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 10:00 AM
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