behind the scenes, but they do not go unnoticed.”

Longtime chair of the nominating committee for the Symphony Board of Directors, Stokes is responsible for recruiting and nurturing board members.

Stokes, who currently serves as board secretary, said the pleasure is all hers.

“Thanks for making it possible to hear this glorious music,” she said. “Not only has this orchestra played a huge role in this community, it also has in our family.”

Linn Maxwell Keller, a professional singer who made many appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony and Opera Grand Rapids, died in June 2016.

“Linn Maxwell Keller was a Renaissance woman. A professional singer, Linn’s career in opera and oratorio took her to the stages of the world’s most important opera houses and concert halls across the United States and in 26 countries,” Dams said. “Linn wore many hats, including serving for many years on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s board of directors. But one of her greatest gifts to West Michigan was creating the Grand Rapids Bach Festival.”

She had a determination you had to admire, said her husband, Fred Keller, who accepted the posthumous award on her behalf.

“Linn really enjoyed performing. She was dedicated to the work that was to be performed,” he said.

Maxwell Keller’s experiences performing with Bach Festivals throughout the world inspired her to launch the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival in 1997. But her hard work made it happen.

“We have a saying in our family,” Keller said. “It only takes one more ‘yes’ to their ‘no.”

“That was what led to the Bach Festival,” Keller said.

At the BRAVO! Awards, the Symphony awarded its Nancy and Ray Loeschner Volunteer Leadership Award to Lori Lee Curley. Introduced in 2013, the award was named for the Loeschners, who were honored with a joint BRAVO! Award in 2001. Nancy Loeschner received the inaugural award posthumously.

When the Grand Rapids Symphony took over operations of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival in 2013, Curley was appointed its first president.

“With quiet grace and irrepressible enthusiasm, Lori took up the challenges of integrating the biennial festival into the operations of the Symphony while also planning and organizing the festivals’ many evenings of marvelous music,” said Gina Paul, a previous recipient of the Loeschner Volunteer Leadership Award in 2016.

Earlier, Curley had served as a member of the Board of Directors and as a past president of the Women’s Committee (now known as Symphony Friends). Over the years, she also served as co-chair of fundraisers including Symphony Showhouse and the “Encore” Cookbook.

“My involvement with the musical community has greatly enriched my life,” Curley said while accepting the Loeschner Award.

The 2017 BRAVO! Award Gala also payed tribute to the late Roger Nelson, the Grand Rapids Symphony Vice President for Operations, who died suddenly in March 2017.

Formerly a double bass play in the orchestra, Nelson made the transition from musician to stage manager and rose to become Chief Operating Officer, playing an instrumental role in developing such programs as “Symphony with Soul” and “LiveArts!”

“He was the man behind the curtain,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau.

Varineau described Nelson as “a man of passion for excellence” who was “determined to pursue lofty goals.”

“Roger was a big man,” Varineau said. “With a big heart and really big shoulders.”

Lehninger, who attended his first BRAVO! Awards Gala since his appointment as Music Director last year, told the audience how happy he was to be part of the community.

“This is truly a great place,” said the Brazilian-born conductor. “And this is a high-level orchestra that brings the best of the symphonic repertoire to you.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, November 17, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony’s cast of 275 musicians and more performs monumental Verdi’s Requiem, Nov. 17-18

You’ll find Giuseppe Verdi at the top of any list of all-time greatest opera composers.

One of the best operas ever written by the composer Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida usually is performed in a concert hall, though it calls for no costumes, make up or sets.

Verdi’s Requiem, at first glance, seems like it was meant for the church. But his setting of Mass for the Dead according to the Roman Catholic Church is drama at its best.

The musical tour de force includes some of the greatest music written by one of the greatest composers for stage. With its thunderous Dies Irae or “Day of Wrath” movement, it’s also one of the most popular works every written for orchestra and chorus.

Former Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Semyon Bychkov conducts
The BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem

The Grand Rapids Symphony presents Verdi’s Requiem, featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and the Calvin College Capella, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17-18, in DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW.

Tickets for the third concert of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series start at $18 for adults, $5 for students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, who will be on the podium, says the piece is a particular favorite of his.

“It’s one of the pieces I enjoy conducting the most,” said Lehninger, who is in his second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, mezzo soprano Suzanne Hendrix, tenor Carl Tanner, and bass Raymond Aceto are guest soloists. Tanner replaces the previously announced Anthony Dean Griffey, who dropped out due to illness.

The four all are experienced performers of Verdi’s operas.

Pearl Shangkuan, who is in her 14th season as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, also is a professor of music at Calvin College and director of Capella, the top vocal group at the college in Grand Rapids.

All told, there will be upwards of 275 musicians on stage for the performance.

“It has everything and the kitchen sink,” said Shangkuan, prior to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s last performance in 2010.

Prior to 2010, the Grand Rapids Symphony last sang Verdi’s Requiem in November 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which gave added poignancy to the Libre Me section, with its first line that translates as “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fateful day.”

Both performances will be dedicated to the memory Helen DeVos, who died in October. The philanthropist and patron of the arts served for nearly 20 years on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors and was honored with a BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s highest honor, in 2007.

Verdi, who was spiritual, but not a regular churchgoer, poured his most mature vocal and dramatic gifts into his Messa da Requiem, which is sung in Latin. Translations will be projected into English in DeVos Hall.

Even if you haven’t heard of Verdi’s Requiem, you’ve almost certainly heard portions of the 85-minute work. The dramatic Dies Irae, perhaps the loudest musical moment in the entire orchestra repertoire, has become the go-to soundtrack to signal that Armageddon is on the way. It’s frequently heard in movies including Mad Max: Fury Road with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in 2015; Django Unchained with Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Quentin Tarantino, in 2012; and The Final Curtain with Peter O’Toole in 2002.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, November 14, 2017

If you liked 'La La Land,' you'll love seeing Grand Rapids Pops' 'An American In Paris,' Nov. 10-12

Great movies, like great symphonies and great paintings, echo and reverberate through time. 

With its jazz-flavored score, Technicolor costuming, and classic dancing, the 2016 film, La La Land, garnered critical acclaim, five Academy Awards, and enthusiastic audiences.

But sixty-five years before La La Land, there was An American in Paris.

The 1951 musical, starring the indomitable Gene Kelly and elegant Leslie Caron, weds the worlds of symphonic music, dance, and fine art into a movie that’s inspired audiences and filmmakers for generations.

Grand Rapids Pops presents An American in Paris with a full-length screening of the entire movie, coupled with a live performance by the Grand Rapids Symphony. Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students.

Part of the Fox Motor Pops series, the show features the film projected onto a 40-foot screen above the orchestra while the musicians play the iconic film score with the music of George Gershwin.

Damien Chazelle, director of the award-winning La La Land, admitted he “pillaged” from An American in Paris to make his 2016 box-office hit come to life. “An American in Paris is such a stunner,” Chazelle explains. “It’s an awesome example of how daring some of those old musicals really were. It’s incredible that it ever got made, let alone that it won best picture.”

Daring indeed. The film sets the artistic bar high and never looks back.


Set just after World War II, An American in Paris features Gene Kelly as Jerry, an ex-GI living in Paris, attempting to become a successful painter, while falling in love with Leslie Caron’s character, Lise, a shop girl in the city of lights. The two characters, separated from each other by would-be romantic partners vying for their attention, struggle to find a way to be together.

All the while, the film boldly brings together the best of several artistic genres: The finest of George and Ira Gershwin’s songs and the best of George Gershwin’s symphonic music with his An American in Paris, ballet piece, hailed as a “jaunty, jazzy symphonic poem” by the New York Times.

Gene Kelly’s choreography and prowess bring together classical and modern dance, as he and Leslie Caron dance their way through sets inspired by famous paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, and Toulouse-Latrec. The enterprise, masterful and elegant, elevated the musical to high art that still resonates deeply with audiences.

Associate conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra through the musical genius of George and Ira Gershwin songs, including Embraceable You, Our Love is Here to Stay, and I Got Rhythm, along with the nearly 20-minute-long ballet piece, An American in Paris.

Musicals sometimes get a bad rap: Where, in real life, does anyone burst into song spontaneously? Where, in real life, can a simple love song unite people in perfect relational harmony?

Real life may not be so tidy as musicals suggest, but An American in Paris is more daring and less tidy than one might think.

Damien Chazelle sums it up: “That finale is completely experimental, avant-garde filmmaking. Nothing but Gershwin, Gene Kelly, and painted sets. You look at that and realize how daring the film was.” 

Written by Jenn Collard, Grand Rapids Symphony Public Relations Intern

Posted by Marketing Intern at Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony remembers Helen DeVos, its dearest friend and greatest champion


Helen DeVos, one of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s dearest friends, has died, but her love and support for the orchestra will last forever.

It’s safe to say that without Helen DeVos, the Grand Rapids Symphony would not exist as we know it today. For nearly 50 years, Helen DeVos was the Grand Rapids Symphony’s biggest supporter, and its greatest champion.

“Helen was a very special friend of the Grand Rapids Symphony,” said President and CEO Peter Perez. “Music was so important to Helen, and her influence over this organization was vast and heartfelt because it was such a personal part of her life.”

For decades, Helen and her husband, Rich DeVos, have been devoted patrons of the arts in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Providing support that would lead to the opening of DeVos Performance Hall, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s principal home, was just one of many causes the DeVoses supported.

But the Grand Rapids Symphony has been especially near and dear to her heart. Less than two weeks before her death on Oct. 18, 2017, Helen and Rich DeVos were in the audience for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Classical Series concerts in DeVos Hall.

Helen DeVos awarded GR Symphony BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award

“After attending many concerts over the years, we know that the orchestra provides inspiration, education and enjoyment for the people of West Michigan,” Helen DeVos said last year.

When Helen DeVos joined the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors in 1971, it was a community orchestra with an annual budget of $100,000 that presented 10 concerts a year.

Today, the Grand Rapids Symphony is a world-class professional orchestra with a roster of 80 full-time and part-time musicians, performing concerts in eight different subscription series plus special events, all with an annual operating budget of just over $10 million dollars.

“She believed the great community of Grand Rapids needed and deserved a great orchestra,” Perez said. “Her inspiration and support made it possible for a fine community orchestra to grow into a world-class professional ensemble and the second largest performing arts organization in Michigan.”

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger said the depth of support for the Grand Rapids Symphony from people such as Helen DeVos played an important role in his decision to accept the position with the Symphony.

“She’s made a difference in making our community better,” said Lehninger, who became Music Director in June 2016. “She believed in the importance of music, and because of her giving, the Grand Rapids Symphony is what it is today.”

Helen DeVos, however, did more than donate money. For nearly 20 years, she was an active member of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors, serving as board secretary from 1974 to 1982 and providing quiet leadership and wise counsel to the organization’s leadership.

Following her retirement, she was named an Honorary Board Member in 1991, and she became one of the first recipients of the symphony’s BRAVO! Award, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s highest honor.

In 2007, the Grand Rapids Symphony presented Helen DeVos with its first BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala dinner and benefit concert in DeVos Performance Hall that also raised more than $25,000 for the orchestra’s educational programs.

“I’m not sure I merit all that,” Helen DeVos said at the time.

Her friends and colleagues thought otherwise.

“What I think is very interesting is, if Mrs. DeVos were here, she’d be very humbled by this,” Associate Conductor John Varineau said to WZZM-TV 13 during a public visitation that drew throngs of well-wishers to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel on Monday, Oct. 23.

“She’d probably be saying, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’” Varineau added with a laugh. “That’s just the way she was.”

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

Soon, a woodwind quintet, a brass quintet and a timpanist and a pianist would follow. Significantly, the DeVos Foundation also funded the first full-time development director to raise money for the orchestra.

Past Board Chair Fred Keller, who served alongside her on the Board from 1971 to 1990, recalled in 2007 that it was “a great privilege to work with Helen.”

“She was really clear in what she believed in and what her principles were,” he told The Grand Rapids Press. “At the same time, she gave the leadership quite a bit of freedom.”

Another woman, True McDonald, recruited Helen DeVos to serve on the Grand Rapids Symphony Board of Directors.

“She warned me it was a working board, and it was absolutely,” Helen DeVos recalled. “We may have had differing opinions now and then, but in the end we shared a passion for the symphony and worked together for its continuing success and advancement.”

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

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

“We believe in the Grand Rapids Symphony and are excited to help the orchestra continue to serve thousands of people and their families each year,” Helen DeVos said last year following the conclusion of the campaign. “We appreciate the generous participation of the many people who have joined together to support the Symphony and the artistic excellence and educational programs our region appreciates.”

Once fully funded, revenue from investments from the Legacy of Excellence Campaign is expected to contribute about $2 million per year to the orchestra’s operations.

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

The former Helen Van Wesep came by her love of the Grand Rapids Symphony honestly. At age 4 she began piano lessons. As a child growing up in Grand Rapids, her parents took her to concerts with such legendary performers as violinist Fritz Kreisler and tenor Jussi Bjoerling.

But it was a music appreciation class that she took at Calvin College that changed everything.

“That’s probably the genesis of my enjoyment of symphonic music,” she said in 2007.

At the 2007 BRAVO! Awards, Helen DeVos made it clear that, through her support of the Grand Rapids Symphony, she hoped to give the gift of music to future generations in West Michigan.

“Music did play a big part in our lives,” she told the BRAVO! Awards audience. “And thanks to this orchestra, children growing up in Grand Rapids today will be able to have their own musical memories.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, October 26, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony plays Baroque-era music of 'Charlie's Angels' in Grand Rapids and Holland

It’s good to be the king, Charles II of England must have thought over and over.

It wasn’t so good for his father in 17th century England. King Charles I was deposed and beheaded and Oliver Cromwell took power as Lord Protector until Cromwell’s death ended the military dictatorship, and Parliament restored the monarchy.

But with the coronation of King Charles II, one of the most popular and beloved kings in English history, music returned to court life, theaters reopened, and entertainment forbidden during Cromwell’s rule became a part of English life once again.

The “merry monarch” loved good times and good music and encouraged the development of English composers.

Grand Rapids Symphony performs music from the court of King Charles II for The Baroque Concert: Charlie’s Angels on Friday and Saturday.

“We aren’t playing the music of the 1970s TV show or the movies,” said Garry Clarke, a British conductor, violinist and early music specialist.

The Grand Rapids Symphony, however, is performing music from the Restoration Era of King Charles II, who was fond of French music and who was long suspected of harboring Roman Catholic leanings.

“I figure they must have played like angels in the king’s private chambers,” Clarke said.

Clarke, former director of The Baroque Band, leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in the opening of the Crowe Horwath Great Eras series at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 20, in St. Cecilia Music Center, 24 Ransom Ave. NW. Tickets start at $26 adults, $5 students for the Great Eras concert.

Highlights of the evening concert will be given at 10 a.m. Friday for The Baroque 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 $16 for the Coffee Classics program.

On Saturday, the Grand Rapids Symphony returns to Holland with The Baroque Concert: Charlie’s Angels at 8 p.m. October 21, in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts at Hope College. Tickets, available at the door, start at $20 adults, $5 students.

For tickets or more information, call (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to

The Baroque Concert is the opening program of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2017-18 four-concert Crowe Horwath Great Eras series. Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the next three concerts, each focusing on a particular era in music. Upcoming concerts focus on the Romantic-era music of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky on Jan. 5, 2018; on the Classical-era works of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart on Feb. 16; and on music of the 20th Century by Copland, Stravinsky and more on March 30. Season tickets are available.

Clarke, who teaches at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, conducts the Grand Rapids Symphony in music English composers including John Blow, Henry Purcell and Matthew Locke. Blow taught Purcell, and Purcell succeeded Locke as composer in ordinary to King Charles II.

One of the first notable English composers in music history, Purcell landed his first job as composer for the court violin band called Twenty-Four Violins.

“The band didn’t actually have 24 violinists,” Clarke said. “That was the actual number of string players including violas and cellos.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Grand Rapids Symphony awarded $25,000 grant from Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs

Grand Rapids Symphony has received a $25,000 grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs for its 2017-18 season.

The state agency has awarded more than $10.6 million for arts and culture in 2018, a 10 percent increase from the $9.6 million awarded last October 2017.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s $25,000 award for Operational Support is used to support both artistic and education programming.

“The Grand Rapids Symphony’s mission is to perform great music that moves the human soul, but it’s also our goal to serve our entire community,” said Peter Perez, President and CEO.

“We’re well aware that the money that comes to us from the MCACA is money that comes from the people of Michigan,” Perez said. “Through such programs as Symphony Scorecard and Free for Families, which provide free tickets to concerts, and our Music for Health initiative, which sends musicians into area hospitals, we hope to give back to the community that helps support us.”

MCACA’s 474 grants to music festivals, art centers, school districts, historical societies, art museums and symphony orchestras across the Great Lake State cover costs associated with operations, projects, capital improvements, arts-in-education residences, services to the field, and regional re-granting initiatives.

The 84 awards to organizations headquartered in West Michigan total $2.5 million in the counties of Allegan, Kalamazoo, Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa Counties.

 “These grants provide vital support for the ongoing cultural development of communities throughout Michigan,” said John Bracey, MCACA executive director. “We appreciate the support of Gov. Snyder and the legislature for increasing funding to groups and events that inspire cultural pride and appreciation for the heritage of our communities.”

The 15-member council, appointed by the governor, is an agency within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which serves to attract business and jobs, foster community development, and promote Michigan’s image. Grand Rapids is represented by Christian Gaines, exec of ArtPrize, and Pamella DeVos, a past GRS board member and current honorary board member.

Funding approved on Sept. 15 in Lansing to individual arts organizations was given for Arts in Education, Capital Improvements and Project Support along with Operational Support. Other money was provided to regional re-granting initiatives.

Grand Rapids Symphony last year received $35,000 from MCACA for 2017. The previous year, the state agency awarded $45,000 to the orchestra for 2016.

Among other orchestras in Michigan, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra received two grants totaling $124,000. Ann Arbor Symphony was awarded $36,000. Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and Lansing Symphony Orchestra each were given $28,000, and West Michigan Symphony in Muskegon received $18,000.

A total of $1.125 million was awarded to organizations based in Kent County and $223,800 to cultural entities in Ottawa County for the 2018 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2018.

In the Grand Rapids area, John Ball Zoo and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park both were awarded a $70,000 for capital improvements, the largest grants to organizations based in Kent County. John Ball Zoo received a second grant of $35,000 for operational support, and Meijer Gardens was given a second grant for $54,000 for operational support.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Popular, Norwegian guest conductor Rune Bergmann returns to Grand Rapids Symphony stage with music of Sibelius

For a conductor, a first appearance with new orchestra is a little like a blind date.

“It’s always about chemistry,” according to conductor Rune Bergmann.

The Norwegian-born conductor’s first date with the Grand Rapids Symphony two years ago led to a special return appearance several months later. This week Bergmann and the Grand Rapids Symphony will share the stage for the third time in just three seasons.

Bergmann, 41, returns to DeVos Performance Hall on Friday and Saturday, October 5 and 6, for music inspired by the lore and landscape of Scandinavia.

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

A graduate with high honors from the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki, Bergmann will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Sibelius Symphony No. 2. He'll be joined by Norwegian mezzo soprano Marianne Beate Kielland, a past Grammy nominee, as soloist in Gustav Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer.

Bergmann, who was awarded second prize in the Nordic Conducting Competition in Helsingborg in 2002, will open the concerts with Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersingers, the only comic opera by the composer who immortalized the mythological Norse gods in his Ring of the Nibelung cycle of four music dramas.

“All music tells a story,” Bergmann said the second time he was in Grand Rapids.

“It’s either true or not,” he added with a smile. “It it’s not true, we have to invent one.”

Just two years after his very first appearance in the United States, the Bergmann made his Grand Rapids Symphony in November 2015, conducting Brahms’ Requiem. It left a lasting impression on him.

After his first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Bergmann said the orchestra’s “potential is enormous.”

“The city is great, and the orchestra plays very well,” he said in November 2015. “This is an orchestra that deserves to be well-known internationally.”

As a candidate for the post of Grand Rapids Symphony music director, Bergmann returned in April 2016 for a special, encore performance at the Jenison Center for the Arts.

Rune Bergmann, who lives near Oslo, grew up in Norway in the small, furniture-making city of Sykkylven along the Norwegian Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean, some 335 miles northwest of Norway’s capital city.

The town of fewer than 8,000 people didn’t have an orchestra, nor did Bergmann grow up in a musical family. But at age 8, after watching Carlos Kleiber conduct a New Year’s Eve concert from Vienna on television, Bergmann was inspired to make music and conducting his life’s work.

“The music spoke straight to me, and the way he communicated with the orchestra was unbelievable,” Bergmann recalled. “At that moment I told my parents that this is what I am going to do with my life."

“My parents thought I was crazy,” he recalled with a smile.

But Bergmann took up trumpet, piano and viola and began spending his pocket change on classical music recordings instead of candy. First, he attended Sweden’s Royal College of Music choir and orchestra conducting.

“You couldn’t study conducting in Norway,” he explained.

He set his sights next on Finland’s prestigious Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, which typically receives some 400 applications for each available spot. Bergmann was the one and only student admitted his year.

“I was lucky to get the best of everything,” he said.

Bergmann’s career includes appearances with orchestras and opera houses throughout Europe including the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Norwegian National Opera as well as the Mainfranken Theater in Wurzburg, German.

He formerly held the post of deputy Kapellmeister General with the Augsburger Philharmoniker and Theater Augsburg in Germany.

Today, he’s Music Director of Canada’s Calgary Philharmonic as well as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of Poland’s Szczecin Philharmonic.

Classic rock, not classical music, first brought Bergmann to the United States four years ago.

Guitarist Steve Miller – whose hits include “Abracadabra” and “Fly Like and Eagle,” had a hand in one of Bergmann's earliest appearances in the United States in Corona, California.

Bergmann orchestrated a 35-minute production dubbed “The Steve Miller Rock Symphony” featuring the Steve Miller Band performing five of the band’s top songs along with Bergmann conducting the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Artistic Director of Norway’s innovative Fjord Cadenza Festival since its inception in 2010, Bergmann leads the summer festival of jazz and fine arts as well as classical music.

The festival is unusual in another way.  It’s entirely privately funded “in an American-style way,” he said.

Bergmann said he appreciates the buy-in that comes with private support for arts and culture in the United States.

“I that feel people care,’ he said. “When you’re involved, you care.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Recap: Harry Potter and the Grand Rapids Pops thrill audience for second time with ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Fans of Harry Potter films all have their favorite scenes.

Harry’s first visit to Diagon Alley, his first defeat of Lord Voldemort, conjuring his first Patronus Charm, rescuing his godfather, Sirius Black, winning the Tri-Wizard Cup, finally defeating the Dark Lord – it goes on and on and on.

Harry Potter, fighting the dreaded basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, is among the most scary and exhilarating scenes in the entire canon of Harry Potter films.

The thrills are nothing without John Williams’ epic musical score. And the scene is everything with the Grand Rapids Pops performing it.

Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry, Ron and Hermione returned to Grand Rapids for the second performance of the Harry Potter Film Concert Series on Friday, September 29.

The Grand Rapids Symphony with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets repeats on Saturday, September 30, with two shows at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets remain available, especially for the evening performance.

Australian conductor Nicholas Buc, who was in DeVos Hall in January with the Grand Rapids Symphony for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, returned to lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in the film in which Harry Potter discovers a mysterious diary is the key to defeating Lord Voldemort and rescuing Ginny Weasley from certain death.

Grand Rapids Symphony's 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'

Buc is not only an accomplished conductor, he’s a showman who knows how to rev an audience up.

“This is no ordinary movie screening,” he told the audience at the start. “We want to you to laugh and cheer your heroes and boo and hiss the villains.”

Some of the loudest cheers of the evening were for the first appearance of Dobby the House Elf and for Fawkes the Phoenix, arriving in the Chamber of Secrets to save the day.

“And we highly encourage displays of house pride,” he added, a reference to the four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin.

Friday’s audience came prepared to do just that, many dressed in the colors and trappings of Hogwarts as depicted in the movie.

The Harry Potter films are a tale of magic and its use to defeat evil. A tale of magic needs magical music, and John Williams’ epic score is full of wonder and delight.

Moments such as the beginning of the journey into the Enchanted Forrest are potent. But so is the wonder of an ordinary car soaring over the skies of London or the drama and whimsy of students wresting with a pack of Cornish pixies escaped from its cage

Music has a powerful effect on the drama. Live music even more so. A scene as ordinary as a Professor McGonagall telling her class the story of the Chamber of Secrets might be an ordinary lecture, but the ominous music beneath gives the audience chills as she tells it.

The Grand Rapids Symphony gave a magnificent performance that was authentic to the original production but also revelatory in subtle ways. In a concert hall, you hear things in new and different ways.

The fast-paced action of a game of Quidditch, a little like basketball played on broomsticks, becomes even more exciting when accompanied by 80 musicians powering the action, and even more frightening when the game suddenly becomes a life-and-death struggle when our hero comes under attack by a bewitched bludger.

Our heroes’ surprising escape from hundreds of giant spiders as well the dramatic death of Tom Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets were experiences that can take your breath away.

It’s also a heroic effort all by itself to play through. Though the film, based on the second book by J.K. Rowling, is the shortest of the seven books in the series, it’s the longest of the eight films. Including intermission, the entire show was just shy of three hours.

To be sure, the dialogue, of course, is present (and closed-caption as well). So are all the sound effects. In fact, the extra subwoofers that kick in for the mighty thuds of a Whomping Willow, the rumble of moving staircases in motion, or the opening of the Chamber of Secrets are amazing all on their own.

But nothing beats the grand and glorious sound of a full-size symphony orchestra, full of musicians playing their hearts out. You can’t experience that at home or in the movie theater. You can with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Performance Hall.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, September 30, 2017

Grand Rapids Pops presents 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,' Sept. 29-30

Pottermania returns to Grand Rapids.

Last season, when the Grand Rapids Pops brought the Harry Potter Film Concert series to town, the Grand Rapids Symphony sold out three performances in DeVos Performance Hall.

Find out what all the fuss is about this weekend when the Grand Rapids Symphony presents Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on Friday and Saturday, September 29-30.

Cars fly, trees fight back, and monsters are on the loose in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Relive the magical adventure of Harry Potter’s second year at school all over again. Experience the wonder of talking spiders, scolding letters, and giant snakes as never before.

The Harry Potter Film Concert Series, created by CineConcert in conjunction with Warner Bros. and the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling, presents the original film in high-definition on a 40-foot screen while John Williams’ unforgettable musical score is played live.

Last season’s debut drew more than 7,000 to the Grand Rapids Pops’ performance of  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in January.

Grand Rapids Symphony's 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'

The Sorcerer’ Stone was absolutely phenomenal,” said Jessica Kirchen Lyons, on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Facebook page. “Thank you for such a memorable experience”

“I was in tears most of the performance,” added Linda Stouf  on Facebook. “Our GRS is absolutely terrific! The talent is so deep!”

CineConcerts founder and conductor Justin Freer, who has appeared previously in DeVos Hall with the Grand Rapids Symphony, said all eight Harry Potter films eventually will be presented together with live musical performances.

“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. “He’s a monolithic giant in our craft, in our art-form, and he’s given us such memorable melodies. Between J.K. [Rowling’s] creations and John’s creations, what a wonderful marriage.”

Guest conductor Nicholas Buc, who was in DeVos Performance Hall for the debut of the Harry Potter Film Concert Series last season, returns for the second installment in the series.

Join Harry, Ron and Hermione as they encounter harrowing pixies, giant snakes and a mysterious diary in this concert event. Immerse yourself in the magic as you watch a house elf make trouble, giant talking spider, a mysterious diary and much more set to the music you know and love.

Tickets, starting at $18, are available but 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

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 Butterbeer, which will be sold in alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions. Free wands will be handed out to the first 400 at each show. Members of the Grand Valley State University Quidditch Team will meet and greet Harry Potter fans.

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. One week from now, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets will be screened in the Sydney Opera House in Australia. The following week, the second installment in the Harry Potter Concert Series will be presented in Toronto, San Antonio, Boise and Jacksonville.

Later in October, audiences will be enjoying live performances in Innsbruck, Austria; Barcelona, Spain; and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Fans of Harry Potter and the Grand Rapids Symphony last January said they couldn’t wait for the next installment.

“So much better with live music than in the theater,” said Jennifer Arnold on Facebook last season. “I heard musical parts I never heard when I watched the movie in the theater.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, September 27, 2017
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