Recap: Music director Marcelo Lehninger works magic with Picnic Pops audience in Classical Fireworks concert

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

When Marcelo Lehninger appeared for the first time with the Grand Rapids Symphony two years ago, the highlight of that concert in February 2015 was a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony No. 9.

For Lehninger’s debut at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops on Saturday, Aug. 3, what better piece to play than the symphony that the Czech composer wrote in the United States and debuted for an American audience?

After all, it worked once, right? Now it’s worked its magic twice.

The Brazilian-born conductor led his Grand Rapids Symphony in a bold, expansive performance of the fourth and final movement of Dvorak’s gift to the American people, turned into a gift for the Picnic Pops audience.

GR Symphony's 2017 Classical Fireworks

Its wall of sound, though performed with great depth of precision, washed over the hills of Cannonsburg Ski Area. The big, climactic conclusion could have triggered fireworks into the evening sky. The pyrotechnics, however, were yet to come.

Grand Rapids Pops’ Classical Fireworks concert, a Picnic Pops tradition going back 23 seasons now is an audience favorite.

“Let’s get this party started,” Lehninger told the audience shortly after a U.S. Marine Color Guard presented the colors to the Grand Rapids Symphony performing the National Anthem.

Three weeks of pop rock and classic rock opened the 2017 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops. Special guest artists were the stars each night.

For the fourth event of the summer, the Grand Rapids Symphony was ready to let loose and take center stage in the concert that was something of a salute to the music of the America’s. Not just the United States of America, but the whole of the America’s with music from Argentina and Brazil as well as music inspired by the cultures of Mexico and Cuba.

Obvious audience favorites included Morton Gould’s American Salute, a popular set of variations on the theme, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

Aaron Copland, the dean of American composers during his life, is best known and best loved for his music of the 1930s and 40s that drew upon the American experience in ballets such as Appalachian Spring.

Lehninger led an exuberant performance of the “Hoedown” from Copland’s ballet, Rodeo, drawing a nicely balanced, carefully contrasted sound from the orchestra.

Copland was a first-generation American from New York City, born to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. But his tastes ranged far from his Manhattan home.  El Salon Mexico, inspired by the sounds and rhythms of that country, has remained one of Copland’s most popular pieces.

It’s broad shouldered as well as playful. Four weeks into the Picnic Pops season, it was wonderful to hear the richness of the Grand Rapids Symphony in all its symphonic splendor.

George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture may be authentic or not. It doesn’t matter because it’s lively and rhythmic. The Grand Rapids Symphony under Lehninger sounded tightly would and easy and breezy at the same time.

The juxtaposition of separate feelings and classing sensations were on even greater display on two tangos by Astor Piazzolla.

Tangos can be joyous and mournful all at once. Emotions bubbled to the top and remained at a rolling boil on a snow tango called “Oblivion.” A steady tattoo of rhythm and color, full of pizazz, spring from a tango titled “Primavera,” featuring notable solos from hornist Erich Peterson, cellist Alicia Eppinga, trumpeter Neil Mueller and oboist Ellen Sherman.

Perhaps the most insightful piece of the program was by the composer least familiar of all – Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez, an early 20th century Brazilian composer. Lehninger led an energetic performance of a movement from Fernandez’ opera, “Malazarte,” titled “Batuque,” a mesmerizing Afro-Brazilian folk dance full of passion, offering a glimpse of what the Brazilian conductor brings to the Grand Rapids Symphony as music director.

Peter Ilych Tchiakovsky’s 1812 Overture needs little introduction and less explanation. It’s music for orchestra plus cannons leading to fireworks, and it was a pyrotechnic display on an epic scale that had the audience murmuring its delight.

Wet weather threatened earlier, but the show went on until the rocket’s red glare gave proof that Cannonsburg was the place to be with the Grand Rapids Symphony on stage.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 3:00 PM
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