Wednesday, 26 June 2019 15:38

Harmony on the Hill: Picnic Pops celebrates 25 years with a blast from the past

Written by  Abi Safago
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Bob Bernhardt conducting the Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops. Bob Bernhardt conducting the Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops. Photos by Terry Johnston for the Grand Rapids Symphony

Over the past 25 years, much has changed in Grand Rapids. New buildings and businesses, new art and new ideas are emerging at every corner of the city. Even longstanding institutions have been shaped by the changing times.

With Picnic Pops, now in its 25th year, the Grand Rapids Symphony continues to evolve while shining a light on the performing arts scene with one of the happiest and most relaxed events of the summer.

In July 1995, the Grand Rapids Symphony was looking for a fun way to kick off the summer season, according to Associate Conductor John Varineau. He was there at the very beginning and has stood at the podium for nearly every Picnic Pops season since. Varineau said the idea from the start was to bring more people in with a unique outdoor show.

From this, Picnic Pops was born, bringing the sounds of the symphony to the hills of Cannonsburg with concerts spanning a variety of genres. One of the biggest, most consistent draws over the past 25 years has been the fireworks show.

“Classical Fireworks has been a mainstay of the Picnic Pops ever since the beginning,” said Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, senior manager of communications for the GRS. “It’s not always the first concert of the season, but we’ve had it every year since the beginning.”

Not only has the tradition of Picnic Pops brought joy to summertime in Grand Rapids, it has brought many different styles of music to the symphony itself. While the humble beginnings featured a line-up of classical pieces, the series quickly grew past that.

“Our very first year was called Picnic Pops and our entire program was works by Tchaikovsky, and our audiences were pretty quick to say, ‘If you’re gonna call this ‘pops,’ you can’t do what you just did,’” Varineau said. “We caught on and turned it into a light-classical season and then branched out into doing many of the standard pop shows and went on to tribute bands.”

Now, you can visit shows like The Beatles tribute group Classical Mystery Tour or singers performing soulful, authentic Motown hits. In the past, the symphony also has featured Latin-American groups.

In live concerts from bands, you always have the main instruments and vocalists, but Kaczmarczyk said Picnic Pops brings out so much more.

“You can listen to a particular rock group on tour, but what they do in the studio is usually a different experience. But with a lot of extra musicians, it’s going to sound like how you hear it on the record,” Kaczmarczyk said. “That’s the point, that’s the goal, that’s the ideal. All the backup musicians that were in the studio, we’ve (essentially) got them there onstage at Cannonsburg.”

Along with bringing back a true sound to the music, Picnic Pops strives to be a relaxed event for everyone. One of the main goals is to make everyone feel comfortable while listening to live music and soaking up sun rays and sunsets, which is why Cannonsburg Ski Area has been the venue for the past 25 years.

From the beginning, the location is what made the event iconic. With the ski slope being a natural amphitheater, as well as a lot of fun for the inner-child to roll down, it was meant to be.

More people are coming year after year, which only excites Varineau. Along with the ski slope being a large area, it’s also great for the family.

“The parents can let their kids go and play on the slope while listening to music,” Varineau said.

Other than dancing, one of the best activities for kids is the Instrument Petting Zoo, which allows them to play around with some classic symphonic instruments. It sparks curiosity and gives kids a chance to discover interests they never knew they had.

After 25 years on the hillside, Picnic Pops has developed a few traditions, of which Varineau is a big fan.

“We’ve always done Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (for Classical Fireworks) and that goes directly from the end of that into a really wonderful fireworks show,” he said. “It’s really close, you really feel like you’re within the show itself.”

What To Expect This Summer

This year, Picnic Pops is all about blasts from the past. That means not only classic hits that everyone knows and loves, but bringing back performers who’ve become fan-favorites with the symphony.

Kicking off the season is Classical Fireworks on July 11 and 12, with songs like The Armed Forces Salute, the overture to Candide, Sousa’s Stars and Strips Forever and more.

At the next show, songs from The Beatles’ White Album will be a special feature, with the Classical Mystery Group celebrating the album’s 51st anniversary on July 18 and 19. The tribute group is one of the most popular returning acts for Picnic Pops, never failing to make the audience happy. It’s likely you’ll hear some of The Beatles’ great hits like Penny Lane or The Long and Winding Road. Kaczmarczyk is excited for the group’s return, as “each concert is different, they mix it up quite a bit. Their shows differ every time in the best way.”

The third show on July 25 and 26, Dancing in the Street, is all about Motown, once again bringing back Broadway actress and singer Shayna Steele. She’s known for recreating the true feeling of Motown when she sings, digging deep into the soul of the songs. Steele will be joined by singers Chester Gregory and Michael Lynche, performing hits like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is.

At the final show on August 2, the people behind the biggest country hits are coming to town. The singer-songwriters who helped write hits for stars like Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood are joining forces for Nashville: The Songwriters. Their Story. The Symphony. For the genuine, authentic feeling of the songs that rose many country singers to the charts, this is a special moment.

“It should be a very different experience,” Kaczmarczyk said. “I’ve heard it’s kind of like you’re sitting on someone’s back deck as they’re doing this.”

Picnic Pops
Cannonsburg Ski Area
6800 Cannonsburg Rd. NE, Belmont
July 11-Aug. 2
grsymphony.org

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