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Outdoor symphony series pops with three dynamic maestros

A casual outdoor experience of familiar favorites at the Classical Fireworks concert kicked off the Picnic Pops season with Grand Rapids Symphony.

Bob Bernhardt conducting the Classical Fireworks concert last weekend. Photo credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.

The feeling of community while sitting down to attend the first Picnic Pops Concert of the season, Classical Fireworks on July 12 at 8:00 p.m., was warm and welcoming. The Cannonsburg Ski Area hill bustled with people young and old who had set up chairs, laid out blankets, and brought their own food and beverages. Musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony, while the audience settled in, warmed up inside the large band shell in which they would perform.

The Grand Rapids Symphony hosts the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops every summer. It’s a chance to enjoy a variety of music in a casual setting.

Like many other Symphony events, volunteers provide a chance for young people to touch and even try to play many of the instruments. Images credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.

“The summers are short in Michigan, and we try and jump in with both feet because we only have 12 weeks of summer,” says Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Senior Manager of Communications and Media Relations. “You can sit up on the hill and if you want to pay close attention to the music you can. If you want to listen a little, chat a little, you can…If there’s a way to make it more relaxed, I’m not sure what it is.”

The audience certainly seemed quite relaxed; children danced, families ate dinner, and some even pulled books from their bags to read as the music played. Adding to the ambiance was the perfect weather. It was warm but not buggy, and a slight breeze moved down the hill.

“What a beautiful place to have a concert; it’s so different than the traditional getting dressed up and going into a beautiful building,” says Patricia Tergerson, a now-retired orchestra conductor. She taught at many schools in her 40-year career, including Saginaw School of Music and Grand Rapids Public Schools. “It’s being outside: the casualness of it, the social possibilities of it…”

The Grand Rapids Symphony hosts Picnic Pops Thursdays and Fridays through August 3. Tickets come at a range of costs so everyone can go. There are also some great lower-cost opportunities like Symphony Scorecard.

“For people of limited financial means, we provide tickets to almost everything we do. All our Classical Series, our Pops Series in the fall and winter, and Picnic Pops,” says Kaczmarczyk. Symphony Scorecard is just one of those options. “The participants qualify through the Department of Social Services…and we provide tickets upon request. Since we started this program a couple years ago, we’ve given a good 8000 tickets.”

Top: Marcelo Lehninger conducts. Bottom: John Varineau leads the Symphony. Photos credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.
(From left) Bob Bernhardt, Marcelo Lehninger, and John Varineau chatting. Photo credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.

Last week’s concert, Classical Fireworks, was unique in that all three of the Grand Rapids’ Symphony’s conductors — John Varineau, Bob Bernhardt, and Marcelo Lehninger — conducted. As they passed the baton back and forth, they would make friendly quips and comments to the audience, lightening the mood and reminding everyone it was a casual affair.

“I liked seeing the different conductors. They’re all going to conduct slightly different and have different nuances,” says Tergerson. “For the musicians, that keeps them on their toes, more than the audience can appreciate…it was probably exciting for the musicians.”

The music performed had something for everyone. Starting with the Overture to Die Fledermaus, a comedic operetta by Strauss, Jr. and ending with the 1812 Overture and sensational fireworks. The middle was filled with classics from the Great American Songbook, songs that had everyone dancing in their seats.

Grand Rapids Symphony performs under a bandshell at Cannonsburg. Photos credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.

“We grew up with that kind of music—a lot of things we might have learned when we were children,” says Tergerson. “All these things kind of give us a sense of tradition, belonging, and history.”

The excitement of the night only rose as the Symphony performed, and came to a great climax with the fireworks at the end, where even the musicians got the chance to sit back and relax. Everyone was together in a wonderful community moment.

Michael Schaeffer, local accordion performer, took the stage for a special performance at Picnic Pops. Photo credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.

“The name of the organization is Grand Rapids’ Symphony…We’re the community’s orchestra, and if you’re going to be the community’s orchestra you have to do your best to serve as many people as possible in the community,” said Kaczmarczyk. “It’s not realistic to have everyone come to everything we do, but ideally we’d like to have everyone come down to one or two events every year.”

It seems the Picnic Pops definitely attracts a large crowd, with nearly 3500 people attending every night.

“I think the fact that there were so many people in the crowd it felt like it was a very popular thing to do. [Picnic Pops concerts] are just absolutely fun,” said Tergerson. “There’s just a totally different feeling when you’re going into it and when you’re there—it’s freeing and uplifting.”

Fireworks transfix the crowd after 1812 Overture. Photo credit Terry Johnston, courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.

D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops

Cannonsburg Ski Area
July 19, 20: 80s Rewind!
July 26, 27: Beethoven v. Coldplay
August 2: Tito Puente Jr.
August 3: Ben Folds
Tickets: Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at 616.454.9451 x4, or visit Grand Rapids Symphony online

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