2020-2021 Season Highights

92 years ago, advocates for the arts in Grand Rapids determined that an orchestra would not only enrich the city and region, it would contribute greatly to economic growth and quality of place. Established in 1930, the nationally recognized Grand Rapids Symphony serves West Michigan both in DeVos Performance Hall and in the community.


As the world changed in 2020, many orchestras around the country closed their doors. However, the Grand Rapids Symphony embraced strategic artistic advances and successfully fulfilled our mission to provide great music to the West Michigan community. Innovative summer programing in 2020 led to our virtual Pathwaves series which premiered in September 2020 and carried forward through May 2021.

One of the best ways to savor all that summer has to offer is with LIVE music. We expanded our musical presence in all parts of West Michigan–from the lakeshore to Meijer Gardens and many neighborhood green spaces in between, reflecting our commitment to serve all areas of our community. We also partnered with neighborhood associations through our Neighborhood Concert Series to perform short pop-up concerts in parks around the city. This series provided more than 1,400 attendees with 12 free performances across West Michigan, making music free and accessible to all.

It is with the utmost excitement that we move into the 2021-22 season, Together Again–LIVE which features a lineup of concerts, soloists, and composers who underline our commitment to celebrating diversity. Patrons will experience music from Mozart, Mahler, Beethoven, as well as music from new composers, works, and artists such as Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, Asian American violinist Simone Porter, and Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas.


Prudent management of private and public support during the pandemic has resulted in the following milestones:
→ For the third consecutive fiscal year, the Grand Rapids Symphony achieved a positive net cash surplus from operations as of August 31, 2021.
→ On August 31, 2021, a two-year Collective Bargaining agreement was reached, strengthening the core orchestra position structure, retaining focus on artistic excellence and financial sustainability, restores the 5% compensation reduction taken this past fiscal year due to the pandemic, and increases compensation by 2% in January 2023.
→ Over four seasons, from Fiscal Year 2018 – Fiscal Year 2021, the Symphony’s cash position improved by approximately $2MM.

Now more than ever the Symphony is committed to finding inclusive and healing ways of bringing music to our community. Combining artistic innovations, long held traditions and your support, the Symphony will continue our 92-year commitment to West Michigan.


Through innovation and virtual programming, we continue to grow our education and access initiatives so more people can enjoy the transformative power of music. This year our PNC Lollipops concerts served over 23,000 students and teachers -- which is more than twice as many as our previous season! By delivering educational concerts online, schools that were previously unable to participate due to busing fees or distance enjoyed the Grand Rapids Symphony in their classrooms.

As we prepare for the next season of education and access, we are excited to be launching Link Up, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Link Up will provide free, high-quality, year-long curriculum which will inspire and enrich the minds and shape the future for students in grades 3-5.

We are excited to share that the exceptional virtual education content created for the 2020-2021 season will be available in our new Digital Library on YouTube for teachers and students throughout the school year. Content includes: Peter Rabbit and Winter (Lollipops K-2 content), Instrument Discovery Videos (4th or 5th Grade centered), Education Ensemble Videos (K-5 focused), and the 2021 Fifth Grade Concert.

Our Mosaic Scholarship continued to serve the West Michigan community through cultivating and nurturing 20 talented young Black and Latinx musicians during the 2020-21 season. We are happy to report the successful adaption of a completely virtual format; scholars met weekly via Zoom or Facetime with their private instructors for lessons, and met monthly for groups sessions.

"It helped me become more confident in my playing and in my speaking. I also found life-long connections from my fellow scholars and have had so many opportunities come to me because of the people I worked with in and outside of the Symphony.”

Kennedy Dixon, Mosaic Scholar Alumni Graduate, Viola

Our Music for Health Initiative engages and promotes health and well-being by creating supportive physical, emotional and spiritual experiences for patients affected by various serious, or life-threatening illnesses. Despite delays due to the pandemic, musicians shared the power of music with more than 600 patients and their families this past July, through eight therapy sessions and two live-streamed interactive events. Pre-recorded meditations were made available year-round, 24/7, on internal channels inpatient rooms and community spaces throughout the hospitals.

"To have so many people move close to us to listen, applaud between selections, and to see the joy in their eyes as they listened was incredible. I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to bring music to people in this way, and I think yesterday is a perfect example of the importance of music therapy to people as they move through their health journey.”

- Michael Hovnanian, Grand Rapids Symphony, Bass

at Friday, October 29, 2021

What was YOUR Gateway to Music?

What was your gateway to music? Maybe it was the first time you heard a trumpet call, or the deep pulse of a drum, or maybe it was a field trip to a Symphony concert! Enjoy Gateways to Music through a series of stories from Grand Rapids Symphony musicians, students, and more below.

For many people, their gateway to music is one of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 18 music education and access programs. To provides these gateways, the Symphony relies on your support. Now through April 10th, your gift to the Grand Rapids Symphony will be matched dollar for dollar up to $50,000, thanks to the Daniel & Pamella DeVos Foundation.

Donate HERE and help ensure our many gateways to music are accessible to all.

My gateway to music began with two incredible music educators (my high school band directors who instilled a joy and love for music in all their students), and a clarinet resting in the attic of my home (that's how it was decided I would play the clarinet: because we already had one!).

When I was a sophomore in High School I got a "3" (far from great) at Solo & Ensemble Festival. I still have the judge's comments hanging on my study wall: "This piece is too hard for you." From that day forward, with the help of fabulous mentors, I was motivated to do better. The following year I received a "1+" and the encouraging words from the judge: "You need to major in music, and you need to attend Michigan State University." Well, I did, and with stops at the University of Wyoming and the Yale School of Music, I ended up here as the Associate Conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Throughout my 36 years as Associate Conductor, I’ve dedicated my career to creating pathways to music appreciation through our Gateway to Music initiatives. What has made this possible? The generosity of many wonderful donors in our community has provided valuable Symphony experiences for thousands of students, from pre-school through high school, every year. Please join them in helping us continue to provide these programs! 

As I retire this year, I am confident that our Gateway to Music initiatives will carry on, with your help. 

Being a Mosaic Scholar was one of Jonelle’s gateways to music.
“I still remember my 6th-grade audition…I was a little intimidated and nervous…a few months later I got an acceptance letter in the mail and I was surprised, excited, and ready to begin.”

Jonelle and 19 other African American and Latinx students were each paired with a Symphony musician to learn to master their instruments. Through those partnerships, Mosaic Scholars build valuable skills like personal discipline, perseverance, and the pride that comes from accomplishing your goals.

As a Mosaic Scholar Jonelle learned that she didn’t need to be a perfect musician and that mistakes could help her learn to grow as a musician and as a person. Jonelle is using her experiences as Mosaic Scholar and is applying them as she studies to become an accountant. “But don’t you worry, I don’t let my cello collect dust.”

Learn more about Jonelle’s story and experience HERE.

Grand Rapids Symphony violinist Linda Nelson’s gateway to music was being part of the Cincinnati Youth Symphony Orchestra. “We were all high school students exploring amazing works for the very first time. For most of us it was our first experience making music with so many different types of instruments all played excellently by other young students.”

Hear more of Linda’s poetic retelling of her time in the Cincinnati Youth Symphony Orchestra HERE.

Today, Linda is a vital member of the Grand Rapids Symphony and has performed in DeVos Hall and in the community for over 35 years. She also takes her talents into classrooms as part of an educational ensemble. Her favorite gateway to music that the Symphony offers is the Neighborhood Concert Series. Each year, the Grand Rapids Symphony leaves the concert hall to perform free concerts in community parks and venues.

“As much as I love performing downtown, it brings me even more satisfaction for our Grand Rapids Symphony to bring live music to the children and families of Grand Rapids in their own neighborhoods.”

The Neighborhood Concert Series is made possible by the gifts of generous sponsors and donors.

Principal Percussionist Bill Vits experienced his gateway to music at the Fourth of July Parade in Evanston, Illinois in 1961.

“I was impressed by the Scottish Shrine Band that had bass drummers twirling their sticks with elaborate routines. Two years later I started piano in Nashville which lasted until I heard the teacher's son playing drums in his bedroom. I asked my Mom if I could take drum lessons and she agreed if I promised to practice more than I watched TV.”

When not performing with the symphony, ballet, opera or Broadway Theater you can find Bill drumming with "The Concussions," a 60's surf rock combo. In addition to performing with the orchestra for 42 years, Bill Vits plays the drums for thousands of third graders from around West Michigan.

“My favorite Gateway to Music program might be my Percussion Discussion that I've done for Third Graders for the past 20 years!  I've had adult strangers stop me on the street to tell me they remember seeing my program when they were in grade school and now their children are attending.”

See Bill in action HERE.

Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus member Kate traces her gateway to music back to her childhood.

“One of the earliest childhood memories that I can recall is of my mom singing me lullabies before I went to sleep. As time went on, I would sing with her. That memory was my gateway to music. Music became an undercurrent in my life.”

Kate is now a high school sophomore and weekly from September to May joins her voice with almost 200 students in the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus. Chorus members experience more than excellent choral training and the opportunity to perform with the Symphony, the Youth Chorus is also a setting for positive peer relationships and personal growth.

Experience the Grand Rapids Youth Chorus perform “Come and Sing” here.

What was your gateway to music? Did the stories of John Varineau, Jonelle, Linda, Bill, or Kate trigger any memories for you?

We hope the Grand Rapids Symphony is one of them. When you make a gift please add a comment with your story. Or email us at info@grsymphony.org.

Many of us are not professional musicians but still have a deep love for music and the Grand Rapids Symphony. Ric Roane and Leandro Robles are longtime Grand Rapids Symphony patrons and supporters. Ric has served a board member since 2016 and sat on the committee for the Symphony’s Bach Festival. You can find Ric and Leandro at almost all of the Richard & Helen DeVos Classical concerts.

They shared a little about their lives and their gateways to music with us:

What were your gateways to music?
Ric:  I grew up in Seattle and my first symphony experience was going to a performance of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra as a 5th grader for their concert in the schools’ series.  I was hooked and that year I began playing clarinet in the band.

Leandro:  Raised in northern Argentina, I accompanied my father to Friday barbecues where his friends would play Argentine and Spanish folk music on guitars, bandoneons and percussion instruments and sing ballads and drink wine.

What made you music lovers?
Ric:  My love of music derives from the diversity of musical styles, from modern to classical or regional or nationalistic.

Leandro:  The beauty of music is sensible and I cannot recall one day in my entire life when I was not surrounded by music.

What is your favorite memory of the Grand Rapids Symphony?
Ric:  Without question, the 1812 Overture at Picnic Pops when the cannons go off and the summer sky is filled with the spectacle of fireworks. Thrilling!!

Leandro: I love when the symphony leaves the performance hall and goes into the community into different and diverse spaces, bringing its beauty to a broader audience.

What is your favorite Gateway to Music Program? Why?
Ric:  Since it was my gateway to music, my favorite is the 5th Grade Concert series.  My hope is that new generations of children will be inspired to a lifetime of music appreciation and perhaps performance starting with the 5th grade concerts.

Leandro:  I love the Neighborhood Concert Series as it brings music into the community and makes symphonic music accessible to a diverse audience.

In addition to being subscribers, Ric & Leandro are Symphony supporters. Orchestra performances and the music education programs we know and love are not possible without the support of people like you.

Join Ric & Leandro and make a gift to support the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Posted by Corey Holcomb at Monday, April 5, 2021

Bravo John Varineau, we will miss you!

A letter from Grand Rapids Symphony President & CEO, Mary Tuuk Kuras...

Our mission to deliver great music to the Western Michigan community is paramount and it brings us together as a Symphony family in life-changing ways.  We build cherished relationships with each other and feed our collective souls, all through the lens of our musical mission.  Creating, performing, entertaining, educating, and innovating is something we just do because of our passion for our mission.

Our Associate Conductor, John Varineau, has walked this mission daily for 36 years and his story is one of heart, dedication, education, and extraordinary innovation.  So, it is with conflicting emotions of sadness for our Symphony family, and happiness for John and his wife Gwen, that we share John’s decision to retire at the end of our main season on May 16, 2021.  Feelings of deep appreciation, respect, awe, and inspiration come to mind as we reflect on his legacy.  We will also feel the indelible loss of John’s brilliant presence on and off our podium, as John and Gwen transition to a new chapter of desired life experiences with their family.

Describing John’s multi-faceted journey with the Symphony over 36 years is akin to telling the story of a Renaissance man’s travels.  Frequent stops along the way range from Beethoven to John Williams to Harry Potter… from Holiday Pops to Nutcracker to Symphony with Soul to Sinfonia Navideña… from Manistee to Greenville to the Ford Museum to Picnic Pops at Cannonsburg… from DeVos Performance Hall to St. Cecilia to Van Andel Arena… from archival recordings to recording CDs to virtual concerts on Vimeo. John also embodies our mission as the familiar voice of Symphony broadcasts on Blue Lake, exquisite orator at remembrances of Symphony family members no longer with us, and tireless advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

But, most of all, John’s passion for students and music education touches our hearts deeply and his contributions are imprinted all over the Western Michigan community. He has shaped countless lives in our community and beyond over the years.  Babies become patrons, fifth graders learn a musical instrument, and teenagers become adult musicians; all under John’s influence, teaching, and example.  Leading and guiding our musicians of tomorrow for 33 years in Grand Rapids Youth Symphony rehearsals and concerts is yet one more radiant example of John the teacher.

Simply put, John is a treasure to our Symphony mission and our Western Michigan community.  We will look forward to the creative ways in which we can express our appreciation for his incredible legacy publicly in the upcoming months.  So, for now, we begin our path of gratitude, celebration, and recognition of John’s abundant contributions to our lives.  We, the students of John’s classroom, applaud his teaching and will carry his lessons with us for life.

Mary Tuuk Kuras
President and CEO
Grand Rapids Symphony

Posted by Corey Holcomb at Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Grand Rapids Symphony Remembers Mary Ann Keeler

Our Grand Rapids Symphony family mourns with heavy hearts the loss of Mary Ann Keeler, lifelong advocate for the arts in the Western Michigan community and a treasured part of our Grand Rapids Symphony family. At the same time, we smile because it was her vision and passion that birthed the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. Her guidance and support has left an indelible legacy in our grateful souls.

“How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from A German Requiem, Op. 45, Johannes Brahms.
Rune Bergmann, conductor | Jeanine De Bique, soprano | Norman Garrett, baritone |
Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, Pearl Shangkuan, director

A long-serving Board member from 1952-1970, she was a champion for the Grand Rapids Symphony. Mrs. Keeler donated countless hours of her time and talents, not only as a Board member, but also by serving on the BRAVO Awards Committee, supporting many major fundraising campaigns – including two orchestra tours to Carnegie Hall, underwriting the Principal Oboe chair, and, of course, as an inspiring patron of the Grand Rapids Symphony for several decades. Mrs. Keeler was also a recipient of a BRAVO! Award in 1993, the Symphony’s highest honor that recognizes leadership and advocacy for the orchestra.

Mary Ann’s vision resulted in the creation of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in 1962. Now in existence for over 50 years, with over 120 members, the Chorus has reached a high level of artistic excellence, performing regularly in the Symphony’s Classical Series, Holiday Pops concerts, and in the Grand Rapids Bach Festival. Fifty-six years after its founding, the Chorus also performed with the Symphony in 2018 on its tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

But there was much more to Mary Ann's lifelong, enthusiastic backing of the Grand Rapids Symphony and Chorus. To encounter her personally after a Symphony Chorus performance was a tonic for the collective Chorus spirit. She delighted again and again in hearing how the seeds she had planted had grown, blossomed, and flourished. Chorus member and former Chorus historian Richard Krueger remembers Mary Ann Keeler as a radiant presence in the Chorus family. “To have Mary Ann in our corner was to have more than a benefactor; it was to have a true fan, a friend, and a lifelong partner in our ongoing artistic quest”, said Krueger.

Mrs. Keeler also provided great encouragement and support to Chorus Directors, including Dr. Pearl Shangkuan, current Chorus Director since 2004. Privately, for a number of years up to the Chorus’ last classical performance on stage in November, 2019 prior to the pandemic, Mary Ann would have a gorgeous, huge bouquet of flowers delivered to Dr. Shangkuan’s home in appreciation of the Chorus' work following a performance along with a personal note of thanks. “These were gestures of great encouragement and affirmation that I'll forever cherish. Her advocacy and support for the arts in the Grand Rapids community is a most beautiful legacy of her life”, said Dr. Shangkuan. Dr. Shangkuan also thought of Mary Ann Keeler as the Chorus’ most enthusiastic cheerleader. “Every personal encounter I had with her would leave me energized and doubly grateful for the support of the community for our Grand Rapids Symphony”, said Dr. Shangkuan.

Krueger further reflected on the musical history of the Chorus and Mary Ann Keeler’s legacy. “Throughout its history, the Symphony Chorus has performed Requiem settings by Brahms, Britten, Duruflé, Fauré, Mozart, and Verdi. As we remember Mary Ann Keeler's life of dedication to supporting music and the arts and mourn her passing, it's lovely to think that the eternal rest and perpetual light we sang of in those masterworks are the gifts she now enjoys in full.”  

We will forever remember Mary Ann Keeler for her perpetual shining light on us.  May she rest in peace, surrounded by her beloved everlasting music.

at Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Grateful for Change - Donor Spotlight

In continuing our series on being Grateful for Change, this week we want to shine a spotlight on our amazing DONORS. During this past year of many, many changes, we have been trying to focus on the things that have been positive.

Donations have come in from individuals, corporations, and foundations. Every donation matters, every donation counts, and all donations have helped keep the Grand Rapids Symphony in a position to provide music for our community. This year our donors have really stepped up to help us continue our mission of sharing great music!

Below is a note from our Senior Vice President for Development, Diane Lobbestael:

How often have you thought or heard others comment on how grateful they are to live in West Michigan?  Our quality of place is extraordinary. Grand Rapids and West Michigan offers so much beyond access to natural beauty and a strong economy.  We share access to great art – visual, performing, botanical and musical arts.  Each art form, as well our museums, enriches our lives, educates, enlightens and inspires us, as well as broadening our world.

Founded and funded by the community 90 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s contribution to the fabric of West Michigan is established and respected.  We are grateful for a history of leadership donors who allow the orchestra to serve our region in the hall, in the community and, now, virtually.  Investments, big and small, provide the orchestra’s performances to the delight of patrons of every age.  Individuals, foundations and corporations sustain the orchestra by making it a priority in their philanthropy…an enduring West Michigan tradition that shows no sign of changing.

Thank you donors, we are grateful for you!

at Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Six youngsters have holiday experience of a lifetime, guest conducting the Grand Rapids Symphony Holiday Pops

For many years, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Holiday Pops have been a family tradition for West Michigander to celebrate the season in song.

More than 10,000 guests were in DeVos Performance Hall last week for six performances of the Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus and guest vocalist Capathia Jenkins.

But the 2019 Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops were extra special for six students who had an opportunity to join Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and the Grand Rapids Pops on stage.

One youngster was selected at each concert to come up on stage and conduct the Grand Rapids Symphony in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” beginning with Aidan Vermeulen, age 11, at the opening concert on Thursday, Dec. 5.

“We were surprised and delighted when Aidan was chosen, and what an amazing experience it was,” said Aidan’s father, Jason Vermeulen.

Kids guest conduct Grand Rapids Symphony's Holiday Pops   

It was a very special experience for all of the guests who volunteered to participate and were chosen at random in a drawing held at each of the afternoon and evening Holiday Pops concerts continuing through Sunday, Dec. 8.

But it was extra special for Aidan because his mother Anne Vermeulen, an alto in the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, had the best seat in the house to see Aidan’s conducting debut.

At each concert, the drawing was held after the concert was underway, so it came as a complete surprise to Anne, who already was seated on stage with the Symphony Chorus when her son’s name was announced.

“I could barely contain myself,” she said afterward. “We’re supposed to be somewhat incognito on stage since we’re so visible, but I couldn’t help being excited.”

Following an introduction by Bob Bernhardt and a quick lesson in baton technique, each student was off to the races with “Sleigh Ride.”

“While he was conducting, he would catch my eye and smile,” Anne Vermeulen recalled.

The Vermeulens said they’re so grateful for the experience given to their son.

“Music is something Anne and I both value, and we hope to pass that love of music on to our boys,” Jason said.

The other special guest conductors were:

  • Maddie Decker, age 11, daughter of Jason and Tina Freese Decker, at the morning concert on Friday, Dec. 6.

  • Nadia Alderman, age 10, daughter of Eric and Amy Alderman, at the evening concert on Friday, Dec. 6.

  • Luke Barrett, age 14, son of Michael Barrett, at the afternoon concert on Saturday, Dec. 7

  • Ellie Blink, age 8, daughter of Emily Blink, at the evening concert on Saturday, Dec. 7

  • Chandler Baillie, age 15, daughter of Julia Baillie, at the afternoon concert on Sunday, Dec. 8

Each student got a peak behind the scenes at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s concert and was given a souvenir baton to take home.

“Bob Bernhardt as so supportive and encouraging to him,” Anne Vermeulen said. “Capathia Jenkins, too, was giving him little pointers and encouragement backstage before he went on, which meant a lot to us.”

A 6th grade student at Baldwin Street Middle School in Hudsonville, Aidan began studying cello this fall.

“He has really come alive with it, practicing daily as one should,” Jason Vermeulen said. “His playing cello has led to shared joy as we’ve gotten to watch and encourage him.”

“It was an unforgettable experience for our family,” Jason said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony renews Music Director Marcelo Lehninger's contract for 5 more years

Grand Rapids Symphony concert goers came to DeVos Performance Hall on Friday for an evening of music by Wagner and Stravinsky. But along with the music came the unexpected surprise announcement that Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will remain on the podium with the orchestra for years to come.

The Grand Rapids Symphony has extended Lehninger’s contract with the orchestra for another five years through the 2025-26 season.

Appointed Music Director in June 2016, Lehninger’s original 5-year contract was due to expire at the end of the 2020-21 season. But with the addition of another five years, the Brazilian-born conductor is on the road to becoming the third-longest serving Music Director in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 90-year history.

The announcement came at the start of the second half of the program titled Tristan & Isolde. But before continuing with Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser and Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Lehninger told the audience “it’s an incredible joy” to make music with the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“Not only are they great musicians, but they’re great people, and that feeling of family on stage is very special,” he said. “We enjoy what we’re doing here, and I hope we can send you the message that we love playing for you.”

Marcelo Lehninger told the audience how much he appreciates the community’s support of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“What is really touching is the support the community has for the orchestra,” he said. “It tells you a lot about a community that wants to have a high level, wonderful orchestra.”

The concert featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus singing Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Tickets are available from the DeVos Hall box office and Ticketmaster outlets.

Marcelo Lehninger, Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director

Lehninger, who served five years on the conducting staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and who has guest conducted the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Houston and Detroit, has emerged as one of the top American conductors of his generation.

Grand Rapids Symphony is fortunate to have Lehninger on the podium in West Michigan, according to Chuck Frayer, chair of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors.

“A great community deserves a great orchestra, and a great orchestra needs the capable and inspiring leadership of a great music director,” Frayer said. “Since Marcelo’s arrival, he’s raised the quality of the orchestra’s music making and elevated the profile of the Grand Rapids Symphony in the world of classical music. We couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s accomplished, and we’re looking for more to come.”

Lehninger, who led the Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus in a critically acclaimed appearance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in April 2018, said he’s thrilled to continue making music in Grand Rapids.

“I am deeply humbled by the confidence shown me and for the past three years it has been an honor to work with the wonderful musicians of the orchestra, administration, board, donors and volunteers of this cherished cultural institution,” said Lehninger, whose chair as Music Director is underwritten by George H. and Barbara A. Gordon. “The Grand Rapids Symphony has a big impact on the vibrant cultural life of our city, and it’s been extremely inspiring for me to see the community support and involvement that shows the city wants to have a high-level orchestra.”

Now in his fourth season with the orchestra, Lehninger has brought such internationally acclaimed artists as pianists Nelson Freire, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Olga Kern and Gabriela Montero to Grand Rapids for their debut performances. He’s also brought such world-class musicians as violinist Sarah Chang and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung back to DeVos Performance Hall for the first time in many years.

Last year, Lehninger conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony in performances of Gustav Holst’s The Planets along with Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41, which sold out 2,400-seat DeVos Performance Hall. This past summer, he led the orchestra in its first appearance in northern Michigan in many years when the Grand Rapids Symphony performed at the Great Lakes Center for the Arts at Bay Harbor in July.

Under Lehninger’s leadership, the Grand Rapids Symphony last year launched a Neighborhood Concert Series with performances throughout the community. In September, Lehninger led the orchestra in its second annual “Symphony on the West Side” in John Ball Park for the series underwritten by the Wege Foundation.

Lehninger has led performances of music ranging from Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben and Gustav Mahler’s sunny Symphony No. 3 to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s sultry Scheherazade, and Maurice Ravel’s mesmerizing Bolero. But he also has premiered new music by composers with direct ties to West Michigan including Alexander Miller and Jeremy Crosmer.

“Marcelo is a magnificent musician who is grounded in the great works of classical music that our audiences know and love. But he’s also an innovator, determined to expand the repertoire, to perform in unexpected ways and places, and to create inclusive experiences for new audiences,” said GRS President and CEO Mary Tuuk, who earlier served as co-chair of the 14-member search committee who recommended Lehninger’s appointment as Music Director. “I’m elated to continue working with Marcelo and our Symphony constituencies as we chart the course of the Symphony’s future with further artistic excellence, vibrancy and accessibility.”

Grand Rapids Symphony’s musicians are looking forward to many more years of making music with Lehninger, said Principal Harpist Elizabeth Wooster Colpean, who serves as chairperson of the GRS Orchestra Committee.

“The musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony are thrilled that Marcelo will continue to serve as Music Director,” said Colpean, who is in her 20th anniversary season with the orchestra. “He has an extraordinary gift of breathing life into each note we play, resulting in a beautiful picture created entirely out of music.”

“It’s magical!” she added. “We’re fortunate to have him here in West Michigan.”

As part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 90th anniversary season in 2019-20, Lehninger will conduct the orchestra in all five of Beethoven’s Concertos for Piano and Orchestra over two consecutive nights in March 2020. Pianist Kirill Gerstein, winner of the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award given by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, will be soloist for all five.

Also later this season, the Grand Rapids Symphony will launch a new series, The Pianists, featuring Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter, the winner of the 2006 Gilmore Artist Award, as part of the 2020 Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

“When planning the 90th season, we decided that, although this anniversary is a wonderful reason to celebrate, from now on, each year will be a stepping stone to our centennial celebration in the 2029-30 season,” Lehninger said. “Another five years will give us time to implement some of the projects and ideas I’ve been cultivating with our team. The future holds some innovative and novel plans for the orchestra, and I am truly excited to be a part of this vision.”

Winner of the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award for an Emerging Music Director by the League of American Orchestras in 2014, Lehninger made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut in February 2015 with an electrifying performance of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony No. 9. Following an explosive performance of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” in April 2016, Lehninger was the unanimous choice to become the orchestra’s 14th Music Director since the ensemble was organized in 1930.

Lehninger lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, Laura Krech, a Research Scientist at the Trauma Research Institute at Spectrum Health, and their daughters, Sofia and Camila.

“The community has been extremely welcoming to my family, and we’re very happy here,” he added. “Grand Rapids is a wonderful place to live, work and raise children.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, October 26, 2019

Live music doesn't get much better than Tchaikovsky and the Grand Rapids Symphony

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

As a composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was, and is, without equal.

He was a Russian nationalist as well as an internationalist. His music sets scenes that are descriptive and evocative. His melodies are lush, sweeping and memorable. Musicians admire his music. Audiences love it.

The genius that was Tchaikovsky was on full display at the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, October 4, in DeVos Performance Hall. In part because the entire program was devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky.  But especially because pianist Olga Kern was at the piano and Music Director Marcelo Lehninger was on the podium.  The Russian-born pianist poured her heart and soul into Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Lehninger conducted one of his favorite works, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6.

Live music doesn’t get much better than this.

Olga Kern, GR Symphony, and Tchakovsky's 'Romeo & Juliet'

Nearly 25 years of Tchaikovsky’s work was on display beginning with his first success, the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy, and his final work, the “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6. The second concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 children, remain available.

Olga Kern, the Gold Medal winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is one of today’s top piano soloists. It’s a wonder that she’s never previously appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto, especially compared to his First, is less known and less played, probably because it’s a one-movement work that lasts a mere 19-20 minutes.  Some have said the concerto lacks virtuosity for the soloist, but no one who heard Kern play it would ever say that again.

A commanding performer who often plays hunched over the keyboard, Kern doesn’t dominate a performance, but she makes her presence known. Her notes are clear and carefully etched despite the challenges of the tricky runs and arpeggios. She anoints each phrase with authority.

The solo cadenza is an orchestral-sized tour de force, alternating bravura from one hand to the other, which she played with sparkling brilliance and dynamism.

The Russian pianist, descended from a long line of musicians, delighted the audience with not one but two encores. First an electrifying performance of Rachmaninov’s Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 4 in E minor followed by a fiery performance of Prokofiev’s Etude in C minor Op. 2 No. 4.

The applause for Kern’s performance was long lasting and heart-felt.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6 may have been his greatest accomplishment. Certainly it was his last. Nine days after its premiere, he died tragically after drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. One can’t help but wonder what he would have composed had he lived another 10 or 20 years.

Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a well-balanced performance, fully in command of the music and of his orchestra.

Burnished woodwind ensemble playing, carefully controlled brass at the climaxes, and well-balanced strings were hallmarks of the performance.

Lehninger’s opening was subdued and sepulchral. Sweeping strings and explosive brass were soon to follow. The second movement was voluptuous bordering on the exotic.

The scherzo was propulsive, determined yet nimble. It sparkled so much that the audience broke into spontaneous and sustained applause afterward, never mind that there was one more movement to go.

Lehninger led a finale that was thoughtful and introspective. It needs to be. The final movement turns the whole symphony upside down. The conclusion, full of private suffering, was deeply felt.   

The evening opened with the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. Lehninger led a performance of meticulous music making a dramatic battle sequence that had the audience on the edge of its seats. Precise accents and energetic phrases portrayed the clash between the Montagues and Capulets. The breathtaking final chords led to sustained applause.

Lehninger led the well-known love theme with great clarity with little schmaltz. Passion without pathos. It’s an old familiar favorite, but in the right hands, it becomes brand new and wonderful to hear again.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, October 5, 2019

Recap: Songs of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and more rock the hall with Grand Rapids Symphony's 'Queens of Soul'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin, whom Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the “Greatest Singer of All Time,” truly was the “Queen of Soul.” An evening of her music would satisfy most people.

But add songs by Tina Turner, Adele, Alicia Keys and Amy Winehouse into a show, and you really have something. You might say it’s a show fit for a queen.

Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 2019-20 Fox Motors Pops Series with Queens of Soul an amazing evening of great songs by all of the above plus Etta James, Whitney Houston and more.

Guest vocalist Shayna Steele summed it up simply: “This is the soundtrack of my life.”

Three great singers, all capable of being either Gladys Knight or the Pips, were on stage for along with Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and the Grand Rapids Pops.

“Queens of Soul” repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students.

GR Symphony 'Queens of Soul'

Three fabulous singers – Shayna Steele, Brie Cassil and Kelly Levesque – joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for the evening of songs including “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “New Attitude” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

The show began with all three taking on the lead vocals for “Proud Mary.” In the best Tina Turner fashion, it started slow and ended rough, and left the audience hungry for more.

The dynamic Shayna Steele returned for her third appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony. She made her debut at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops with Women Rock! in 2017 and returned to Cannonsburg Ski Area this past summer with Dancing in the Streets: Music of Motown, She’s welcome back any time.

Shayna Steele's powerful voice and strong stage presence lit up the auditorium with songs made famous by Aretha Franklin including a ringing version of “Respect” and a driving performance of “Freeway of Love” that had the house screaming for more. Her old-school interpretation of Etta James’ “At Last” was honest and heartfelt, and she had the audience clapping along on Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

Kelly Levesque  blessed with a dark voice and a dramatic stage presence, belted out a powerful version of songs such as “Rolling in the Deep,” made famous by Adele and an exciting performance of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin.’” Even better was when she channeled the late, great Amy Winehouse with classics such as a tender interpretation of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and a sultry swing through the Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”

Brie Cassil, a sassy singer, delivered a bright and bouncy version of Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude,” an exciting rendition of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.” Her flirty performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” was memorable, and her version of Adele’s “Hello” packed an emotional wallop.

Saxophonist Ed Clifford was the fourth star of the night, contributing several great solos including a wicked solo on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”

The show began with all three taking on the lead vocals for “Proud Mary.” In the best Tina Turner fashion, it started slow, it ended rough, and it left the audience hungry for more.

It ended with all three once again sharing leads for “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”

“I hope you’re having as much fun as we are up here,” Bernhardt told the audience on Friday. “We’re having a blast.”

There never was a doubt. The audience was having a blast, too.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, September 28, 2019

Recap: Community enjoys 'Symphony on the West Side,' Grand Rapids Pops' second FREE concert at John Ball Park

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Everyone loves music but not everyone is able to experience and enjoy live music.

That’s what inspired the Grand Rapids Symphony to launch its Neighborhood Concert Series, to take music out of the concert hall, and bring it to the people.

The Grand Rapids Pops returned to John Ball Zoo for Symphony on the West Side on Saturday, Sept. 21.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the orchestra in such popular favorites as Rimsky-Korsakov’s zippy Flight of the Bumblebee and Tchaikovsky’s lush Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker Ballet for the first concert of the second year of the orchestra’s Neighborhood Concert Series.

Underwritten by the Wege Foundation, the free concert drew an audience of more than 1,250 to the park on the west side of downtown Grand Rapids near the John Ball Zoo.

GRS Symphony on the West Side 2019

GRS Associate Concertmaster Christina Fong was soloist in one concerto from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performing a delightfully charming rendition of the Autumn Concerto.

Cellist Zachary Earle, a 17-year-old student at East Kentwood High School, was soloist in a section from Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, performing sweetly on the beautiful movement titled The Swan.

Lehninger, who is entering his fourth season in Grand Rapids, put the Grand Rapids Symphony on full display with a wide variety of music for the concert, supported by Meijer, Inc., as Presenting Sponsor.

He led a sultry and spicy version of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, and a performance of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México that was lean and taught.

Highlights from Gershwin’s folk opera, Porgy and Bess, properly titled Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture was colorful and evocative of the “Catfish Row” made famous by the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira.

Despite the cloudy and overcast skies, the concert opened with a sparkling version of Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Die Fledermaus following the customary performance of The Star Spangled Banner to open the program with Huntington Bank as the Partnering Sponsor.

Prior to the concert, audiences arrived hours earlier for pre-concert activities including music by vocalist Kathy Lamar, a musical instrument petting zoo sponsored by Meyer Music, and activities including face painting and crafts.

Last year for a similar concert in John Ball Park, rain shortened the second half of the concert in John Ball Park. This year, though umbrellas popped up from time to time due to sprinkles, the entire concert was performed for an enthusiastic audience.

Grand Rapids Symphony launched the series in July 2018 with the orchestra’s first outdoor performance in the city in 20 years. That was followed by La sinfonía navideña, a Spanish-flavored Christmas concert, held last December in Wyoming at the Dan Heintzelman Fine Arts Center at Wyoming Junior High School.

“A symphony orchestra in the 21st century has become a service organization,” Lehninger said at the time. “We’re here not only to entertain our audience but also to serve our community.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s Neighborhood Concert Series, an initiative launched with help from the Wege Foundation, began with a $1 million grant to enhance initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion to engage a broader audience and share live orchestral music with everyone in its community.

In November, the Grand Rapids Symphony plans to present a second FREE La sinfonía navideña at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Kroc Center, 2500 S. Division Ave.

Associate Conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra in holiday favorites. Admission is free but tickets are required for entrance. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony for details.

Though concerts in DeVos Performance Hall remain central to the orchestra its audience, new programs in new places are important for the continued growth of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“I have a passion and a mission to reach the hearts and souls of everyone in this community,” Lehninger said. “Hopefully, they’ll understand that the Grand Rapids Symphony is their orchestra too.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, September 24, 2019
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