Grand Rapids Symphony salutes music of Ella Fitzgerald at 17th annual 'Symphony with Soul,' Feb. 24

Media Contact
Jenn Collard
Public Relations Intern
616.454.9451 ext. 139

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Feb. 13, 2018 – Called “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is as timeless as her rich musical legacy. Celebrated by legions of her contemporaries, singer Johnny Mathis proclaimed, “She was the best there ever was. Amongst all of us who sing, she was the best.” During the course of her life, Fitzgerald sold over 40 million albums, won 13 Grammy awards, continuously challenged racism, and advocated for children. 

There is ample reason her successors call her the “single most important voice in American history.” Her voice – with its impeccable accuracy, warm, sultry tones, and phenomenal ability to improvise or scat sing – awes and inspires listeners and performers alike. This year marks what would have been Fitzgerald's100th birthday.

Fitzgerald's legacy will be celebrated at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 17th annual Symphony with Soul, at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 24 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in the evening of gospel, spirituals, jazz, blues, and R&B, celebrating diversity and inclusion in West Michigan, featuring community musicians and nationally renowned artists performing on behalf of the wider community.

Vocalists Harolyn Blackwell, Aisha de Haas, and Nova Y. Payton, each with her own unique approach to Fitzgerald's music, will perform some of her most beloved songs: A-Tisket, A-Tasket, How High the Moon, and Lady is a Tramp in a concert titled, Ella, A Tribute! The guest artist sponsor is Ferris State University.

The concert, sponsored by Steelcase, Inc., also features the Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus – an ensemble that sings in the gospel tradition. Directed by Duane Shields Davis, the chorus serves as the backbone of Symphony with Soul.

Guest Narrator Eddie L. Stevens, who played the role of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Civic Theater’s production of All the Way, will narrate “Portrait of a Leader,” arranged by Duane Shields Davis. Stevens recently retired from his 30-year career as a Vice President of Sales at Gillette. 

Opening the program is “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” First performed in 1900 by a group of 500 school children for President Lincoln’s birthday celebration, the cherished song of the Civil Rights Movement is the traditional opener for Symphony with Soul. Harolyn Blackwell, Aisha de Haas, and Nova Y. Payton celebrate the nearly six decade-long career of Ella Fitzgerald in the second half.    

Harolyn Blackwell’s career began on Broadway and has expanded to symphonic engagements including performances with the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her performances with both national and international opera companies are numerous and include Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Like Fitzgerald, Blackwell has an ability to shift genres of music seamlessly.

Aisha de Haas is both a Broadway and jazz artist who began her career in Chicago before transitioning to New York City, where she most recently performed in the national tour of Newsies. A frequent soloist with both symphony orchestras and jazz clubs, Haas' jazz sensibilities reflect Fitzgerald's panache for jazz. 

Nova Y. Payton, described by The Washington Post as “The Voice,” has extensive experience performing musical theatre, particularly in her home town of Washington, DC, where she sang at the dedication of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Payton's strong vocals make her a natural fit to perform Fitzgerald's extensive catalogue.

In celebration of Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, there has been an exhibition at the Grammy Museum of Los Angeles, a flurry of articles, numerous performances, and remembrances of her outsized legacy. But perhaps a musician’s highest compliment is not that their music is still played, but that their musical influence shows up in surprising places: in new voices and young, talented musicians. 

“I would consider,” Scott Goldman, Grammy Museum Executive Director explains, “the artists she has passed her legacy on to – young, African American artists who blur the lines between Jazz and Soul and R&B. I think that’s part of what makes Ella Fitzgerald so special: She lives.”

On February 24th, the Grand Rapids Symphony presents Symphony with Soul so West Michigan can hear Fitzgerald's music performed by those new and talented musicians, each paying tribute to her legacy and simultaneously transmitting, in her own unique way, Fitzgerald's musical influence.

Each year, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony with Soul is preceded by the Celebration of Soul, a gala dinner honoring the accomplishments of individuals and organizations in the community that emphasize and celebrate the importance of cultural awareness and inclusion in West Michigan.

This year’s recipients of the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award are Herschell Turner, Skot and Barbara Welch, and Celebration Cinema. Each are leaders in successfully advancing multiculturalism and multicultural awareness in their profession or industry and are role models of consistent, creative encouragement in the community to become more culturally competent.

A limited licensed psychologist, licensed counselor and college professor, Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp was co-pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, along with her husband, gospel artist Marvin Sapp. Prior to her death in 2010, Dr. Sapp was awarded the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Celebration of Soul Legacy Award. To commemorate her rich and extensive impact, the award was renamed in her honor.  

Gala tickets for Celebration of Soul are $150 per person, which includes the reception, dinner and awards at the Steelcase Ballroom in DeVos Place convention center in Grand Rapids plus a ticket to the Symphony with Soul concert and admission to the after party at 10 p.m. Call (616) 454-9451 ext. 124 for tickets.

Performers for Symphony with Soul include young musicians from the Mosaic Scholarship Program. Made possible through a gift from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Mosaic Scholarships provide talented African-American and Latino students with musical instrument rental, private, one-on-one lessons with a professional musician from the Grand Rapids Symphony, and tickets to Grand Rapids Symphony concerts.

At Symphony with Soul these young instrumentalists will perform on stage as part of the Creative Connections program started by Jill Collier Warne.


Tickets start at $18 and are available at the GRS ticket office, weekdays 9 am-5 pm at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, (located across from the Calder Plaza), or by calling 616.454.9451 x 4. (Phone orders will be charged a $2 per ticket service fee, with a $12 maximum.)

Tickets are available at the DeVos Place ticket office, weekdays 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. or on the day of the concert beginning two hours prior to the performance. Tickets also may be purchased online at

Full-time students of any age are able to purchase tickets for only $5 on the night of the concert by enrolling in the GRS Student Tickets program, sponsored by Comerica and Calvin College. This is a MySymphony360 eligible concert.

About the Grand Rapids Symphony

Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series are presented, featuring a wide range of music and performance styles. More than 400 performances are given each year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses. GRS provides the orchestra for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet and sponsors the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, which was held in March 2017 and returns in 2019.

To learn more about the Grand Rapids Symphony, please visit the website or

| Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube | Flickr |

This activity is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.