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 10:00 AM
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