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.”