Recap: Great music, great musicians, open Grand Rapids Symphony's 2016-17 season with 'Rhapsody in Blue'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

The great ones make it seem so easy.

Pianist Ralph Votapek, Gold Medalist at the 1962 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, breezed his way through a rhapsodic performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on Friday, September 16, to open the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2016-17 concert season in DeVos Performance Hall.

“Great ones” applies to the Grand Rapids Symphony as well.

Earlier, on Blue Lake Public Radio, Votapek had told host Bonnie Bierma how impressed he was with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“They sound as good as Detroit, as far as I’m concerned,” Votapek said, a phrase he repeated after the program while greeting concertgoers and signing CDs.

If anyone in Michigan has standing to say that, it would be Votapek, who’s played with virtually every orchestra of note in the United States, including no fewer than 16 times with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The former artist-in-residence and professor of piano emeritus at Michigan State University helped an audience of nearly 1,450 leave DeVos Hall both happy and impressed with the opening of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical season.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 17. Each of the four pieces on the program is worth the price of admission on its own.

The opening of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s new season, which began, as always, with a rousing chorus of “The Star Spangled Banner,” is a cause for celebration because it brings with it the arrival of new Music Director Marcelo Lehninger in October.

Neither music advisor nor guest conductor was needed to open the 87th season. The reliable Associate Conductor John Varineau, now in his 32nd year with the Grand Rapids Symphony, was the guiding hand.

Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring rose like a sunrise, heralding the dawn of a new era as well as a new season.

The wonderful piece, a tale of settlers living a simple, but meaningful pioneer existence on the Appalachian frontier, is one that pulls at the heartstrings of an American with its sweeping melodies, pandiatonic harmonies, and unbridled sense of optimism.

Just the opposite in every respect is Maurice Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe, an exotic and elusive tale of legendary characters in mythological times.

The common denominator is the Grand Rapids Symphony, under Varineau’s experienced baton, played both equally well.

Quiet passages in the Copland were reserved; in the Ravel they were elusive; Loud climaxes in the former were sonorous, straightforward and unflinching; in the latter they were surprising, startling and sensuous.

As the Grand Rapids Symphony comes under the baton of a new music director, you still can hear echoes of the work of former director David Lockington in the former and Catherine Comet in the latter.

September happens to be the 60th anniversary, to the month, of the first time pianist Ralph Votapek publicly played “Rhapsody in Blue” in public with an orchestra. He was a teenager in Milwaukee, just entering his freshman year at Northwestern University, fresh from winning a piano competition.

Remarkably, that debut in 1956 with the Milwaukee Pops was under the baton of Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” and who led the first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1924.

Votapek is an incredible pianist. He’s 77 years old, and if I hadn’t mentioned it, you wouldn’t know it. He’s as expressive as you’d expect for such an extraverted piece of music, and he’s solid as a silver dollar. The bottom line is, you listen to him play, and you think, yes, that’s the way it should be played, and anything different wouldn’t be as good.

Votapek’s performance on Friday was forthright and determined on his solo passages, which often left the audience holding its collective breath in anticipation over what would come next. But when playing with the full orchestra, he simply melted into the ensemble, content to be part of the team. The kind of soloist that orchestras really appreciate. Audiences, too.

Gershwin was in the right place at the right time when he premiered his “Rhapsody in Blue.” More importantly, he delivered what he promised for Whiteman’s “An Experiment in Modern Music” in 1924 in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

A year later Whiteman was back with a second experiment, this time with composer George Antheil who also was in the place at the right time. But unfortunately, he didn’t deliver “A Jazz Symphony” on time. A second concert was canceled when the presenter got cold feet over Antheil’s radically unusual piece. The composer finally got it premiered in 1927, personally paying an African-American orchestra led by W.C. Handy.

“It isn’t going to seem radical,” Varineau told the audience on Friday. “It’s just going to seem just crazy.”

That was an understatement.

Antheil’s short piece sounds along the lines of Charles Ives’ experiments to create the sound of two marching bands heading toward each other as they performed. Antheil’s raucous, unpredictable, multicultural piece sounds like some of the pages of the score were shuffled out of order and none of the players noticed until it was too late.

It’s a fascinating pastiche of sounds and expressions, all lively and melodic, just really unpredictable with instruments and sections of instruments undercutting, overplaying, and generally elbowing each other out of the way. Music to chuckle by.

Come hear it yourself. You won’t regret it.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM
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