By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Picnics are as American as baseball and apple pie. Grand Rapids Symphony’s Picnic Pops may be even more so.
At the opening concerts of the 2018 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, the immortal words of Emma Lazarus – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty, rang out across the hills of Cannonsburg Ski area.
A singer of Italian heritage, Daniel Narducci, sang a stirring version of “God Bless America,” a song written by a Russian Jew, in a performance that inspired an entire audience to slowly rise to its feet.
An African-American attorney recited the words of a former prairie lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by music composed in the darkest days of World War II by the a son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.
And a Brazilian-born conductor led music composed by a Russian, celebrating a victory over the French, played for an American audience, who enjoyed the fireworks that followed.
That sums up the impact of the all-American, star-spangled experience that the Grand Rapids Symphony provided to open its 24th season of “Symphony under the Sky” on Thursday and Friday, July 12-13.
Slightly muggy but warm and dry weather greeted audiences for the concert titled Classical Fireworks and The 3 Maestros featuring Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, and Associate Conductor John Varineau all sharing the podium.
Three conductors meant three times the fun for the Grand Rapids Pops audience.
Homegrown entertainment included Lehninger conducting an exciting performance of “Mambo” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Varineau presiding over an elegantly polished version of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube Waltz, and Bernhardt leading a thrilling version of the Flying Theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
But there was so much more.
Musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony gave a sparkling performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to ‘Candide,’ four-and-a-half minutes of music that’s a workout for an entire orchestra.
Varineau, with clarinet in hand, conducted and soloed on the poignant Viktor’s Tale from John Williams’ score to the film “The Terminal,” and he led the orchestra in “An Armed Forces Salute,” a spirited medley of melodies from the different branches of the U.S. Military.
Narducci, a baritone with a handsome voice, joined Bernhardt and the orchestra for a sweet, sentimental arrangement of three songs by Stephen Foster, “The Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh! Susanna.”
Patrick Miles Jr., former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, joined the orchestra to narrate Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” one of the greatest works by one of the greatest American composers. Bernhardt capably mined the drama for all its worth, while Miles, a native of Grand Rapids, narrated in simple, understated fashion Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address and other writings.
Lehninger took the podium to end the evening with a revelatory performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It’s well known and much loved, especially for its dramatic ending with cathedral bells chiming and cannons exploding. But the piece goes through many changes of mood, beginning with fervent prayers of the Russian people for deliverance, followed by the sounds of French invaders, their repulsion by the Russian Army, and the celebration that follows.
Lehninger skillfully guided the Grand Rapids Symphony through its journey, resulting in an unusually satisfying performance for an outdoor setting.
The fireworks that followed were an absolute delight.