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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

On Memorial Day weekend, get 50 percent off Picnic Pops lawn tickets for 'Classical Fireworks: Salute to America,' July 11-12

When plans were made to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, organizers turned to a well-known composer to write music for the occasion.

John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare saluted the restoration of the famous statue in New York Harbor whose torch was then symbolically relit by President Ronald Reagan during ceremonies in July 1986.

It’s fitting that Liberty Fanfare, composed for an anniversary, will open the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 25th anniversary season of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops with Classical Fireworks: Salute to America.

Patriotic melodies celebrating America’s heritage are part of the show, the first of four weeks of music at Cannonsburg Ski Area. Season subscriptions offering savings of 30 percent are available for the first three weeks.

On Memorial Day weekend only, in memory of our fallen soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, we’re offering you a 50 percent discount on lawn tickets. Click here to get half-price tickets for Classical Fireworks: Salute to America and enter code USA. Offer ends at 11:59 p.m. Monday, May 27.

The star-spangled show on Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, will include a stirring Armed Forces Salute, a medley of tunes associated with each branch of the U.S. Military, including The U.S. Field Artillery March (The Caissons Go Rolling Along), the official song of the U.S. Army; Anchors Aweigh, the official march of the U.S. Navy; and The Marine’s Hymn, adopted by the U.S. Marines, and more.

Associate Conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra in an inspiring performance of The Stars and Stripes Forever, and a rousing version of Morton Gould’s American Salute, a set of variations to When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, composed during the darkest days World War II to lift the spirits of Americans at home.

Concerts at Cannonsburg Ski Area conclude with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and a pyrotechnic display. Naturally, they begin with The Star Spangled Banner, in an updated arrangement by John Williams.

2019 GR Symphony Picnic Pops

The 25th anniversary of the Grand Rapids Pops’ “Symphony Under the Sky” also includes music by three of the greatest American composers of the past century.

Pianist Rich Ridenour, a Grand Rapids native now living in Florida, returns to play George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

“Rich happens to be the first guest performer at the very first Picnic Pops 25 years ago,” said Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, who will lead three of the four programs for the Picnic Pops.

For the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops opener, Varineau also leads the Grand Rapids Pops in Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Aaron Copland’s Variations on a Shaker Melody.

Williams, the most famous film composer of the past 50 years, will be well-represented. In addition to Liberty Fanfare, the Grand Rapids Pops will play the main themes from Born on the Fourth of July, the 1989 film starring Tom Cruise, and from The Patriot, the 2000 film starring Mel Gibson.

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

Pack your own or purchase food from the grill at the Cannonsburg concession stand. Alcoholic beverages are permitted on the grounds, and parking is free for concertgoers. VIP parking is available for each concert for only $12 per vehicle.

Single tickets in advance for lawn seats for the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops start at $20 adults, $5 for children.

Save up to 30 percent off single-ticket prices with a 3-Concert Series subscription good for any seats to Classical Fireworks, The Beatles Tribute and Dancing in the Streets. Subscriptions for lawn seats are $42 for adults or $15 for children ages 2-18. Children younger than age 2 are admitted for free. Subscriptions for general admission chair seating are $75. Tickets for an individual reserved table seat are $144 or $1,152 to reserve an entire table for eight.

The Flexpass 6-Pack offers six lawn tickets that can be used in any combination, on any concert night, for Classical Fireworks, The Beatles Tribute of Dancing in the Streets. Flexpasses are $102 for adults. Flexpasses cannot be used for the special event in August.

Active duty, reserve and National Guard members of the U.S. Military may purchase up to two tickets for $15 each in advance for lawn seats.

All tickets are $5 more the day of the show. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony Ticket Office at (616) 454-9451 or go online to for other ticket options.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, May 24, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates 25th anniversary of Picnic Pops with fireworks, Beatles, Motown and Nashville

Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony transformed a ski slope into the hottest spot in town.

Just west of the village of Cannonsburg, along Bear Creek, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave birth to the Picnic Pops, and a new West Michigan summer tradition was born.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops celebrates its Silver Anniversary Season with music inspired by the best shows, the most popular music, and the all-time fan favorites of the past 25 years.

Four weeks’ worth of music begins July 11-12 at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

“Four incredible programs,” said Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, who returns for his fifth summer of “Symphony under the Sky” at Cannonsburg.

2019 GR Symphony Picnic Pops 

The Grand Rapids Pops’ summer series opens much as it began a quarter of a century ago. Guest pianist Rich Ridenour played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for the series premiere in July 1995, and the Grand Rapids-born pianist returns 25 years later to play it once again for Classical Fireworks: Salute to America on 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.

Season tickets offering substantial discounts, as well as single tickets are on sale now. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 during business or go online to  

Classical Fireworks: Salute to America, at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, features Rich Ridenour, a frequent performer in the early years of Picnic Pops, back at Cannonsburg to play Rhapsody in Blue. Associate Conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra in such patriotic melodies as John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare, John Phillip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever and an Armed Forces Salute along with music by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture leading to a fireworks finale.

“Rich happens to be the first guest performer at the very first Picnic Pops 25 years ago,” Bernhardt said.

Classical Mystery Tour: 50 Years of The Beatles’ White Album, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 18-19, welcomes Classical Mystery Tour, the world’s best Beatles show with symphony orchestra, to Cannonsburg for its fourth Picnic Pops appearance. Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, a huge Beatles fan himself, will lead music from the Fab Four’s celebrated White Album with songs including While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

“The Beatles’ White Album is maybe the greatest rock and roll album ever made,” Bernhardt said. “It’ll be an incredible tribute to the Beatles.”

Dancing in the Streets: The Music of Motown, at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, July 25-26, features such songs as Diana Ross’ Touch Me in the Morning, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, The Four Tops’ Reach Out/I’ll Be There and Martha Reeves’ Dancing in the Street. The special guest vocalists include Shayna Steele, who wowed the Picnic Pops audience in 2017 for Women Rock!

“It features three fabulous singers, and the show celebrates all the Motown singers you can imagine,” Bernhardt said.

Nashville: The Songwriters. Their Stories. The Symphony starring the Music City Hit-Makers, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2, stars three singer/songwriters who have racked up more than 15 songs that reach No. 1 on the music charts.  Brett James who wrote The Truth for Jason Aldean, and Hillary Lindsey who wrote Blessed for Martina McBride also collaborated on Jesus, Take the Wheel for Carrie Underwood. Along with James and Lindsey, the show stars Rivers Rutherford who wrote Living in Fast Forward for Kenny Chesney and Real Good Man for Tim McGraw. The three will join the Grand Rapids Pops to sing the songs and share stories about the singers and the scene where the Music City Hit-Makers reign supreme.

“They perform the megahits that they wrote for the great country stars, and they talk about the songs,” Bernhardt said. “It’s like you’re right there in their living room for the entire evening.”

“If you’re a country music fan, you’ve got to be there,” he added.

Twenty-five years ago, the inaugural Picnic Pops concert, hosted by WZZM-TV 13 anchors Juliet Dragos and Lee Van Ameyde, was one of the hottest days of the summer.

“It was hot enough to fry an egg on the back of a viola,” reported The Grand Rapids Press.

“Stay cool however you can do it,” Van Ameyde told the audience as he removed his tuxedo coat and tie on stage even before saying hello.

But the scorching heat – 97 degrees and 81-percent humidity – didn’t deter the audience. More than 3,000 were on the hills of Cannonsburg for the debut led by former Music Director Catherine Comet, which opened with The Star Spangled Banner and ended with John Phillip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever followed by fireworks.

The Picnic Pops from the start was laid back, relaxed entertainment in the great outdoors.

“I requested that they parachute me in for my part, but they turned me down,” Ridenour told The Grand Rapids Press in 1995 just before the series opened. “I guess they were afraid I’d land on my hands.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Recap: Surprises, celebrations and sensational music complete Grand Rapids Symphony's 2018-19 season

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk-

Some concerts are full of surprises.

Great works of music give you ample opportunities, and when Music Director Marcelo Lehninger decided to end the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season with sensuality from Ravel, sparkle from Chopin, and substance from Brahms, there were plenty of opportunities, guaranteed.

Then there are the moments you could not have imagined. Such as three encores.

Pianist Sonia Goulart, with her son on the podium, made her Grand Rapids Symphony debut with an artfully accomplished performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor that drew a fervent standing ovation on Friday, May 17 in DeVos Performance Hall.

GR Symphony with Chopin & Brahms

The animated reception inspired the Brazilian pianist to return to the stage for an encore with a virtuosic performance of Chopin's Waltz in E minor (published posthumously). Afterward, out came a second piano bench, and Lehninger joined his mother for a spellbinding performance of Rachmaninoff’s Romance for Piano Four Hands, Op. 11.

And if that wasn’t enough, Goulart returned on Friday for a surprising third encore with an exhilarating performance of Domenico Scarlatti's Keyboard Sonata in C minor, K. 22.

Moments like that seldom happen, though there’s reason to believe Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience can expect more of the same at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18. Tickets for Chopin and Brahms, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available at the door or online at

The concerts ending the 2018-19 season also recognized musicians in the orchestra celebrating anniversaries and acknowledged a couple who were departing. Most significantly, violinist Lenore D’Haem marked her 50th year of playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony as well as her final performance in DeVos Hall. She’ll retire from the Grand Rapids Symphony at the end of this summer’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.

Goulart, a native of Brazil, trained in Germany, has had an important career as a pianist in South American and Europe. She performed little in the United States because, for many years, she had all the concerts she wanted. Things changed when her son, Marcelo launched his career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra nearly 10 years ago.

Goulart has since played with Lehninger and the New West Symphony in Los Angeles, and on Friday, May 17, she made her Midwest debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Chopin was one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Those who would perform his concertos must be the crème de la crème. It’s also an interesting challenge to perform for everyone. The pianist is the star, by far, with the orchestra playing a supporting role. The rubato the pianist employs can give conductors fits. But Lehninger grew up listening to his mother play the piece. It shows. In fact, the two hardly looked at each other, yet were together every step of the way through the 30-minute performance.

Goulart’s ample technique fueled a luminous performance with cascading notes that glistened with poise and precision. The slow movement had its dramatic moments punctuating the delicacy. The finale hinted at flash and dash but remained charming, elegant and satisfying.

The concert opened with Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye, a suite the French composer wrote inspired by a set of stories from Tales of Mother Goose. It’s a work the Grand Rapids Symphony has performed only a handful of times and just once in the last 30 years.

On that basis, it was fascinating on Friday to watch Lehninger conduct. Though it has many subtle colors and plenty of exposed passages – including an important contrabassoon solo deftly handed by Andrew Genemans, Lehninger led a handsome performance with sumptuous strings decorating delicate harmonies.

Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 filled the second half of the concert. Haunted by the shadow of Beethoven, Brahms spent 20 years composing his First Symphony. Buoyed by the success, he took a summer vacation and dashed off his sunny Second Symphony in D Major.

Later in life, Brahms declared it to be his favorite of his four symphonies. It’s occasionally referred to as pastoral, but Brahms still is Brahms, so it must have its dark moments.

Lehninger led a performance of rich textures and sturdy sonorities. The opening was sunny but substantially so. The Adagio was smooth and flowing and even a little magisterial at the end. Woodwinds were especially delightful in the charming Allegretto, which had a pleasant kick to it.

For the finale, Lehninger slowly warmed up the engine before unleashing the orchestra into a controlled explosion. The wild ride and rip-roaring conclusion, not only to the piece, but to the 2018-19 season was well deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, May 18, 2019
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