GR Symphony opened its season with passion, a premiere and one of the final concerts for a beloved percussionist, on the same night that iconic songwriters held court for a new series in Forest Hills.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two milestone concerts took place in the Grand Rapids area on Friday night. Grand Rapids Symphony opened its season at DeVos Performance Hall with the world premiere of Alexander L. Miller’s “Immortal Beloved” that also featured one of the final two Symphony performances by longtime principal percussionist Bill Vits, who’s battling cancer. Less than eight miles away at Forest Hills Fine Arts Center, Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts launched a new concert series endeavor featuring nationally renowned artists Paula Cole, Sophie B. Hawkins and Lucy Kaplansky. Local Spins was there for recaps of both concerts, in words and photos.
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GRAND RAPIDS SYMPHONY’S EMOTIONAL, MOVING RETURN
Arguably the first great composer regarded by his contemporaries as a genius beyond all others, Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness nonetheless prevented him from hearing that which brought so much joy to others.
And though he wrote music of great tenderness and heartfelt passion, Beethoven never knew true love in his own life.
The Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 2022-23 season on Friday with one of Beethoven’s greatest works plus another inspired by his deepest pain.
Celebrated violinist Sarah Chang joined Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and the Grand Rapids Symphony for an emotional and deeply moving concert made all the more so because of the world premiere of a new work by Grand Rapids composer Alexander Lamont Miller and the final performance of the orchestra’s popular principal percussionist Bill Vits.
Grand Rapids Symphony’s 93rd season, for the most part, had been planned for its 91st season. COVID got in the way. But on Friday, audiences turned out in force for music including Beethoven’s mighty Fifth Symphony and Miller’s “Immortal Beloved” featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. The entire program repeats tonight in DeVos Performance Hall.
Chang, who opened the Grand Rapids Symphony’s season exactly five years ago this weekend, returned with an incandescent performance of Max Bruch’s enormously popular Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor.
Winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the youngest-ever inductee in Hollywood Bowl’s Hall of Fame, an Olympic Torch bearer in 2004, and St. Cecilia Music Center’s 2011 Great Artist, Chang is one of the great violin virtuosos of our time, performing with the intensity of an Isaac Stern and the ease of an Itzhak Perlman. In her capable hands, Bruch’s expressive adagio became an earnest prayer. The energetic finale was a wonder of brilliant double stops and soaring lyricism leading to a fiery finish. Chang makes it seem so easy while looking remarkably radiant. She and Lehninger make a great team.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the seminal works in all of classical music. It’s so ubiquitous, almost anyone can hum its four-note opening movement. Not everyone can make it interesting to hear for the umpteenth time.
Lehninger, beginning his seventh season in Grand Rapids, led a commanding performance featuring boisterous horns, shimmering strings and an exquisite first-movement solo by principal oboist Ellen Sherman. It was worth the price of admission all by itself.
The Brazilian-born conductor also was a key collaborator in the concert’s opening piece. Years ago, Lehninger invited Miller, the orchestra’s assistant principal oboist and unofficial composer-in-residence, to write a new work to open the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2020-21 season. After two years of waiting, it finally came to life. It was worth the wait.
“Immortal Beloved” was inspired by a love letter Beethoven wrote to, or at least about, a woman he was deeply in love with. In composing the 16-minute work for orchestra and chorus, Miller took the deepest dive imaginable into the five-page text, penned over two days, in which Beethoven pours out his feelings in a wrenching, and at times confusing, stream-of-conscious manifesto.
The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus deftly delivered the text, but the orchestra supplied the emotional underpinning of a brilliant mind wresting with his deepest desire to love and to be loved in return. The performance was a tour-de-force of orchestra color and instrumental artistry full of exposed passages that Miller clearly penned with his fellow musicians in mind.
For a meeting of minds between composer, ensemble and audience, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Sadly, this weekend’s performances are the final concerts for Bill Vits, who is stepping down due to ill health. One of the true stars of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Vits’ consummate skill on drum set in DeVos Hall has made a galaxy of Grammy Award-winning recording artists sound fresh from the studio.
Whether playing in pit orchestras for touring Broadway shows, at parties and festivals with his surf-rock combo The Concussions, or in countless second- and third-grade classrooms with his “Percussion Discussion” programs, Vits has played a key role for more than four decades in the musical life of West Michigan. A musician who can make audiences swoon playing Debussy’s “Clair de lune” on a theremin as well as tickle their ears pecking at an old Underwood on Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” is a rare gift indeed.
In a remarkable twist of fate for a piece of music composed more than two years ago, the final note of Miller’s “Immortal Beloved” was played by none other than Vits. – By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk
Grand Rapids Symphony performs again at 8 p.m. today (Saturday) at DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets, $19-$76, available online here.
PHOTO GALLERY: Grand Rapids Symphony at DeVos Performance Hall
Photos by Jamie Geysbeek
PAULA COLE LEADS IMPRESSIVE ROSTER OF SONGWRITING TALENT
When Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts decided to expand its reach with a new concert series and a songwriting workshop for West Michigan musicians, it saw an opportunity to add the voices of national touring acts to a mission that previously centered on local and regional talent.
On Friday night at Forest Hills Fine Arts Center, those voices rang true and clear via the performances of seasoned and much-admired East Coast singer-songwriters Paula Cole, Sophie B. Hawkins and Lucy Kaplansky.
The first “Performance+” event in Festival’s half-century history drew a small crowd of about 80 enthusiastically attentive audience members who cheered everything from Cole’s Grammy-winning artistry to Hawkins’ high-energy singing to Kaplansky’s poignant musical missives.
With her brilliant, soaring voice, Cole – backed by a guitarist and stand-up bassist – clearly stole the show, taking fans along on a journey of her life and career through songs such as “Bethlehem” and “Tiger,” and of course, her Top 10 1997 hit, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” which had the crowd clapping along and even had a few fans dancing in the aisles.
Ultimately, the evening was all about inviting stories – both touching and funny – that showcased the power of three prodigious female songwriters.
Those tales ranged from Kaplansky’s “incredibly sad” experience of sending her daughter off to college (thus inspiring the song, “Last Days of Summer”) to the buoyant, upbeat pop of Hawkins, who flaunted barefoot, closed-eye passion throughout a set that brought the multi-instrumentalist to her knees more than once.
The hair-tossing Hawkins even debuted a new pop song, “Love Yourself,” that officially doesn’t get released as a single until Oct. 6, but nonetheless inspired folks to sing along even though they were hearing it for the first time.
And while the crowd was small, Cole and band delivered a captivating set worthy of a sold-out, sprawling venue.
“The size doesn’t matter,” Cold said from the stage, noting she’s performed at small coffeehouses where “the cappuccino machine was way louder than my voice” as well as in stadiums for teeming thousands.
“It’s this beautiful community. I’m so grateful.”
Cole and Hawkins will extend that beauty of community by following up Friday night’s concert with a special songwriting “master class” today at Forest Hills Fine Arts Center, a session limited to 50 attendees. – By John Sinkevics
PHOTO GALLERY: Paula Cole, Sophie B. Hawkins at Forest Hills FAC
Photos by Daniel Bird