by Logan Bailey • photography by Terry Johnston
December’s holiday season has finally struck and almost every community around the country is preparing for the festivities. There is no place with more vibrant a practice in this than Grand Rapids. Voted third in the nation for economic growth in 2015, the artistic city shows off its entertainment opportunities in a variety of ways, one of which being the infamous Grand Rapids Symphony and its performances of Holiday Pops and The Nutcracker with the Grand Rapids Ballet this month.
The symphony is celebrating its 86th year in Grand Rapids with its first ever Holiday Pops celebration with new Principal Pops conductor, Bob Bernhardt. “I am thrilled to be a part of this amazing family,” Bernhardt said. “The first time I performed with the orchestra I was blown away. This is a true and talented treasure of music. There aren’t a whole lot of limits to what they can do.”
The new conductor began prepping for the series of Holiday Pops concerts earlier in the year. “My first concerts were in March of this year, but soon after I was hired we started really looking at an outline for the Holiday Pops. It’s one of those things with a full orchestra and a holiday show. We’re working a year out and making sure we have things as ready and grand as possible,” Bernhardt said.
The Grand Rapids Symphony is nonprofit organization that performs over 400 times a year and is comprised of 72 musicians. It is also affiliated with a full chorus, gospel chorus, and youth choruses respectively. Once December hits, the orchestra finds itself performing music that not only includes some of their favorite festive music but also incorporates pieces that are particularly warm to all ages. “These holiday programs are designed for families,” Bernhardt said. “They’re designed for parents and kids, aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandkids. It’s a wonderful way for families to discover and enjoy a wider variety of music.”
Because the symphony is a nonprofit organization, there are ample opportunities for the Grand Rapids community to get involved. “The world of nonprofit performing arts organizations revolve around the volunteers,” Bernhardt said. “Volunteers are the backbone of our organization, whether that is financially or not.”
The symphony musicians themselves are comprised of players from all around the country. Performers have made their way into Grand Rapids for the vibrant art and music scene. Leanne King, a viola player in the orchestra, has been with the symphony for what will be her ninth season. Originally from Mississippi, King moved to Kalamazoo and decided to settle in the River City after auditioning and recognizing the strengths of the symphony as well as the rapidly growing community that is helping it flourish. “[The performances] are a great way to meet people in and outside of the symphony,” King said. “Take a date or a friend, get a glass of wine after at Reserve, and enjoy and support the local arts and music scene in Grand Rapids.”
When preparing for the holiday shows, the musicians are given the music several weeks prior to rehearsals. This year’s opening song is Joy to the World with a full chorus section complementing the orchestra, showcasing a bombastically beautiful combination of voice and instrumentation. What is almost surprising about the musical selection is how the performers tend to be a little less nervous when it comes to performing the holiday music. “We’re playing all of our favorite Christmas and holiday songs, and we are all very familiar with the way the music plays and endures,” King said. “It is still a very large production, but it does help being particularly familiar with songs like Jingle Bells,” King laughed.
The Grand Rapids Symphony is one the most prominent and important aspects of Grand Rapids’ growing arts community. The conductors, directors, and directions are all from some of the most prominent music schools and have vast experiences in the music world around the country. At the same time, the players all try and show that they are still a local function of the arts community. “We want to paint ourselves in the right light,” King said. “We are all a part of this local music scene. We have players that are in bands and acts all around the city, so I think we can coexist and support each other in music.”
There is no better time to experience the grandeur and professionalism of orchestral music than during the holidays. The symphony takes pride in all of its Pops programs and its availability to the community at large. “The best thing anyone can do is come to these concerts,” Bernhardt said. “Come and experience it, and be thrilled and amazed at how good the Grand Rapids Symphony truly is.”
Beginning Thursday, December 3 and ending Sunday the sixth, Holiday Pops will be performed a total of five times at the DeVos Performance Hall. The following weeks leading up to Christmas Day, there are to be other performances around Grand Rapids, including a concert with Michael W. Smith on December 8 at Resurrection Life Church, performances of The Nutcracker, beginning on December 11 through 20 with the Grand Rapids Ballet and Cirque de Noël December 22 and 23.
A full concert schedule, information, and opportunities to get involved can be found at grsymphony.org.
Logan graduated from Grand Valley State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Writing. You can find his poetry in the Ilanot Review.