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Recap: Note-perfect Brass Transit nails the music of Chicago at D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops with Grand Rapids Symphony

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The challenge for any tribute band, playing the music of a well-known artist, is coming as close as possible to the original recording.

Brass Transit, covering the music of Chicago, comes very close. Almost too close for comfort, at least if you’re Chicago itself.

For the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops audience, what might be uncomfortably close for Chicago was just right for Cannonsburg Ski Area and the Grand Rapids Pops.

Brass Transit, with Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leading the Grand Rapids Symphony, nailed it on Friday, July 21 with “The Musical Legacy of Chicago.”

Grand Rapids Pops and Music of Chicago with Brass Transit

The second week of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops celebrated the music of one of the longest-running, most successful bands in the history of rock music.

Remarkably, Chicago still is on tour. But the band founded in 1967, which still has four of its original members, has musicians well into their 70s.

If you heard Chicago live and on tour in the 1970s or 80s, Brass Transit takes you back there with note-perfect performance of songs such as “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” and “Questions 67 & 68.”

The Picnic Pops audience came to have fun, clapping along on the opening of “Saturday in the Park” and waving arms and cell phones to “Hard To Say I’m Sorry.”

On “Color My World,” you almost couldn’t find space to dance because so many couples were on their feet, swaying to the music.

The original Chicago sound was all about the horns. Songs such as “Feeling Stronger Every Day” started strong and ended even stronger, thanks to trumpeter Tony Carlucci, saxophonist Phil Poppa and trombonist Doug Gibson. In best Chicago fashion, they were all over the stage and, occasionally, down on the floor among the table seats on “Beginnings.”

The second phase of Chicago was all about the ballads. Lead vocalist Ian Jutsun is no poor substitute for Peter Cetera. On songs such as “If You Leave Me Now” and “You’re the Inspiration,” he hits all the high notes but with even more power and punch than Cetera himself

The Grand Rapids Symphony, meanwhile, helped turn songs such as “I’ve Been Searching So Long” into an epic experience across two nights of music making at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

The group of musicians from Toronto is solid top to bottom.

Guitarist Bob McAlpine tore through “25 or 6 to 4,” beginning with a nod to the late guitarist Terry Kath, but ending with show-stopping solo of his own.

Drummer Paul Delong is a wizard at the kit. His extended drum solo on “I’m a Man” ended with an enthusiastic, semi-standing ovation -- mostly because the song still was going.

Chicago, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, charted 50 songs from 1969 through 1997 on the Hot 100 chart.

Even if the original group retires in the years ahead, Brass Transit is primed and ready to keep the music playing.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, July 26, 2017 | 0 comments

Brass Transit brings horn-driven, rock music of Chicago to Grand Rapids Symphony's Picnic Pops, July 20-21

Chicago, the Grammy Award-winning band from the Windy City, never loomed large over pop culture the way that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones did.  Most people wouldn’t recognize anyone from the group if they happened to be standing next to one at a grocery store checkout.  

But from the first couple of bars of the hard-driving 25 or 6 to 4 or the power chords of You’re the Inspiration, you know the song before the lead singer sings a note.

It’s music that trumpeter Tony Carlucci fell in love with. And after decades of working with some of the best artists and top bands across North America, the Canadian musician decided he wanted to play the music of Chicago.

In 2008, Carlucci launched the musical group Brass Transit to play the music of his favorite band.

“I decided to put something together to just have some fun,” he told the Chicago Tribune last year. "It was going to be a local thing and every once in a while do a nightclub thing. Fortunately it just took off. We took a video of one of our first shows, and my son decided to put it on YouTube, and here we are.

“The ball was thrown in my court, and I decided to run with it,” he said.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops presents “The Musical Legacy of Chicago” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 20-21 at Cannonsburg Ski Area, the second concert of the 2017 Picnic Pops.

Brass Transit, a crack musical outfit from Toronto, organized 10 years ago specifically to play the music of Chicago, join Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt for two concerts featuring hit songs including Beginnings, Saturday in the Park, Feelin’ Stronger Every Day, and If You Leave Me Now.

Check out Brass Transit on YouTube.

Chicago, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, charted 50 songs from 1969 through 1997 on the Hot 100 chart.

Early in their career, Chicago toured as opening act to Jimi Hendrix, who extended the invitation personally after hearing the band at Los Angeles’ famed Whisky-A-Go-Go. Today, Chicago continues to tour each summer with four of the original seven band members, all in their early 70s.

Across six decades, the music of the most successful horn-driven rock band of all time has remained on the music charts and radio play lists with 21 Top 10 singles including three No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 and eight on the Adult Contemporary charts,  and 15 Top 20 albums including five albums that reached No. 1.

“This music is timeless. Every time I play it I get chills. We all do,” Carlucci said. “You know you have the right people in the band when they all feel the same and can't wait to get onstage."

Brass Transit is the best in the business at what they do. The proof is several members of the group have occasionally subbed with Chicago. That’s as good as it gets.

Lawn tickets to The Musical Legacy of Chicago are $19 for adults, $16 for college students and seniors, or $5 for ages 2-18. Children younger than age 2 are admitted for free. All tickets are $5 more on the day of the show.

Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 during business hours or (616) 885-1241 evenings or go online to

Gates at Cannonsburg Ski Area open at 5:45 p.m. each night for picnicking and pre-concert entertainment, including free, kid-friendly activities such as face painting, crafts, and a musical instrument petting zoo.

Pack your own picnic baskets and coolers or purchase food from the grill at the Cannonsburg concession stand. Alcoholic beverages are permitted on the grounds, and parking is free for concertgoers. VIP Parking upgrades will be available for a small fee beginning in June.

Coming next week to the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops is Women Rock, a salute to songs of Carol King along with Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Pat Benatar and more, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, July 27-28.

Capping off the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops in August are two one-night only, special events, both at 8 p.m. Join the Grand Rapids Pops for the audience favorite Classical Fireworks show on Aug. 3 with Music Director Marcelo Lehninger making his debut at Cannonsburg

The 2017 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops concludes with mariachi music direct from Mexico. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, which toured and recorded with Linda Ronstadt in the 1980s, tops off the summer on Aug. 5.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, July 18, 2017 | 0 comments

Recap: Grand Rapids Pops' Music of ABBA has audience dancing the night away to open D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops season

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

ABBA has sold nearly 500 million records since the band emerged from Sweden in the north of Europe to take the world by storm.

At Thursday’s opening of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, they probably could have sold a few hundred more.

Remarkably, ABBA wasn’t on stage. Arrival from Sweden was along with Grand Rapids Pops led by Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt.

That was close enough, right down to the authentic stage costumes worn by lead singers Madelene Johansson and Victoria Norback.

By the end of the evening, the floor in front of the stage was packed with dancers, plus at least one bouncing beach ball as well as a Swedish flag passed from the audience to the singers on stage.

The Music of ABBA opened the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops with music for dancing and remembering. The show repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 14, at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

Gates at Cannonsburg Ski Area open at 5:45 p.m. each night for picnicking and pre-concert entertainment. Tickets for The Music of ABBA on the day of the show start at $24 for adults, $20 for college students and seniors, and $10 for ages 2-18 for lawn seats. Call (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 for tickets.

GR Symphony's Picnic Pops with Music of ABBA

At least 21 full-length songs plus a few more tucked in medleys entertained the audience full of dancing queens to open the 23rd Picnic Pops Season.

Arrival from Sweden has been ABBA for longer than ABBA was ABBA. The Swedish super group, much like the Beatles, flourished only for a single decade.

Arrival, on the other hand has been in the business since 1995. Over 22 years, the group has toured the United States 51 times. The group’s appearance with the Grand Rapids Pops, in fact, is the final dates on a four-week U.S. tour.

Arrival also has appeared with 60 different orchestras, and lead singer Norback referred to Grand Rapids Symphony as fantastic.

ABBA’s success is easy enough to explain. Songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wrote bright, bouncy songs with infectious hooks including deceptive rhythms and harmonic shifts that surprised and delighted audiences.

Singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad sold the songs. The rest is musical history.

Several songs including Waterloo, ABBA’s breakout hit that won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, were performed by Arrival alone.

Other songs, including Money, Money, Monday, were arranged with plenty for the Grand Rapids Symphony to play, recreating the song as it originally was heard.

On the flip side, the singers all left the stage for an energetic instrumental titled, simply, Intermezzo No. 1, which the band performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Though the expected well-known songs, including Voulez Vous and Gimme Gimme, were played, there were a few surprises in the show.

Victoria Norback, who sings the part of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the brunette, sang a captivating version of I Wonder (Departure), a song from ABBA’s 1977 recording ABBA: The Album that was part of the group’s mini-musical, The Girl With The Golden Hair.

Madelene Johannsson, who sings the part of Agnetha Fältskog, the blonde, brought the house down with The Winner Takes It All, a hit from late in ABBA’s career when the two married couples in ABBA were divorcing.

Arrival most definitely performed the songs people came to hear including Fernando in both its original Swedish version and its better-known English version.

Knowing Me, Knowing You and S.O.S. were among the first to engage the audience with

Mamma Mia, which spawned a musical and a movie, concluded the first half with a bang. Take A Chance On Me did the same toward the end of the second half.

That might have been the end, but it wasn’t. A first encore of Thank You For The Music might have been enough for some, but not for the Grand Rapids Pops audience.

The final, final encore, Dancing Queen, sent people dancing into the streets as only the music of ABBA can.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, July 14, 2017 | 1 comments

ABBA no longer tours, but Grand Rapids Symphony comes close with 'Music of ABBA' for 2017 Picnic Pops opener, July 13-14

In 2000, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were offered $1 billion to return to the stage.

Though one of their hit songs was Money, Money, Money, members of ABBA turned down the offer from a British-American consortium to reunite for a 100-city tour.

“It's a hell of a lot of money to say no to, but we decided it wasn't for us,” Andersson told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet in 2000.

Twelve years later, Fältskog told the Radio Times of London, “We said no because they wanted 250 shows or something, it was incredible,” she said. “No chance. We had done it.”

Never mind that they’re very much alive and continuing their own musical pursuits, you’ll never again hear ABBA on stage. But with Arrival from Sweden, you’ll come close.

The ensemble joins the Grand Rapids Pops for the opening of the 2017 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops on Thursday and Friday, July 13-14.

Tickets for The Music of ABBA start at $19 for adults, $16 for college students and seniors, and $5 for ages 2-18 for lawn seats. Call (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 for tickets.

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt will be on the podium to lead Arrival and the Grand Rapids Symphony in such songs as Dancing Queen, Gimme Gimme and Take A Chance on Me.

Arrival last was in Grand Rapids five years ago in February 2012 at the Van Singel Fine Arts Center. But with the Grand Rapids Symphony on stage, ABBA’s pop melodies, lush harmonies and slick arrangements on songs such as Fernando, Knowing Me Knowing You and SOS and will be even better.

Gates at Cannonsburg Ski Area open at 5:45 p.m. each night for picnicking and pre-concert entertainment, including free, kid-friendly activities such as face painting, crafts, and a musical instrument petting zoo.

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

ABBA, organized in Stockholm in 1972, rocketed to fame after winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with their song, Waterloo. In 2005 at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Eurovision Song Contest, that song was chosen as the best song in the competition’s history.

During the 1970s, ABBA was the most commercially successful pop group of the decade. Ultimately, the Swedish super group enjoyed 25 Top 40 hits including songs that reached No. 1 throughout the world.

Their music would sell 500 million records and counting becoming one of the best-selling groups of all time along with such bands as The Beatles, Queen and the Rolling Stones.

Years later, ABBA music inspired such films as Muriel’s Wedding in 1994, in the musical Mamma Mia! that debuted in 1999, and which later was made into a film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Bronson, released in 2008.

In 2010 ABBA was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Arrival has been in business for longer than ABBA itself. Twice as long, in fact.

ABBA flourished for 10 years from 1972 to 1982, but Arrival has been recreated the music of the Swedish super group for more than 20 years.

As many as eight members of Arrival’s 12-piece band played with ABBA itself back in the day.

Since 1995, Arrival has toured more than 48 countries including 50 U.S. tours, and has appeared with dozens of symphony orchestras.

In June, Arrival sold out the famed Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre near Denver, where Elvis Presley, the Beatles, U2, and many other recording artists have appeared, for the ninth time since 2007.

Though ABBA never officially disbanded, Anderson and Ulvaeus both say recent reincarnation of their music has been successful because the group never reunited.

“We have never made a comeback,” Ulvaeus told Aftonbladet in 2000. “Almost everyone else has. I think there's a message in that.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, July 11, 2017 | 0 comments

A look at Grand Rapids Symphony’s music directors since 1973

Editor’s Note: This is the Part 2 of a two-part series.

Since it was founded in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony has had 14 Music Directors in its history, hailing from nearly a dozen countries around the globe including Great Britain, France, Russia, Spain, Canada, Cuba, Belgium and Switzerland among others.

Music Directors came to Grand Rapids from such posts as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Canada and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia as well as having served as assistant conductors under such prominent conductors as Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic and James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to the appointment of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger in June 2016, Grand Rapids Symphony’s past artistic leaders have gone on to hold positions with orchestras including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia as well as academic posts at Northwestern University and Eastman School of Music among others.

Here’s more about the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 13 previous Music Directors over the history of the organization.

To read about the first nine Music Directors, beginning with Karl Wecker who took up the baton of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1930 through Gregory Millar who departed in 1973, click here to read Part 1 of this two-part series

History of GR Symphony music directors

Theo Alcantara – 1973 to 1979

Theo Alcantara’s appointment in 1973 as the ninth Music Director launched the largest growth spurt in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s history. Funded by a gift from Richard and Helen DeVos, the Grand Rapids Symphony created its Artists-In-Residence program by hiring four full-time musicians – a concertmaster, principal second violin, principal viola and principal cello, forming the DeVos String Quartet within the orchestra – plus a principal double bassist, Peter Spring, who later remembered, “It felt like we were on the ground floor of something that was going to grow.”

Within a couple of years, a brass quintet, a woodwind quintet and a timpanist were added to the roster, all totaling 17 full-time musicians, leading Alcantara to proclaim, “Now this orchestra can play anything.”

In the spring of 1975, a Mozart Festival was held at Fountain Street Church and drew large crowds to the downtown church and talks began to build a new concert hall in Grand Rapids

In 1976, Grand Rapids Symphony, now with a budget over $500,000, was officially designated as a regional orchestra by the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras).

Two new series, Coffee Concerts and a Chamber Series, were added. By the 1977-1978 season, the orchestra was engaged more than 900 times for rehearsals and concerts, educational performances titled “Harmony,” and out-of-town concerts, known as “Taproots.”

The following season, ticket sales soared as patrons flocked to see Alcantara conduct his final season after he accepted an offer to join the Phoenix Symphony. The Grand Rapids Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary during the 1979-80 season with Alcantara retained as musical advisor while the search took place for a new Music Director.

Semyon Bychkov – 1980 to 1985

Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov, fresh from graduate studies at Mannes School of Music in New York City, in 1980 became the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 10th Music Director. Within short order, he added 10 full-time musicians to the roster, bringing the number of musicians in the Artists-In-Residence program to 35.

The young conductor, just shy of his 28th birthday when he was appointed, displayed a willingness to go above and beyond, whether it was skiing or participating in a hot dog-eating contest, to raise money and awareness for the organization.

In September 1980, the long-awaited Grand Center Convention Center with DeVos Performance Hall opened with an extensive community celebration. Though the Grand Center later was torn down and rebuilt, DeVos Hall has remained the principal home of the Grand Rapids Symphony ever since.

Under Bychkov, the orchestra performed for the first time in Detroit Orchestra Hall, home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the Motor City.

During his five years in Grand Rapids, Bychkov expanded the repertoire of the Grand Rapids Symphony, and the Grand Rapids Symphony hired John Varineau as assistant conductor beginning with the 1985-86 season. Varineau later would be elevated to associate conductor and would become conductor of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony.

One of Bychkov’s personal highlights was becoming a U.S. citizen, taking the oath on the Fourth of July during a Grand Rapids Symphony concert at Ah-Nab-Awen Park downtown near the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

In 1985, Bychkov was elevated from principal guest conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to its Music Director and left Grand Rapids. One of the most successful conductors of his generation in Europe, Bychkov has gone on to serve as Music Director of the Orchestra de Paris and chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, Germany. He also is a frequent opera conductor at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and at the Paris Opera.

Catherine Comet – 1986 to 1997

When Catherine Comet in 1986 became the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 12 Music Director, the appointment made national headlines as Comet had become the first woman to lead a professional regional orchestra in the United States. Two years later, she would be honored with the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award in June 1988.

Under Comet, the Grand Rapids Symphony became the first orchestra in Michigan given the Governor’s Award for Arts and Culture, and the ensemble returned to Detroit for a second performance in Orchestra Hall in January 1988.

In 1995, Grand Rapids Symphony unveiled its Picnic Pops Series, now known as the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops Series, Cannonsburg Ski Area.

During her 11 year-tenure, the second longest in GRS history, the orchestra launched several new concert series including Casual Classics (now Great Eras) and Coffee Classics Series both in St. Cecilia Music Center. The orchestra in October 1987 created a Family Series for elementary school-age students and their families and a Lollipop Series for pre-school students and their families.

Determined to nurture the orchestra and to showcase its players, Comet regularly and frequently engaged the Grand Rapids Symphony’s musicians as soloists on the Casual Classics and Coffee Classics Series and for many years on each opening concert of the Classical Series in DeVos Performance Hall.

Equally determined to raise awareness of homegrown music, Comet set out to include at least one work by an American composer on every concert.

The Juilliard School-trained conductor focused much time and attention on contemporary music by modern composers, premiering works by Donald Erb and Libby Larsen as well as by former Grand Rapids Symphony violinist Steven Smith and current assistant principal oboist Alexander Miller among others. During Comet’s tenure, the Grand Rapids Symphony received two ASCAP Awards for innovating programing.

Using the funds from her Seaver/NEA award to finance the project, Comet led the orchestra in a recording of contemporary composer David Ott’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 for Koss Classics, released commercially in April 1993. The Grand Rapids Symphony would go on to make two more commercial recordings for Koss Classics. A recording of three separate concertos for clarinet, violin and trombone by Erb, featuring clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, violinist Miriam Fried, and Ava Ordman, then principal trombonist of the Grand Rapids Symphony, was released in July 1995. The French-born conductor also led the orchestra in a recording of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 of Camille Saint-Saens.

A highlight of Comet’s tenure was a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. Dubbed “Symphony of a Thousand” for its size, more than 400 musicians participated in two concerts in DeVos Performance Hall plus a third in Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan in March 1997.

David Lockington – 1999 to 2015

After a two-year search process, David Lockington in 1999 was named the 13th Music Director. During his tenure, the orchestra mounted an annual cycle to perform all 11 of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies and other orchestral works, and the orchestra launched its annual multicultural event known today as “Symphony with Soul.”

In 2000 the orchestra toured Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula and launched a self-produced recording of music of Aaron Copland including “A Lincoln Portrait” narrated by Richard M. DeVos. New music premiered by the Grand Rapids Symphony included Adolphus Hailstork’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, the latter of which was dedicated to Lockington. The Grand Rapids Symphony later would record both for a CD released commercially by Naxos in 2005.

In 2003, the orchestra returned to Detroit Orchestra Hall for a performance, this one marking the opening of the new Max M. Fisher Music Center, encompassing the historic orchestra hall in downtown Detroit.

In 2004, soprano Kathleen Battle joined the Grand Rapids Symphony to open its 75th anniversary with a special concert. That season ended in May 2015 with the Grand Rapids Symphony’s New York City debut with a critically acclaimed performance in venerable Carnegie Hall featuring Lockington’s wife, violinist Dylana Jenson, and an encore of Alexander Miller’s celebratory “Fireworks” for orchestra.

In 2006, the orchestra recorded “Invention & Alchemy,” a CD and DVD with jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant in DeVos Hall. The DVD would be seen frequently on PBS-TV, and the CD would be nominated for a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album.

The Grand Rapids Symphony in 1962 created its adult Symphony Chorus. In 2008, the organization launched the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses, a set of training choruses plus a top level chorus and select ensemble, Mandala, both of which have performed frequently with the Grand Rapids Symphony itself.

In 2010, Lockington created a Sacred Dimensions series with concerts held in area churches, college chapels and other houses of worship of various faiths. During Lockington’s tenure, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, a biennial festival held in the spring of odd-numbered years, became an official affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony with Lockington as its artistic director.

In May 2015, Lockington conducted his last concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony as Music Director with a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2.

After 16 years of service as Music Director, the longest directorship in the orchestra’s history, the British-born conductor was named Grand Rapids Symphony’s first Music Director Laureate. The title, a lifetime appointment, usually is bestowed only on directors who have had a long and transformative association with an ensemble and who will have a continued association with it for years to come.

Marcelo Lehninger – since 2016

Marcelo Lehninger, a native of Brazil, was appointed the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 14th music director in June 2016.

Two guest appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony, first in February 2015 with Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” followed by Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” in April 2016 sealed the deal.

Due to previous commitments, Lehninger conducted just five concerts in Grand Rapids during his inaugural season, three in DeVos Hall, one is St. Cecilia Music Center, and his debut at Cannonsburg Ski Area for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops in August 2017.

But coming soon, Lehninger, now new resident of West Michigan, will be on the podium for 11 concerts in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2017-18 season.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, July 5, 2017 | 2 comments

A look at Grand Rapids Symphony's music directors through the years, 1930 to 1973

Editor’s Note: This is the Part 1 of a two-part series.

Since it was founded in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony has had 14 Music Directors in its history, hailing from nearly a dozen countries around the globe including Great Britain, France, Russia, Spain, Canada, Cuba, Belgium and Switzerland among others.

Music Directors came to Grand Rapids from such posts as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Canada and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia as well as having served as assistant conductors under such prominent conductors as Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic and James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to the appointment of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger in June 2016, Grand Rapids Symphony’s past artistic leaders have gone on to hold positions with orchestras including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia as well as academic posts at Northwestern University and Eastman School of Music among others.

Here’s more about the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 13 previous Music Directors over the history of the organization.

History of GR Symphony music directors

Karl Wecker – 1930 to 1939

Karl Wecker, a musician, educator and director who was brought from Cincinnati in the 1920s to head the music program at the Grand Rapids Junior College, was appointed the first Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony when it was officially organized in January 1930.

Three years later, the new, 4,500 seat Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium officially opened in January 1933 with a performance by the Grand Rapids Symphony. That season, six concerts were performed on Saturday evenings in the auditorium that later would be renamed Welsh Civic Auditorium.

During his 10 years as Music Director, Wecker favored the symphonies of Beethoven and the overtures and preludes of Richard Wagner as well as music by several minor American and British composers whose music the Grand Rapids Symphony never would perform again. But he also conducted the first performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in January 1938.

Guest artists appearing with Grand Rapids Symphony under Wecker included pianist and composer Percy Grainger in February 1936 in own compositions including “Colonial Song,” “Spoon River” and “Danish Folk Music Suite.”  The Australian conductor returned in November 1939 as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

In 1940, Wecker resigned to take a post with the Federal Music Program in California, and he would later go on to become director of the Hollywood Bowl.

Thor Johnson – 1940 to 1942

The internationally renowned American conductor Thor Johnson made his Grand Rapids debut in March 1939 and replaced Wecker as the Grand Rapids Symphony’s second Music Director to open the 1940-41 season. Two years later, Johnson left in 1942 to join the U.S. Army at the height of World War II.

Johnson enlarged the orchestra’s repertoire to include music by such diverse composers as Georges Enesco, Cesar Franck, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Darius Milhaud. Famous soloists included cellist Gregor Piatigorsky as soloist in Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor in April 1941.

After the war, Johnson would go on to become Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1947, making him the youngest, America-born Music Director of a major American orchestra. He later was a professor of music and director of orchestral activities at Northwestern University and Music Director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Nicolai Malko – 1942 to 1946

Russian-born Nicolai Malko took the podium in 1942 as the third Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Previously a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory (now the St. Petersburg Conservatory) and conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (now the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) in the 1920s, Malko conducted the world premiere performances there Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 in 1926. The following year, Malko conducted the premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2, which had been dedicated to Malko by his former pupil. In 1929, Malko left the former Soviet Union and settled in the United States in 1940.

With many musicians serving in the U.S. military, the Grand Rapids Symphony saw its ranks grow from just a handful of women to more than one-third of chairs occupied by women. During the war, a U.S. military weather school was housed in the Pantlind Hotel (now part of the Amway Grand Plaza) and in Civic Auditorium, so the orchestra moved its concerts to nearby Keith’s Theater in 1943.

In 1944, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched its Fifth Grade Concerts, an important educational outreach that continues today reaching more than 22,000 students annually.

Malko introduced Grand Rapids audiences to the music of Alexander Glazunov, Jacques Ibert and Vassili Kalinnikov. Guest soloists during his four years in Grand Rapids include pianist Claudio Arrau performing Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor in March 1945.

Malko continued as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony until 1946. In later life, he would serve as principal conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra in Great Britain and as Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia.

Rudolph Ganz – 1946 to 1948

Rudolph Ganz, a Swiss-born pianist and conductor, became the fourth Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1946, holding the post for just two seasons while teaching at Chicago Musical College.

His first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony, however, was as piano soloist in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in January 1937 with Karl Wecker conducting. Years later, Ganz’s successor, José Echániz, would conduct the orchestra in a piece by Ganz titled: Symphonic Overture to an Unwritten Comedy, “Laughter … yet Love.”

As a composer, Ganz performed the world premiere of his own Piano Concerto in E-flat Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in February 1941.

During the 1940s, Ganz also held posts for nine years as permanent conductor of the Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic and with the San Francisco Symphony and a similar role for two years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Ganz’s contributions to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s repertoire include the local premiere of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano. He also programmed two works by Michigan composers, Carl Gehring and H. Owen Reed, to open the 1947-48 season.

José Echániz – 1948 to 1954

Cuban-born pianist and conductor José Echániz became the Grand Rapids Symphony’s fifth Music Director in 1948, four years after he joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Over six seasons under his baton, the Grand Rapids Symphony played nearly all of Brahms’ major works for orchestra including all four symphonies, both piano concerto, the violin concerto, “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” and the “Academic Festival Overture.”

Guest artists included violist William Primrose performing Jean Rivier’s Concertino for Viola and Orchestra in November 1948 and violinist Nathan Milstein performing Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor in January 1953

Earlier, Echániz’ 20-year career as a soloist included an appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony in February 1938 with Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor under Karl Wecker. During his tenure as Music Director, Echániz was soloist and conducted the orchestra from the piano with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major in April 1951.

Désiré Defauw – 1954 to 1958

Désiré Defauw, a Belgian violinist and conductor, was named the sixth Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1954. Before coming to Grand Rapids, he was Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1941 to 1952 and of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1943 to 1947.

Building upon the work of his predecessor, Defauw added several works by Beethoven to the orchestra’s repertoire. Defauw conducted the orchestra in its first-ever performances of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in February 1956 and in Claude Debussy “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in March 1956

Pianist Leon Fleisher, performing Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” was among the guest soloists under Defauw’s leadership.

He retired after leaving Grand Rapids.

Robert Zeller – 1959 to 1964

Robert Zeller became the seventh Music Director in 1959, and the Grand Rapids Symphony broadened its horizons in many ways including complete concert performances of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake,” joined by two dancers as soloists.

In his first season, the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony was organized in 1959 and gave its first concert the following year in St. Cecilia. During his era, concerts were near sell-outs at the Civic Auditorium, and talks began on building a new orchestra hall.

The orchestra gave its first performance of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” with the University of Michigan Choir in March 1961. In 1962, the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, originally called the Grand Rapids Symphonic Choir, was launched under the inspiration of board member and philanthropist Mary Ann Keeler. In February 1964, the Symphony Chorus participated in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem.

Guest soloists during Zeller’s years in Grand Rapids included violinist Isaac Stern to perform Brahms’ Violin Concerto D Major in April 1960, and Benny Goodman to perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major in December 1963.

After leaving Grand Rapids, Zeller moved to Europe, residing in Rome, and conducting orchestras in Copenhagen, Paris and Vienna as well as in Italy.

Carl Karapetian – 1964 to 1968

Carl Karapetian, a native of Detroit, was appointed the eighth Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1964.

Under Karapetian, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave its first performance of music by Leonard Bernstein, his Overture to “Candide,” and its first-ever performance of a work by Alberto Ginastera, the Argentinean composer’s “Estancia.” New repertoire for the Grand Rapids Symphony during Karapetian’s four years in Grand Rapids included Gabriel Faure’s Pavane, Zoltan Kodaly’s Te Deum

One of the first guest artists was pianist Van Cliburn playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in November 1964. Another superstar of classical music Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, one of the most prominent opera singers of the 20th century, in March 1966

Guest artists included the Modern Jazz Quartet playing two works by the quartet’s pianist John Lewis in November 1967; and organist Virgil Fox performing Handel’s Concerto for Organ in F Major Op. 4, No. 4, in January 1968.

The Grand Rapids Symphony extended the scope of its activities, beginning with an administrative office in Grand Rapids’ venerable Exhibitor’s Building at 220 Lyon St. NW. Grand Rapids Symphony in partnership with Civic Theatre and other arts organizations helped found the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids in 1967.

In 1967, the Opera Association of Western Michigan – now known as Opera Grand Rapids – was launched with a production of “The Marriage of Figaro” directed by Paul Dreher of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre with Karapetian conducting.

Gregory Millar – 1968 to 1973

A native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, the son of a Greek immigrant father and a French-Canadian mother, Gregory Millar, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s ninth Music Director, didn’t have far to travel from his previous musical home. As Music Director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1968, he had been the first full-time resident conductor in the history of the KSO.

In 1960, Millar became one of three assistant conductors to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Five days later, his stood before the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall with an audience behind him.  An ailing Bernstein summoned him from the audience, handed him the baton backstage, and sent him out to conduct the final piece on the program.

In Grand Rapids, by hiring out-of-town musicians to fill certain key positions in the orchestra, Millar began the first steps in the evolution of the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra to a professional, regional ensemble.

The Grand Rapids Symphony hired its first full-time manager in 1969. The following year, with the help of Congressman Jerry Ford, who would later become President Gerald R. Ford, the orchestra received its first federal grant to organize a string ensemble to perform in schools in Kent County and to make available tickets to disadvantaged children to the orchestra’s Young People’s Series.

Under Millar, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave its first performances of Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” in January 1969 and of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in February 1971.

The orchestra’s first-ever performance of William Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast in December 1969 featured the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and baritone soloist Russell Christopher, a Grand Rapids native on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

In 1973, Millar was appointed artistic director of the National Opera and Symphony of Mexico, the first North American to hold a national music post in Mexico.

Editor's Note: Part 2 coming soon.


Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | 0 comments

Grand Rapids Symphony's historic, 1997 performance of Mahler's 'Symphony of a Thousand' remembered 20 years later

Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” doesn’t really take 1,000 people to perform, but it does take a great many.

Twenty years ago, when the Grand Rapids Symphony performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, more than 400 people were on stage.

This spring is the 20th anniversary of Grand Rapids Symphony’s first performance of Mahler’s musical “affirmation of faith.”

Catherine Comet, GRS Music Director rom 1986 to 1997, led three concerts in two cities with a supersized symphony orchestra of 122 instrumentalists and an extra-large chorus of 289 singers.

It was a big event in more ways than one.


Grand Rapids Symphony's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8
March 22-23, 1997 in DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids, broadcast by WGVU-TV

Neither the Grand Rapids Symphony nor its collaborator, the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, had ever mounted or presented a production of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

The 90-minute performance was taped and later aired in its entirety on WGVU-TV.

And a total of 419 musicians – including eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba on stage, plus another four trumpets and three trombones off-stage –  all participated in concerts held March 21-23, 1997.

The battery of keyboard instruments called for includes organ, piano and celeste plus a harmonium, a 19th century keyboard instrument meant for the parlor at home.

“I remember it was extraordinary to be on stage with an army of performers,” recalled violinist Christine Golden. “I remember our wonderful contralto, Gwenneth Bean, congratulating us as we came off stage in her folksy way, saying ‘Bravo tutti everybody!’”

The joint collaboration led to two performances in DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids and one in Hill Auditorium at U-M in Ann Arbor.

“Since I received both my undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Michigan and played many concerts as a student in Hill Auditorium, it was really special to perform there as a professional musician,” said assistant principal violist Barbara Corbató.

“East meets West” was the inspiration for the event bringing together arts organizations from the east side of the state, such as the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, and from the west side of the state, including the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys.

Eight vocal soloists, including soprano Beth Veltman and baritone Russell Christopher, both natives of Grand Rapids, all had Michigan connections in one way or another.

Violinist James Crawford, Grand Rapids Symphony’s concertmaster, remembers “being in awe of the number of people all on stage together at the same time.”

“So much so that it required Hill Auditorium build an extension to the stage out over the first rows of the audience to accommodate us,” he said.

Though Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 doesn’t demand 1,000 performers, there were, in fact, 1,029 participants on stage for its debut, conducted by Mahler himself, in 1910 in Munich, Germany.

Some 15 years later, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave its second performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, this time under David Lockington, now Music Director Laureate, as the culmination of Lockington’s 11-year effort to play the entire cycle of Mahler’s 10 complete works for symphony orchestra.

Though performances of the “Symphony of a Thousand” are few and far between, they usually are memorable.

Corbató recalls playing in a performance conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in the Hollywood Bowl in 1985 during her student days while participating in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.

During the ethereal second movement, a buzzing noise began to wash over the audience.

“Apparently a police helicopter was in hot pursuit of someone in the area,” Corbató recalled. “After a few minutes of the noise, Michael Tilson Thomas suddenly stopped conducting, looking very annoyed, then dramatically broke his baton over his knee and stormed off the stage.”

“A long intermission ensued, and we returned to the stage to begin the second movement again, finishing without helicopter accompaniment,” she said with a laugh. “Whenever I perform or listen to Mahler Eighth, I remember that performance very vividly.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, June 20, 2017 | 0 comments

101-year-old, former Grand Rapids Symphony musician recalls her pioneering career in music

The United States was at war.

In Europe and in the Pacific, more than 16 million Americans in uniform would join the war effort against Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. On the home front, women were called upon to take up new responsibilities.

At home, the Grand Rapids Symphony filled its empty chairs on stage with women such as Maxine Fuson.

“A lot of women got chances because of the war and the boys were gone,” Fuson recalled.  “It was all men before that.”

Fuson, a cellist, joined the Grand Rapids Symphony at the opening of the 1943 season. Today, she’s 101 years old, living in a retirement community in Atco, New Jersey.

“I’m still walking,” she laughed. “Only with a walker.”

Though she hasn’t lived in Grand Rapids in more than 50 years, she still has fond memories of her home town, according to her friend, Marlea Gruver.

“She still loves Grand Rapids. She’s from Michigan,” Gruver said. “She’s lived in New Jersey a long time, but she’s from Michigan, and she likes talking about Grand Rapids.”

The pioneering musician, who would remain with the Grand Rapids Symphony for at least 17 seasons, was among the first women to become an integral part of the orchestra.

Grand Rapids Symphony's Maxine Fuson

Founded in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony occasionally had women on its roster.  In 1939, its 10th anniversary season opened in October with four women in the orchestra, playing violin, cello, harp and piano.

But four years later, during World War II, women occupied 25 of 79 chairs, including 11 of the 29 seats in the violin section and two of the five spots in the double bass section.

“There were a lot of women, and they had no place to play before then,” Fuson recalled.

A 1933 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, though she had spent her first three years at Central High School in Grand Rapids, Fuson had played cello in both high schools as well as in a city-wide high school orchestra.

After graduation, she worked for her father, photographer Charles Fuson, in Fuson’s Camera Shop on Ottawa Avenue.

With World War II underway, Fuson, age 27, was invited to audition for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“I didn’t hardly know anyone in the orchestra,” she recalled.

In October 1943, Fuson made her debut under Nicolai Malko, the Grand Rapids Symphony's third music director, who was beginning his second season with the orchestra.

“He came from Russia, and he was hard to understand at first,” she said. “We got along all right. He made us do things right.”

“He was a good conductor,” she said. “It was difficult at first, but we had good concerts.”

Guest soloist at Fuson’s first concert featured Russian soprano Maria Kurenko, a recording artist and a notable member of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s. The program ended with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”

In the 1940s, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave seven concerts a year, one a month, from October to May.

“It always was sold out,” Fuson said, before pausing. “Maybe not completely filled, but almost.”

Concerts were held at 8:30 p.m. Friday evenings in Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium, which opened in 1933 and later was renamed Welsh Auditorium. Today, the building’s façade facing Lyon Street NW as well as its Art Deco lobby remain. The rest of the building was torn down in 2003 and incorporated into DeVos Place Convention Center, which opened in 2004.

“Civic Auditorium was new, and people liked to go just to see the room,” Fuson recalled.

Rehearsals were held each week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for several weeks leading to each monthly concert

“I was selling cameras in the daytime and playing cello at night,” she said.

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony was a community orchestra, and wouldn’t become a professional ensemble until the 1970s, the organization attracted major talent as guest artists. The soloist at Fuson’s second concert in November 1943 was the famous Austrian-American pianist Paul Wittgenstein, performing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which had been composed for the pianist who had lost his right arm while serving in the Austrian Army in World War I.

The guest soloist at one of her final concerts in the spring of 1960 was violinist Isaac Stern. During her time with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Fuson would play under five music directors.

“Every concert was different. We played all kinds of things. We just did our best,” she said.

When the war ended, the soldiers came home. But women remained in the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“We were treated just the same as everyone else,” she recalled.

In that era, principal string players were selected to be principal players, but everyone else who auditioned successfully occupied the last seat in the section and moved up only when a vacancy emerged. By the time of her departure, Fuson sat next to the principal cellist.

“I moved up from seventh chair to second,” she said. “I was working hard.”

More than half a century later, Fuson looks back on her career with the Grand Rapids Symphony with satisfaction.

“I felt like I was important,” she said.

Born in Newcastle, Indiana, Fuson moved to Grand Rapids with her family at age 3.

In school, her sister, Evelyn, who was two years older, took up cornet, which was their father’s instrument. Fuson wanted to play an instrument as well. A teacher at her school had a cello in her attic that she offered for use for free.

“A boy tried it, and my hands fit better, so I got it,” she recalled.

A year later, she acquired her own instrument, previously used but newly repaired.

“There was no name on it. Nothing special, but it had a very good tone, so I liked it,” Fuson said.

Her friend Marlea Gruver, who has known Fuson for nearly 20 years, said her talent was immediately obvious to her teachers.

“She moved as a sixth grader immediately into her high school orchestra,” Gruver said. “She wanted to go to college and major in cello, but they didn’t have the money to send her.”

Briefly, Fuson performed with an organization titled Women’s Symphony of Chicago.

“It sounds like adults, but it wasn’t,” she said with a laugh.

But it was a professional orchestra made up mostly of high school and college-age women plus a couple of men to fill out on missing instruments.

“We were trying to get money,” she said. “We didn’t get much money, but we got a little.”

Organized by a famous cornet player, the ensemble went on tour for three months from Chicago, through Indiana and Michigan, ending in Pittsburgh.

“It was good practice for all of us,” she said.

Fuson wasn’t just a cellist. In 1959, she and another woman were jointly awarded “Photographer of the Year” honors from the Grand Rapids Camera Club, the first women honored in the 60-year history of the club founded in 1889. Fuson was recognized for her work with color photography.

“Her skills with slide photography earned her acceptance in international salons,” according to the newsletter of the club, which continues to exist in Grand Rapids.

At age 40, Fuson married for the first time. Her first husband died within a year.

“I found another man who was perfect for me,” she said.

Her marriage of some 35 years to Craig Mathewson Jr., an underwriter, ended with his death at age 93 in November 2015. Today, her married name is Maxine Mathewson.

She gave her last full concert, nearly an hour’s worth of music, at age 92 in her retirement community.

“Her hands are a bit arthritic, but it wasn’t her fingers,” said Gruver, a pianist, who often accompanied Fuson. “It was the strength in her arm. She couldn’t get the sound she needed.”

Otherwise, she’s hale and hearty.

“She really is doing amazingly well. She walks with a walker, but she’s not dependent on it,” Gruver said. “She drove a car into her 90s. She’s very independent.”

In March during Women’s History Month, Fuson was honored in her community for her contributions to the musical life of her home town.

“She was among the first to play with the Grand Rapids Symphony,” Gruver said. “Her playing certainly paved the way for others.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | 3 comments

Violinist wins national award for Grand Rapids Symphony's Music for Health Initiative

In 2006, Grand Rapids Symphony violinist Diane McElfish Helle’s father found himself in a neuro-intensive care unit in Pittsburgh.

The Grand Rapids Symphony musician, naturally, went to visit him with violin in hand, hoping to cheer him up with music.

Diane McElfish Helle soon realized she was doing much more. 

When she started playing, the nurses opened the glass door so they could hear the music, too. Soon people started coming from all across the hospital floor, asking if she would come and play for their loved ones, too.

“In an ICU, anxiety, fear and boredom are part of each day,” McElfish Helle said. “Music brought an unexpected touch of beauty and peacefulness and meaning to their lives.”

That was some of the inspiration that led the Grand Rapids Symphony to launch its Music for Health Initiative, a program that sends symphony musicians into area hospitals, armed with the healing power of music.

On Wednesday, June 7, McElfish Helle will be honored with the prestigious Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service by the League of American Orchestras.

She’s one of five professional orchestral musicians being honored at the League’s 72nd annual National Conference, which happens to be in Detroit this year.

The winners of the Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service were selected by a panel of peer professionals to receive the awards, which include a $2,500 grant to each musician as well as an additional $2,500 grant to the musician’s home orchestra to support professional development that’s focused on community service and engagement.

Music for Health Initiative is a program that sends symphony musicians into area hospitals to assist with patient rehabilitation as well as to create supportive physical, emotional and spiritual experiences for patients as well as for the friends, families and providers who care for them.

With funding from the Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation, Music for Health was launched in 2013 by a group of six GRS musicians, led by McElfish Helle, at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

“Music not only has the power to warm the heart and nourish the soul, it also has the ability to heal as well,” said Grand Rapids Symphony President and CEO Peter Perez. “Concert goers have long known that music, in the best of times, provides enlightenment, enrichment and relaxation. But in the worst of times, when people are affected by illness or injury or are recovering from stroke, brain injury or dementia, music offers comfort, support and encouragement that in some ways is even more important.”

Grand Rapids Symphony's Gateway to Music

The groundwork for Music for Health, part of the Grand Rapids Symphony's Gateway to Music, was launched in 2012 when McElfish Helle met with a music therapist and the program director Spectrum Health Neuro-Rehab to explore how the Grand Rapids Symphony might contribute to their work with patients recovering from traumatic brain injury.

“We asked, ‘If you could have symphony musicians come and do anything, what would you have us do?’ she recalled.

Out of this grew the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music for Health partnership, which has pairs of musicians playing group music therapy sessions every month, sessions designed around patient needs whether they are e physical, emotional or mental.

“By the end of our second year, we had 10 musicians doing 50 sessions a year and had branched out to also working with cancer patients during their chemotherapy infusion treatments,” she said.

In 2015, the Grand Rapids Symphony was a selected by the League of American Orchestras to receive a Getty Education and Community Investment Grant, allowing the orchestra to expand its programs to the Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

The Getty Grant provided funds to adapt music or commission new music for use for in Music for Health therapy sessions. Grand Rapids Symphony’s Assistant Principal Cellist Jeremy Crosmer, who also is part of the Music for Health team, was the composer.

“We’ve found when we play these at the cancer center in particular, the nursing staff, as well as the patients, tell us that they feel the calming influence,” McElfish Helle said.

Recently, musicians recorded four hours’ worth of meditative music that is broadcast continually on a dedicated TV channel at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital plus four other Spectrum Health hospitals. Paired with photographs of outdoor Michigan scenes taken by Spectrum employees, the channel was launched in March 2017.

Patients and visitors now are able to tune in anytime they wish, day or night. Music can be used actively for guided meditations, such as for pain management.  Or it simply can be used for background.

“We get stories every week from the music therapists about how patients are using this to help them sleep or to relax them when they are anxious,” McElfish Helle said.

Naturally, professional musicians especially enjoy making music in the concert hall.

“But if you can’t come, we want you to know that you aren’t forgotten. That you matter to us,” she said. “And whenever possible, through our Music for Health Initiative, the Grand Rapids Symphony will come to you.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, June 6, 2017 | 0 comments

Fairy Gardens are small, but they'll be hugely popular at Grand Rapids Symphony's 'Blandford Enchanted' show, June 2-4

Fairy Gardens, for as small as they are, are hugely popular.

Grand Rapids Symphony sponsors “Blandford Enchanted” for Fairy Garden enthusiasts at Blandford Nature Center, Friday, June 2 through Sunday June 4.

It’s the perfect place in Grand Rapids to spy mysterious woodland creatures of the forest at work.

“You’re going to hear beautiful music and see beautiful things,” said spokeswoman Liz Schultz.

Organized by Grand Rapids Symphony, some 35 meticulously crafted Fairy Houses will be on display in Blandford Nature Center’s new Mary Jane Dockeray Welcome Center.

“Some of these houses are so darling. It’s amazing how creative people are,” Schultz said.

Plenty more will be seen outside on the grounds of the 143-acre nature located at 1715 Hillburn Ave. NW, in Grand Rapids. Particularly for a special Lantern Walk through the forest, complete with live music, that will be held the evening of Saturday, June 3

“It’s going to be absolutely enchanting,” Schultz said. “People won’t forget it.”

Do-it-yourself Fairy Door decorating and build-it-yourself Fairy House making kits will be available. Organizers spent months gathering materials for Fairy House starter kits with all-natural materials.

There will be a special “Fairy Boutique” selling handcrafts and costume components, live music, storytelling, and a few special surprises along the way. See more on "Blandford Enchanted's Facebook page."

Hours for “Blandford Enchanted” are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, June 2, through Sunday, June 4. Admission is $10 adults, $5 children.

The Lantern Walk will be 7 to 10 p.m., Saturday, June 3. Tickets for the Lantern Walk are $15 for all ages.

Get an early, sneak-peak at “Blandford Enchanted” at a preview party, “One Enchanted Evening,” on Thursday, June 1, at the nature preserve on the northwest side of Grand Rapids.

Along with a sneak-peak preview of the exhibition, the evening includes heavy hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar; music from the Celtic ensemble An Dro; and the premiere of a new ballet, set to the music of Maurice Ravel, featuring dancers from Grand Rapids Ballet and musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“One Enchanted Evening,” will be held 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1. Tickets, $75 apiece, include entertainment, food and a signature drink.

Buy tickets online for all activities here.

“Blandford Enchanted” is a fund raiser held to support the Grand Rapids Symphony’s educational programs.

“The focus is the Grand Rapids Symphony and its educational programs. That’s what’s important,” Schultz said. “The magic is what the symphony brings to our community.”

A similar event, Brookby Enchanted, held two years ago at the historic Blodgett Estate in East Grand Rapids, was an enchanting success that engaged young families with the creative community of Grand Rapids.

“Brookby was really good,” Schultz said. “But this is going to be even better.”

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

Blandford Nature Center began as Collins Woods, part of the Collins family farm, where Dr. Mary Jane Dockeray explored that great outdoors as a child. It later was acquired by Victor Blandford.

In 1949, Dockeray began volunteering for the Grand Rapids Public Museum as a nature lecturer. Eventually, she convinced the Blandford family to donate 17 acres to the museum to develop as a nature center. Dockeray became its first curator. Overtime, money was raised from state and other funds to buy more land.

In 2003, Blandford Nature Center became independent of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Today, it’s an independent nonprofit supported by the Wege Foundation and others.

“A lot of people have never been to Blandford or haven’t been there since they were kids,” Schultz said. “Now’s a good time to come back for a visit.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, May 30, 2017 | 0 comments
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