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

Recap: Breathtaking Beethoven opens Grand Rapids Symphony's 2019-20 season

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

For 90 years, the Grand Rapids Symphony has welcomed some of the greatest musicians of the past century to town.

Cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Janos Starker, pianists Van Cliburn, Emanuel Ax and Stephen Hough, and violinists Midori and Itzhak Perlman, the latter of whom returns to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage in November for the first time in 35 years.

Each, in its own way, was a memorable event. But the opening of the Grand Rapids Symphony’ 90th anniversary season met, matched, and, possibly, surpassed those concerts.

Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich returned to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage for a record sixth appearance to open the 2019-20 season on Friday with a breathtaking performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the first concerts of the season, Hadelich plays Beethoven, which repeats at 8 p.m. tonight in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets for the first concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series start at $18 adults, $5 children, and remain available at the door.

Lehninger, who begins his fourth season as music director, promised “a very special season” for the orchestra’s 90th anniversary. The opening concert with music including Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal and Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor met that standard.

Since we’re coming up on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven in 2020, it’s only fitting to begin with music by Beethoven plus Brahms’ First Symphony, which soon was dubbed “Beethoven’s 10th” following its premiere.

Twelve years ago, following from his Gold Medal at the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Augustin Hadelich made his local debut in 2007 for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Rising Stars Series at St. Cecilia Music Center. His star has risen ever since.

In writing his only work for solo violin and orchestra, Beethoven composed, perhaps, the Mount Everest of concertos. Its challenges for the soloist aren’t merely technical. It calls for a violinist to bare his soul, reveal hidden thoughts, and share deep emotions in a performance.

Hadelich, Musical America’s 2019 Instrumentalist of the Year, is a consummate musician. On Friday, he played with great clarity, pure emotion, an innate sense of melody and a commitment to sharing the spotlight with the orchestra as an equal. It’s a long wait, almost frustratingly so, before the soloist joins the first movement. But when Hadelich entered with a bold flourish, it was simply wonderful to be there.

Time seems to stand still in the beautiful second movement, and the serenity of Hadelich’s performance left the audience wishing time had stopped entirely so we could enjoy it longer.

Lehninger led a performance grounded in a firm pulse and sharp attention to transitions and modulations, never clearer than in the third movement Rondo. Hadelich’s final cadenza, performed with awe-inspiring technique, was amazing.

Called back for applause three times, his encore couldn’t have been different. In fact, it was a violin transcription of Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Spanish composer Francisco Tarrega, a piece that’s among the most frequently performed works for classical guitar. What, no doubt, is a challenging piece for six-string guitar is an even greater challenge for four-string violin that Hadelich dashed off effortlessly. It was a jaw-dropping send off for the German-American musician.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor is intimately connected to Beethoven. The German composer was widely talked about as the successor to Beethoven who had composed nine symphonies before he died in 1827. Brahms, who was born five years later, was so intimidated by the shadow of his predecessor he later declared it had taken him 21 years, from initial sketches to its debut in 1876, to compose his first symphony. It was worth the wait.

Lehninger led a performance of power and richness, clearly emphasizing the connections with the music of Beethoven, yet letting Brahms be Brahms.

The opening’s emphatic polyphony was nicely accomplished to produce majestic music. The gentle second movement was warm and satisfying, thanks in part to the capable solos by Associate Concertmaster Christina Fong and Principal Oboist Ellen Sherman.

The finale was glorious and expansive with an energy accumulating into an impressive culmination that put a satisfying capstone on the evening.

The evening was music of “The Three B’s” only in this case, the first ‘B’ was Samuel Barber in place of Bach. The pleasure of Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal is, not only was it written for a full-size, modern symphony orchestra, it also was composed when Barber was just 21 years old. In short, it’s a youthful piece for a young season, and almost everyone in the orchestra gets to play.

Following the traditional playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” to open the new season, Lehninger led a performance of bite and polish, with rhythmic verve and sumptuous melodies.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s 90th anniversary season opened in a big, bold way. There’s even more to come.



Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, September 14, 2019

Recap: Sweet, soulful sounds of summer rock Cannonsburg with music of Motown and the Grand Rapids Symphony

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk-

The music of Motown is something special.

It’s sweet, it’s soulful, and it’s the sound of summer.  It’s music for dancing, and whenever you hear it, you hear a symphony.

The sounds of the 60s returned to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage on Thursday, July 25, at Cannonsburg Ski Area with “Dancing in the Streets – Music of Motown,” a salute to the music of Stevie Wonder , Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Four Tops and more.

The third concert of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 26. Gates open at 5:45 for picnicking and preconcert entertainment. Tickets, available at the door, start at $25 adults and $10 students.

Three fabulous singers, Shayna Steele, Michael Lynche and Chester Gregory, all stars of stage and TV, joined Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhard and the Grand Rapids Pops for the very best of Motown.

As the sun set on a beautiful summer evening, the concert started hot with the dynamic Shayna Steele standing in for Martha Reeves to belt out “Dancing in the Streets.”

By the end of the evening, the floor in front of the stage was packed with people dancing to Jackie Wilson’s “You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me” and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”

“Man, do I love my job,” Bernhard told the audience after a soulful version of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” delivered by Lynche.

Three voices were more than enough for a great version of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” But individually, the cast also channeled the Temptations, Ashford & Simpson, and many more.

Lynche, a finalist in Season 9 of “American Idol,” stood in for James Brown, belting out a driving version of “I Feel Good.”

Chester Gregory, whose interpretation of Smokey Robinson is uncannily close to the real thing, crooned a mellow performance of “You Really Got a Hold on Me.”

The show has plenty of clever bits. Steele sang a sassy version of Mary Well’s “My Guy,” and Gregory immediately followed with a smooth performance of the Temptations’ “My Girl.”

The show also moved forward in time to the later careers of Motown artists such as Diana Ross and Lionel Richie with songs such as “Endless Love,” which was sweetly sung by Steele and Lynche.

The concert really cooked in the last half with songs that slipped right into the groove such as “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love?” featuring the entire cast.

It could have gone on all night long, but all good things do come to an end, and the end was top notch with Gregory taking the lead with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”

Between the lovely weather, the sheer star power of the singers, and the superlative sound of the Grand Rapids Symphony, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, July 26, 2019

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates 25 years of Picnic Pops with star-spangled salute to America

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony proved that if you build it, people will come.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops debuted a quarter century ago on a sweltering summer’s evening on a ski slope transformed into an outdoor concert venue.

The Grand Rapids Pops celebrated its 25th anniversary with a star-spangled patriotic salute with Classical Fireworks: Salute to America on Thursday, July 11.

The concert sponsored by Aquinas College, Chemical Bank and TerryTown RV Superstore repeats at 8 p.m. Friday, July 12. Gates open at 5:45 p.m. Tickets are available at the door starting at $25 adults, $10 students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to

It was 25 years ago, but it felt like no time had passed at all. Gaily decorated tables filled the front of the house. On the lawn, families spread blankets and picnic dinners while children scampered up and down the hills.

Nearly half of the Grand Rapids Symphony musicians on stage for the silver anniversary of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops also were there for the very first season.

Pianist Rich Ridenour, who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Grand Rapids Symphony's Picnic Pops debut in July 1995, returned for a delightful encore performance of Gershwin’s most popular work for piano and orchestra.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Pops in a glittering evening of music with brilliant brass on John Williams’ “Liberty Fanfare” and sparkling woodwinds playing Aaron Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody.”

Patriotic music both old and new were highlights of the show including Morton Gould’s dynamic “American Salute,” a set of variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” all the more important because Gould composed it in 1943 to boost morale during the darkest days of World War II. Varineau led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a performance that was driving, intense and expansive.

Trumpeter Paul Torrisi was featured on John Williams’ Main Theme from the film “Born on the Fourth of July.”  Torrisi, a member of the orchestra since September 2017, was in the spotlight to give a brilliant performance of the heartfelt melody.

A highlight of the night was a performance of the now-traditional “Armed Forces of Salute.” During the spirited performance, veterans of the U.S. Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force and Navy stood for enthusiastic audience applause while the Grand Rapids Symphony played melodies including “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” and “Anchors Aweigh.”

Ridenour, a native of Grand Rapids, returned on the second half for even more Gershwin with an awesome performance of the final movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Though less famous than “Rhapsody in Blue,” in many respects, it more challenging to perform. Ridenour heroically navigated the fast-paced rondo and its rat-a-tat rhythms with élan and joie de vivre.

Naturally, a crowd favorite was John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” featuring the piccolo section in the well-known solo obbligato.

Some of the finest playing of the evening came last with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” By turns it was somber, joyful, subdued and explosive with cannonade to match.

The evening ended with a pyrotechnic display, a grand finale of fireworks, sponsored by Lacks Enterprises. Lasting more than 8 minutes, it was a salute not only to America, but a celebration of 25 years of beautiful music in the great outdoors by your Grand Rapids Symphony.

Happy 25th Anniversary!

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, July 12, 2019

25 years later, how the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops got its start.

Twenty-five years ago, on the hills of Cannonsburg Ski Area, several thousand gathered for an evening’s entertainment.

The ski lift was still. Not a flake of snow covered the ground. In fact, it was a scorching hot summer’s day for the debut of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Picnic Pops.

But just in front of the stage, concert-goers had decorated tables with centerpieces and tablecloths. Across the lawn, folks spread out blankets and enjoyed picnic suppers while they fanned themselves with concert programs.

As the sun set, an explosion of symphonic sound echoed across the hills of Cannonsburg followed by a pyrotechnic display that lit up sky on that steamy day in July 1995 that launched the Grand Rapids Pops’ “Symphony Under the Sky.”

“So many took a giant leap of faith,” said Stacy Ridenour, who was Grand Rapids Symphony’s general manager at the time. “For the most part everything fell into place as if it were meant to be, albeit with a lot of hard work to bring the pieces together.”

The Grand Rapids Pops celebrates the 25th anniversary of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops with Classical Fireworks: Salute to America, a star-spangled, spectacular salute to America. Ridenour’s husband, pianist Rich Ridenour, who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the series debut, returns for an encore performance to open the 2019 Picnic Pops at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, July 11-12.

The next three weeks of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops features music from Liverpool, Detroit and Nashville with Classical Mystery Tour: 50 Years of The Beatles’ White Album on July 18-19, followed by Dancing in the Street: The Music of Motown on July 25-26.

Capping off the summer is Nashville: The Songwriters. Their Stories. The Symphony, starring the Music City Hit-Makers for one-night only on Friday, Aug. 2. The concert stars the singer-songwriters who wrote the hits that made Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw famous.

The second concert of the summer season, featuring Classical Mystery Tour’s fourth appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony at Cannonsburg, will be the 100th Picnic Pops program since the series debuted in July 1995.

Years of planning went into creating the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, according to Stacy Ridenour, who served as Grand Rapids Symphony’s General Manager for the first four years of the Picnic Pops.

Along with GRS Principal Violist Leslie Van Becker, Ridenour spent at least 18 months scouring West Michigan, from South Haven to Grand Haven, looking for possible venues that had natural beauty as well as such practicalities as electricity and parking. Their search ended with Cannonsburg Ski Area, along Bear Creek, northeast of Grand Rapids.

“The creek provided a natural restricted access.  The slopes were gentle for great sightlines.  It was pretty and not too far from town,” Ridenour recalled. “Bingo.”

The team studied orchestras with summer programs, particularly Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s Prairie Pops, which featured table seating in front, lawn seating in back, and fireworks in the evenings following a program of light classics or themed concerts, some with guest artists, and some without.

“People came for the experience of listening to their orchestra in a beautiful outdoor setting with a bring-your-own-picnic option rather than for a specific guest star,” recalled Ridenour, who today is director of development with Sarasota Opera in Florida. “We basically borrowed almost all of their general programming concepts.”

Grand Rapids Community Foundation underwrote band shell that the orchestra performed under. NBD Bank became the original title sponsor.

Grand Rapids Symphony musicians, who previously had traveled elsewhere in the summer to play in music festivals, gave up those jobs.

But Mother Nature had the final say on opening day on Thursday, July 13, 1995.

“It was an oppressively hot, 95-degree, sunny day,” Ridenour recalled. “Tickets were sold, but would they come in this heat?”

The opening concert featured her husband, pianist Rich Ridenour, playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“We waited, and they eventually came,” she said. “The orchestra soldiered through the heat, and the opening night was a huge success.”

“The entire staff was exhausted but exhilarated to enable it,” Ridenour said.  “We’re now amazed that hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed it. Picnic Pops has become a great audience and donor development opportunity for the orchestra and an asset to the quality of life in Grand Rapids.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, July 11, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony's leadership team named honorary co-chairs of Festival of the Arts 2020

Grand Rapids Symphony has been invited by Festival of the Arts to serve as honorary co-chairs for next year’s community-wide celebration of arts and culture in Grand Rapids

Festival of the Arts unveiled the appointment on Friday, June 7, the first day of the three-day, showcase of art, music, dance and more, including an appearance earlier that day by the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony under conductor John Varineau.

For the next year, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and President and CEO Mary Tuuk, along with Varineau, will serve as ambassadors for the annual event, which will be held June 5-7, 2020.

“I’m thrilled to have Grand Rapids Symphony back for Festival of the Arts in 2020 and to have their leaders involved as honorary co-chairs," said David Abbott, Executive Director for Festival of the Arts. “Festival remains grateful for the Youth Symphony for their continued performance and looks forward to the professional company joining in on the fun.”

“Marcelo is already formulating some surprises that we know will wow the community,” Abbott said.

This past year, Grand Rapids Ballet’s Executive Director Glenn Del Vecchio and Artistic Director James Sofranko served as honorary co-chairs for the 50th anniversary Festival of the Arts. Grand Rapids Symphony now takes over the role of promoting the importance of art and culture in West Michigan leading to the event that’s held each year on the weekend following the first Friday that falls in June.

“Festival of the Arts has a special place in our hearts as it does in yours as well,” said Tuuk, a Grand Rapids native who also attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids. “Since childhood, I’ve known that, in Grand Rapids, summer in the city truly begins with Festival.”

Fifty years ago this month, Alexander Calder’s 43-foot tall, 42-ton stabile, “La Grande Vitesse,” was installed in downtown Grand Rapids as the fledgling National Endowment for the Arts’ first work of public art. Former Congressman Gerald R. Ford, who later became 38th President of the United States, was instrumental in securing the $45,000 grant in 1967.

For its dedication on June 14, 1969, the Grand Rapids Symphony performed music by George Gershwin and Charles Ives, and the orchestra gave the premiere performance of a piece titled “Inaugural Fanfare” commissioned for the occasion by Aaron Copland.

The installation of the orange/red sculpture that also measures 54 feet long and 30 feet wide was the inspiration for Festival of the Arts, held for the first time in June 1970. Over time, “The Calder,” as it’s popularly known, has become a symbol of the city, and Festival has grown to become the biggest street party of the summer in Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Symphony or its musicians, performing as soloists or in smaller ensembles, have been a part of Festival of the Arts for most of the past five decades. Next year, musicians of the orchestra will perform in some capacity for the annual event that’s open for free to the entire community.

Recently, members of Grand Rapids Ballet performed on Calder Plaza for a standing-room only crowd on Saturday, June 8, the second day of Festival 2019.

Three years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony introduced Lehninger as its newly appointed Music Director on the eve of Festival of the Arts 2016. The following day, its leaders took the Brazilian-born conductor on a walking tour of Festival of the Arts and downtown Grand Rapids.

It was Lehninger’s introduction to Festival of the Arts as well as to the arts and culture of Grand Rapids, said Varineau, who will mark his 35th anniversary season in 2019-20 with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“He put on a red T-shirt with an image of the Calder,” Varineau said. “He saw the sights, ate the food, rode the Di Suvero Swing and enjoyed everything Festival had to offer.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, June 20, 2019
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