Tuesday, 27 November 2018 10:40

Merry Melodies: Grand Rapids Symphony pulls out all the stops for the holidays

Written by  Jane Simons
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Cirque de Noel. Cirque de Noel. Photo by Terry Johnston for the Grand Rapids Symphony

The holiday season serves as a counterpoint to the fast-paced nature of the lives people lead, and the typical desire to find what’s new and different before boredom sets in.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s Holiday Pops is a perfect example of this. It is perhaps one of the few times when audiences are more than happy to sit back and listen to the familiar holiday music they’ve been enjoying for years.

“A big, big part of the holiday season is connected with music. It has very important religious significance for people,” said John Varineau, associate conductor for the Grand Rapids Symphony. “The holiday season always kind of plucks the nostalgia side of our souls and a lot of our fondest memories are connected with music.

“I also think the holiday season hearkens back to families and being together with friends.”

Under the direction of Grand Rapids Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, the symphony will perform holiday standards such as O Come All Ye Faithful and Sing We Now Christmas alongside new arrangements of traditional songs.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Pearl Shangkuan, and the Youth Chorus, led by Sean Ivory, will join the symphony for a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah and music from the movie Home Alone.

The program also will feature an original piece by Ivory, titled Maoz Tzur. He is a local composer and conductor, in addition to being the director of the Youth Chorus. They’re also performing an original piece by Ivory’s wife, Leah, titled The Star.

Adding to the richness of the concert will be a performance by Justin Hopkins, a bass-baritone who was a special guest artist at the 2016 Holiday Pops. He’s singing You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch, as well as some other holiday favorites. Varineau said Hopkins is well-known throughout the opera world, recently joining the Boston Pops for a Midwest tour.

You’ll also see a performance with the Embellish Handbell Ensemble, a West Michigan group directed by Stephanie Wiltse that’s ringing holiday favorites, such as the Coventry Carol.

“The Grand Rapids Symphony has a wonderful reputation around the world,” Varineau said. “In addition, Bob Bernhardt is a well-connected person and Justin came at Bob’s suggestion. We just got lucky.”

The mix of artists and music is key to the success of the holiday program, Varineau said.

“We make sure we’re getting enough familiar tunes on program. When you have too many things that are totally unfamiliar, the audience will go away,” he said. “We work a lot with pacing and balancing and making sure we have as many secular as well as sacred songs.
“It’s a great big balancing act. We have the choir and the soloist, but we’ve got to make sure the orchestra is heard.”

The same will be true when Varineau leads the orchestra in selections from the Nutcracker Suite during the 10th Annual Cirque de Noel.

Since 2009, Cirque de la Symphonie has spent part of each Christmas season in Grand Rapids. The group’s company of acrobats, jugglers, contortionists and aerial artists makes merry with amazing feats of agility and strength, accompanied by beloved Christmas songs and classical favorites.

Every year, both holiday offerings pack in the audiences.

“We have people who just keep coming back and bringing their families,” Varineau said. “It is very much a tradition.”

Holiday Pops
Dec. 6-9
Cirque de Noel
Dec. 19-20
Grand Rapids Symphony
DeVos Performance Hall
303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
grsymphony.org

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