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Recap: Sweet, soulful sounds of summer rock Cannonsburg with music of Motown and the Grand Rapids Symphony

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk-

The music of Motown is something special.

It’s sweet, it’s soulful, and it’s the sound of summer.  It’s music for dancing, and whenever you hear it, you hear a symphony.

The sounds of the 60s returned to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage on Thursday, July 25, at Cannonsburg Ski Area with “Dancing in the Streets – Music of Motown,” a salute to the music of Stevie Wonder , Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Four Tops and more.

The third concert of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 26. Gates open at 5:45 for picnicking and preconcert entertainment. Tickets, available at the door, start at $25 adults and $10 students.

Three fabulous singers, Shayna Steele, Michael Lynche and Chester Gregory, all stars of stage and TV, joined Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhard and the Grand Rapids Pops for the very best of Motown.

As the sun set on a beautiful summer evening, the concert started hot with the dynamic Shayna Steele standing in for Martha Reeves to belt out “Dancing in the Streets.”

By the end of the evening, the floor in front of the stage was packed with people dancing to Jackie Wilson’s “You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me” and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”

“Man, do I love my job,” Bernhard told the audience after a soulful version of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” delivered by Lynche.

Three voices were more than enough for a great version of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” But individually, the cast also channeled the Temptations, Ashford & Simpson, and many more.

Lynche, a finalist in Season 9 of “American Idol,” stood in for James Brown, belting out a driving version of “I Feel Good.”

Chester Gregory, whose interpretation of Smokey Robinson is uncannily close to the real thing, crooned a mellow performance of “You Really Got a Hold on Me.”

The show has plenty of clever bits. Steele sang a sassy version of Mary Well’s “My Guy,” and Gregory immediately followed with a smooth performance of the Temptations’ “My Girl.”

The show also moved forward in time to the later careers of Motown artists such as Diana Ross and Lionel Richie with songs such as “Endless Love,” which was sweetly sung by Steele and Lynche.

The concert really cooked in the last half with songs that slipped right into the groove such as “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love?” featuring the entire cast.

It could have gone on all night long, but all good things do come to an end, and the end was top notch with Gregory taking the lead with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”

Between the lovely weather, the sheer star power of the singers, and the superlative sound of the Grand Rapids Symphony, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, July 26, 2019

Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates 25 years of Picnic Pops with star-spangled salute to America

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony proved that if you build it, people will come.

The D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops debuted a quarter century ago on a sweltering summer’s evening on a ski slope transformed into an outdoor concert venue.

The Grand Rapids Pops celebrated its 25th anniversary with a star-spangled patriotic salute with Classical Fireworks: Salute to America on Thursday, July 11.

The concert sponsored by Aquinas College, Chemical Bank and TerryTown RV Superstore repeats at 8 p.m. Friday, July 12. Gates open at 5:45 p.m. Tickets are available at the door starting at $25 adults, $10 students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to

It was 25 years ago, but it felt like no time had passed at all. Gaily decorated tables filled the front of the house. On the lawn, families spread blankets and picnic dinners while children scampered up and down the hills.

Nearly half of the Grand Rapids Symphony musicians on stage for the silver anniversary of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops also were there for the very first season.

Pianist Rich Ridenour, who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Grand Rapids Symphony's Picnic Pops debut in July 1995, returned for a delightful encore performance of Gershwin’s most popular work for piano and orchestra.

Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Pops in a glittering evening of music with brilliant brass on John Williams’ “Liberty Fanfare” and sparkling woodwinds playing Aaron Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody.”

Patriotic music both old and new were highlights of the show including Morton Gould’s dynamic “American Salute,” a set of variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” all the more important because Gould composed it in 1943 to boost morale during the darkest days of World War II. Varineau led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a performance that was driving, intense and expansive.

Trumpeter Paul Torrisi was featured on John Williams’ Main Theme from the film “Born on the Fourth of July.”  Torrisi, a member of the orchestra since September 2017, was in the spotlight to give a brilliant performance of the heartfelt melody.

A highlight of the night was a performance of the now-traditional “Armed Forces of Salute.” During the spirited performance, veterans of the U.S. Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force and Navy stood for enthusiastic audience applause while the Grand Rapids Symphony played melodies including “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” and “Anchors Aweigh.”

Ridenour, a native of Grand Rapids, returned on the second half for even more Gershwin with an awesome performance of the final movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Though less famous than “Rhapsody in Blue,” in many respects, it more challenging to perform. Ridenour heroically navigated the fast-paced rondo and its rat-a-tat rhythms with élan and joie de vivre.

Naturally, a crowd favorite was John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” featuring the piccolo section in the well-known solo obbligato.

Some of the finest playing of the evening came last with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” By turns it was somber, joyful, subdued and explosive with cannonade to match.

The evening ended with a pyrotechnic display, a grand finale of fireworks, sponsored by Lacks Enterprises. Lasting more than 8 minutes, it was a salute not only to America, but a celebration of 25 years of beautiful music in the great outdoors by your Grand Rapids Symphony.

Happy 25th Anniversary!

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, July 12, 2019

25 years later, how the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops got its start.

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.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, July 11, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony's leadership team named honorary co-chairs of Festival of the Arts 2020

Grand Rapids Symphony has been invited by Festival of the Arts to serve as honorary co-chairs for next year’s community-wide celebration of arts and culture in Grand Rapids

Festival of the Arts unveiled the appointment on Friday, June 7, the first day of the three-day, showcase of art, music, dance and more, including an appearance earlier that day by the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony under conductor John Varineau.

For the next year, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and President and CEO Mary Tuuk, along with Varineau, will serve as ambassadors for the annual event, which will be held June 5-7, 2020.

“I’m thrilled to have Grand Rapids Symphony back for Festival of the Arts in 2020 and to have their leaders involved as honorary co-chairs," said David Abbott, Executive Director for Festival of the Arts. “Festival remains grateful for the Youth Symphony for their continued performance and looks forward to the professional company joining in on the fun.”

“Marcelo is already formulating some surprises that we know will wow the community,” Abbott said.

This past year, Grand Rapids Ballet’s Executive Director Glenn Del Vecchio and Artistic Director James Sofranko served as honorary co-chairs for the 50th anniversary Festival of the Arts. Grand Rapids Symphony now takes over the role of promoting the importance of art and culture in West Michigan leading to the event that’s held each year on the weekend following the first Friday that falls in June.

“Festival of the Arts has a special place in our hearts as it does in yours as well,” said Tuuk, a Grand Rapids native who also attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids. “Since childhood, I’ve known that, in Grand Rapids, summer in the city truly begins with Festival.”

Fifty years ago this month, Alexander Calder’s 43-foot tall, 42-ton stabile, “La Grande Vitesse,” was installed in downtown Grand Rapids as the fledgling National Endowment for the Arts’ first work of public art. Former Congressman Gerald R. Ford, who later became 38th President of the United States, was instrumental in securing the $45,000 grant in 1967.

For its dedication on June 14, 1969, the Grand Rapids Symphony performed music by George Gershwin and Charles Ives, and the orchestra gave the premiere performance of a piece titled “Inaugural Fanfare” commissioned for the occasion by Aaron Copland.

The installation of the orange/red sculpture that also measures 54 feet long and 30 feet wide was the inspiration for Festival of the Arts, held for the first time in June 1970. Over time, “The Calder,” as it’s popularly known, has become a symbol of the city, and Festival has grown to become the biggest street party of the summer in Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Symphony or its musicians, performing as soloists or in smaller ensembles, have been a part of Festival of the Arts for most of the past five decades. Next year, musicians of the orchestra will perform in some capacity for the annual event that’s open for free to the entire community.

Recently, members of Grand Rapids Ballet performed on Calder Plaza for a standing-room only crowd on Saturday, June 8, the second day of Festival 2019.

Three years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony introduced Lehninger as its newly appointed Music Director on the eve of Festival of the Arts 2016. The following day, its leaders took the Brazilian-born conductor on a walking tour of Festival of the Arts and downtown Grand Rapids.

It was Lehninger’s introduction to Festival of the Arts as well as to the arts and culture of Grand Rapids, said Varineau, who will mark his 35th anniversary season in 2019-20 with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“He put on a red T-shirt with an image of the Calder,” Varineau said. “He saw the sights, ate the food, rode the Di Suvero Swing and enjoyed everything Festival had to offer.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Thursday, June 20, 2019

On Memorial Day weekend, get 50 percent off Picnic Pops lawn tickets for 'Classical Fireworks: Salute to America,' July 11-12

When plans were made to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, organizers turned to a well-known composer to write music for the occasion.

John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare saluted the restoration of the famous statue in New York Harbor whose torch was then symbolically relit by President Ronald Reagan during ceremonies in July 1986.

It’s fitting that Liberty Fanfare, composed for an anniversary, will open the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 25th anniversary season of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops with Classical Fireworks: Salute to America.

Patriotic melodies celebrating America’s heritage are part of the show, the first of four weeks of music at Cannonsburg Ski Area. Season subscriptions offering savings of 30 percent are available for the first three weeks.

On Memorial Day weekend only, in memory of our fallen soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, we’re offering you a 50 percent discount on lawn tickets. Click here to get half-price tickets for Classical Fireworks: Salute to America and enter code USA. Offer ends at 11:59 p.m. Monday, May 27.

The star-spangled show on Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, will include a stirring Armed Forces Salute, a medley of tunes associated with each branch of the U.S. Military, including The U.S. Field Artillery March (The Caissons Go Rolling Along), the official song of the U.S. Army; Anchors Aweigh, the official march of the U.S. Navy; and The Marine’s Hymn, adopted by the U.S. Marines, and more.

Associate Conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra in an inspiring performance of The Stars and Stripes Forever, and a rousing version of Morton Gould’s American Salute, a set of variations to When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, composed during the darkest days World War II to lift the spirits of Americans at home.

Concerts at Cannonsburg Ski Area conclude with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and a pyrotechnic display. Naturally, they begin with The Star Spangled Banner, in an updated arrangement by John Williams.

2019 GR Symphony Picnic Pops

The 25th anniversary of the Grand Rapids Pops’ “Symphony Under the Sky” also includes music by three of the greatest American composers of the past century.

Pianist Rich Ridenour, a Grand Rapids native now living in Florida, returns to play George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

“Rich happens to be the first guest performer at the very first Picnic Pops 25 years ago,” said Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, who will lead three of the four programs for the Picnic Pops.

For the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops opener, Varineau also leads the Grand Rapids Pops in Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Aaron Copland’s Variations on a Shaker Melody.

Williams, the most famous film composer of the past 50 years, will be well-represented. In addition to Liberty Fanfare, the Grand Rapids Pops will play the main themes from Born on the Fourth of July, the 1989 film starring Tom Cruise, and from The Patriot, the 2000 film starring Mel Gibson.

Gates at Cannonsburg Ski Area open at 5:45 p.m. each night for picnicking and pre-concert entertainment, including free, kid-friendly activities such as face painting, crafts, and a musical instrument petting zoo.

Pack your own or purchase food from the grill at the Cannonsburg concession stand. Alcoholic beverages are permitted on the grounds, and parking is free for concertgoers. VIP parking is available for each concert for only $12 per vehicle.

Single tickets in advance for lawn seats for the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops start at $20 adults, $5 for children.

Save up to 30 percent off single-ticket prices with a 3-Concert Series subscription good for any seats to Classical Fireworks, The Beatles Tribute and Dancing in the Streets. Subscriptions for lawn seats are $42 for adults or $15 for children ages 2-18. Children younger than age 2 are admitted for free. Subscriptions for general admission chair seating are $75. Tickets for an individual reserved table seat are $144 or $1,152 to reserve an entire table for eight.

The Flexpass 6-Pack offers six lawn tickets that can be used in any combination, on any concert night, for Classical Fireworks, The Beatles Tribute of Dancing in the Streets. Flexpasses are $102 for adults. Flexpasses cannot be used for the special event in August.

Active duty, reserve and National Guard members of the U.S. Military may purchase up to two tickets for $15 each in advance for lawn seats.

All tickets are $5 more the day of the show. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony Ticket Office at (616) 454-9451 or go online to for other ticket options.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Friday, May 24, 2019

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 Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Recap: Surprises, celebrations and sensational music complete Grand Rapids Symphony's 2018-19 season

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk-

Some concerts are full of surprises.

Great works of music give you ample opportunities, and when Music Director Marcelo Lehninger decided to end the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season with sensuality from Ravel, sparkle from Chopin, and substance from Brahms, there were plenty of opportunities, guaranteed.

Then there are the moments you could not have imagined. Such as three encores.

Pianist Sonia Goulart, with her son on the podium, made her Grand Rapids Symphony debut with an artfully accomplished performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor that drew a fervent standing ovation on Friday, May 17 in DeVos Performance Hall.

GR Symphony with Chopin & Brahms

The animated reception inspired the Brazilian pianist to return to the stage for an encore with a virtuosic performance of Chopin's Waltz in E minor (published posthumously). Afterward, out came a second piano bench, and Lehninger joined his mother for a spellbinding performance of Rachmaninoff’s Romance for Piano Four Hands, Op. 11.

And if that wasn’t enough, Goulart returned on Friday for a surprising third encore with an exhilarating performance of Domenico Scarlatti's Keyboard Sonata in C minor, K. 22.

Moments like that seldom happen, though there’s reason to believe Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience can expect more of the same at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18. Tickets for Chopin and Brahms, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available at the door or online at

The concerts ending the 2018-19 season also recognized musicians in the orchestra celebrating anniversaries and acknowledged a couple who were departing. Most significantly, violinist Lenore D’Haem marked her 50th year of playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony as well as her final performance in DeVos Hall. She’ll retire from the Grand Rapids Symphony at the end of this summer’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.

Goulart, a native of Brazil, trained in Germany, has had an important career as a pianist in South American and Europe. She performed little in the United States because, for many years, she had all the concerts she wanted. Things changed when her son, Marcelo launched his career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra nearly 10 years ago.

Goulart has since played with Lehninger and the New West Symphony in Los Angeles, and on Friday, May 17, she made her Midwest debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Chopin was one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Those who would perform his concertos must be the crème de la crème. It’s also an interesting challenge to perform for everyone. The pianist is the star, by far, with the orchestra playing a supporting role. The rubato the pianist employs can give conductors fits. But Lehninger grew up listening to his mother play the piece. It shows. In fact, the two hardly looked at each other, yet were together every step of the way through the 30-minute performance.

Goulart’s ample technique fueled a luminous performance with cascading notes that glistened with poise and precision. The slow movement had its dramatic moments punctuating the delicacy. The finale hinted at flash and dash but remained charming, elegant and satisfying.

The concert opened with Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye, a suite the French composer wrote inspired by a set of stories from Tales of Mother Goose. It’s a work the Grand Rapids Symphony has performed only a handful of times and just once in the last 30 years.

On that basis, it was fascinating on Friday to watch Lehninger conduct. Though it has many subtle colors and plenty of exposed passages – including an important contrabassoon solo deftly handed by Andrew Genemans, Lehninger led a handsome performance with sumptuous strings decorating delicate harmonies.

Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 filled the second half of the concert. Haunted by the shadow of Beethoven, Brahms spent 20 years composing his First Symphony. Buoyed by the success, he took a summer vacation and dashed off his sunny Second Symphony in D Major.

Later in life, Brahms declared it to be his favorite of his four symphonies. It’s occasionally referred to as pastoral, but Brahms still is Brahms, so it must have its dark moments.

Lehninger led a performance of rich textures and sturdy sonorities. The opening was sunny but substantially so. The Adagio was smooth and flowing and even a little magisterial at the end. Woodwinds were especially delightful in the charming Allegretto, which had a pleasant kick to it.

For the finale, Lehninger slowly warmed up the engine before unleashing the orchestra into a controlled explosion. The wild ride and rip-roaring conclusion, not only to the piece, but to the 2018-19 season was well deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, May 18, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony closes 2018-19 season with Chopin and Brahms featuring Marcelo and his mom

Symphony orchestra conductors, naturally, have their favorite soloists. A couple of Marcelo Lehninger’s favorites, who have appeared previously with him and the Grand Rapids Symphony, include violinist Sarah Chang and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Another is Brazilian pianist Sonia Goulart, who happens to be Lehninger’s mother. Not only is she a gifted pianist, Lehninger knows her so well, it’s easy for them to perform together.

“When I play with her, we don’t even rehearse. We don’t have to talk about how we’re going to do it,” Lehninger said. “I can feel what she’s going to do.”

“She performs differently every time she performs,” he added. “But I just feel what she’s going to do, and I’m there with her.”

Lehninger will welcome Goulart as soloist in Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Friday and Saturday, May 17-18, with the Grand Rapids Symphony for the final concert of the 2018-19 season.

“It’s a very special program – for me,” Lehninger said. “I’m very happy my mom is coming here as soloist.”

The concert titled Chopin and Brahms also features Lehninger leading the orchestra in Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The sunny, bucolic work, the composer’s personal favorite among his four symphonies, was inspired by a summer vacation spent along the shores of a beautiful lake in Austria.

Concerts at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall open with Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, a colorful and playful set of five pieces all inspired by fairy tales from Tales of Mother Goose.

Tickets for Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concert, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, are available at the Grand Rapids Symphony ticket office without additional fees or charges. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to Tickets also are available at the door or at Ticketmaster outlets for an additional charge.

Sonia Goulart, a child prodigy, who studied in Germany and spent 10 years in Europe before returning to her native Brazil, taught music, rehearsed, and played recitals and concerts throughout her pregnancy prior to giving birth to Lehninger. In fact, the final piece Goulart performed in public near the end of her pregnancy with Lehninger was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Lehninger, who was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, the second-largest metropolitan area in Brazil, grew up on a musical family. His father, violinist Erich Lehninger, a German, formerly was concertmaster of Brazil’s most important orchestra, the Sao Paulo State Symphony, the most populous city in Brazil.

Marcelo Lehninger grew up playing both violin and piano. Over time, violin gave way to piano, and piano gave way to conducting. But he has performed with his parents onstage as both musician and conductor, mostly in South America.

When Lehninger served as music director of the New West Symphony near Los Angeles for four seasons from 2012-13 through 2015-16, he conducted Goulart in a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in April 2014.

“One of the best moments in my life was to go onstage eight months pregnant with my son,” Goulart said in a 2014 interview with the Ventura County Star in California prior to a similar performance five years ago.

Goulart’s career has flourished in South American and Europe, where she earned her doctoral degree in music from the Staatlich Hochschule fur Musik und Theatre in Hanover, Germany. She is a winner of more than 30 national and international prizes, including First Prize in the Frankfurt Television Competition in Germany, and the Rencontres Musicales Internationales Award in Brussels, Belgium.

“She’s had a very important career, though mainly in Europe,” Lehninger said.

Goulart, who has been compared with such artists as Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha and Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich, has performed in sold-out halls across the Americas and across Europe from Spain to Austria. Next season, she has concert tours in France and Belgium as well as in Brazil and Uruguay.

“It’s always an emotional experience when I perform with her,” he said. “I think it’ll really be a treat for the audience, too.”

Polish-born pianist Frédéric Chopin has gone down in history, not only as one of the greatest composers of all time, but as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor, one of only two piano concertos he composed, was a piece he wrote for himself, at age 19, to display his ample artistry. Ever since its premiere in 1829, pianists have been doing the same with it.

The 30-minute work, which puts the piano on prominent display, is a work that Goulart most often performs with orchestra.

“It’s one of her signature pieces,” Lehninger said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Music from 'Star Wars,' 'Star Trek,' 'Lord of the Rings' and much more close Grand Rapids Symphony's 2018-19 Pops season

Grand Rapids Symphony  Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt often refers to film composer John Williams as “my hero.”

Bernhardt and Williams have been friends for more than 25 years, ever since Williams, formerly conductor of the Boston Pops, first hired Bernhardt to guess conduct in Boston back in 1992. But Williams, a five-time Academy Award winner, is a hero to anyone who loves a good action and adventure film, whether it was composed by Williams or not.

Before Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader spoke a line or even appeared on screen, it was Williams’ brilliant fanfare that jolted you out of your seat and set the stage for the 1977 film Star Wars.

The 24-time Grammy Award-winning composer gave birth to the soaring symphonic scores for the silver screen that soon would accompany epic adventures through space, heroic journeys across middle earth, and forays into the world of magic.

Grand Rapids Pops concludes its 2018-19 Fox Motors Pops series with Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth, and More! a musical salute to the symphonic soundtracks of some of the greatest films from such franchises as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Grand Rapids Symphony goes where no orchestra has gone before with highlights from 1978 film Superman starring Christopher Reeve, and the main themes from the Star Trek franchise including TV shows as well as movies.

GR Pops 'Star Wars' and More 2016

Bernhardt leads performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 10-11, and at 3 p.m. Sunday May 12, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 children.  Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to for tickets. There’s never a service fee if when you buy tickets at GRS Ticket Office at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW.

Special guest vocalist Mela Sarajane Dailey joins the Grand Rapids Symphony to sing Can You Read My Mind? from Superman. The Grammy Award-winning singer, who first appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony for its Holiday Pops in 2015, also sings two show-stopping operatic arias, the “Mad Scene” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and “Vissi d’arte” from Verdi’s Tosca.

Bob Bernhardt, who became Grand Rapids Symphony’s Principal Pops Conductor in 2015, last year marked his 25th anniversary as a guest conductor with the Boston Pops. Williams, who served as conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, personally hired Bernhardt in 1992 to guest conduct the famous pop orchestra.

Today, Williams, a 51-time Oscar nominee, is famous for such movies as the Indiana Jones series and the first two Jurassic Park films. In the mid-1970s, he was a rising star who won the Oscar for the 1974 film Jaws when Steven Spielberg invited him to compose the music for a new space adventure move.

To compose music for the first Star Wars film and another eight films in the franchise that would follow, Williams revived the practice of composing leitmotifs or “leading motifs” to represent each character. Star Wars fans are familiar with The Imperial March and know that it’s Darth Vader’s theme. The main theme for Star Wars actually is Luke Skywalker’s theme, and the theme is heard, played by a single French horn, when the young Skywalker first appears on screen.

Williams used the same technique, which dates back to the 19th century operas of Richard Wagner, in such franchises as Harry Potter, in which key themes appear over and over across all eight films, even those composed by others.

Grand Rapids Pops’ Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth and More! includes music from the latest Star Wars installments including the 2015 film Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, the 2016 film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The concert also includes music from the 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness and a medley of music spanning the entire Star Trek franchise.

Bernhardt will lead the Grand Rapids Pops in a suite of melodies from The Lord of the Rings films, all composed by Howard Shore, who won Oscars for the first film in the series, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and for the third film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Recap: Trombonist Ava Ordman returns to Grand Rapids Symphony for an exciting evening of music by women

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Trombonist Ava Ordman is a pioneer’s pioneer.

At age 19, still an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she won the principal trombone position with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1973 in an era when fewer women held principal positions in American orchestras and nearly none played brass instruments.

Over 24 seasons through 1997, Ordman was a frequent soloist, performing Donald Erb’s Concerto for Trombone with the Grand Rapids Symphony and recording it for a CD released by Koss Classics; and debuting Libby Larsen’s “Mary Cassatt” with mezzo soprano Linn Maxwell Keller and the orchestra.

Since her departure, she has returned many times as an extra musician. But for the first time in more than 20 years, Ordman returned to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage on Friday, May 3, as soloist with a concert titled The 20th/21st Century Concert: Celebrating Women featuring music by women plus a woman as guest soloist.

It was an amazing performance led by associate conductor John Varineau in the hallowed halls of St. Cecilia Music Center, an organization founded in 1883 by nine women to promote the enjoyment and understanding of music among women.

Ordman, today a professor of music at Michigan State University, was soloist in a concerto for trombone and orchestra titled “Their Eyes Are Fireflies” composed by her MSU colleague, David Biedenbender.

The title is a metaphor for, as Biednebender puts it, “the magic and joy” that his young, preschool-age sons, Izaak and Declan, bring to his life. The 20-minute work is journey of discovery for the composer as well as the audience. It’s colorful, occasionally introspective, and often exuberant to the point of surreal.

Ordman is a phenomenal player. If it can be done with a trombone, Ordman can do it.

Varineau led a swirling opening movement titled “Beginnings,” and a more balanced middle movement full of beautiful melodies, titled “This Song Makes My Heart Not Hurt,” lovingly played by Ordman. The finale, titled “Izaak’s Control Panels” was an adventure with bursts of fireworks for both soloist and orchestra, making it an adventure for the audience as well.

The final concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series was an evening to celebrate pioneering women in music who not only shattered glass ceilings but also broke new ground in music. The concert featured music by American composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joan Tower and by British composer Anna Clyne, three women whose careers spanned more than a century from Seeger in the early 20th century to Tower and Clyne in the present day.

Each woman was extraordinarily successful. Seeger in 1930 became the first female composer in history to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Tower in 1990 became the first woman to win the lucrative Grawemeyer Award for composition, a prize worth $100,000 today.

Clyne, a British composer, now living in the United States, isn’t quite 40 years old yet. But she’s a rising star who won the 2010 Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2016 Hindemith Prize.

Grand Rapids Symphony performed her work for string orchestra, Within her Arms, a piece composed in 2009 in memory of Clyne’s mother who died that year. It’s a stunningly delicate lament that pushes the emotional buttons. So much so that it’s been compared with Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio for Strings, which is high praise indeed.

The piece for 15 players is a heartfelt meditation on the meaning of the loss of a loved one. Varineau’s performance did it justice. It was incredibly moving.

The evening opened with Joan Tower’s aptly named Chamber Dance. It’s a piece for chamber orchestra, and the music does dance. The performance featured lovely solos in oboe, flute and violin as well as charming duets by instruments not necessarily sitting near each other.

Notably, it’s a piece with subdued energy that pulses nonetheless, often in a flurry of notes that zip by.  It requires the musicians pay especially close attention, not only to the conductor, but to each other. Varineau led a performance careful poise.

If Ruth Crawford Seeger’s last name looks familiar, it should be. She was the step mother to folk singer Pete Seeger. Half of her career as a modernist composer included writing ground-breaking avant-garde music that would inspire composers for two generations to come including her String Quartet of 1931, a seminal work in American music in the early 20th century.

It included a strikingly novel slow movement, which she arranged for string orchestra. What’s fascinating about her Andante for Strings is each of the string instruments occupies one voice of a chord. By varying the dynamics, one particular note stand out, and as the piece progresses, the standout notes form a melody. It isn’t played on any one individual instrument, but it’s a melody just the same.

It’s an eerie melody, perhaps even sad. It’s an interesting challenge for the conductor, and Varineau artfully pulled the tapestry together.

The other half of Seeger’s career was as musicologist gathering and arranging folk music. The latter resulted in her brief work, Rissolty Rossolty, a sophisticated setting of folk melodies, but folk melodies even so.

In the Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance, folk tunes spun forth with a splash and a dash. Much like a well-chosen encore, it sent audiences home with a smile on their faces.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Monday, May 6, 2019
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