“Rhapsody in Blue” Opens Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2016-17 Season

In its earliest days, jazz was the music of brothels and bars in the “red-light” districts of cities such as New Orleans.

But in the Roaring 20s, bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned songwriter George Gershwin to write a piece merging classical music with elements of the newly emerging sounds of jazz.

The sensational premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 in New York City brought jazz from the streets and the speakeasies into the symphonic concert hall and elevated the song plugger from Tin Pan Alley into the ranks of serious composers.

Rhapsody in Blue, which launched Gershwin’s career, inaugurates the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2016- 17 season, which welcomes to town Marcelo Lehninger as the new music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. The Brazilian-born conductor will be on the podium later this season.

Associate conductor John Varineau will lead the opening concerts of the 2016-17 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, September 16-17, in DeVos Performance Hall. Spectrum Health is the Concert Sponsor.

Michigan’s own Ralph Votapek, Gold Medal winner of the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962, returns to Grand Rapids as soloist with the work, later recorded by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, which sold 1 million recordings by 1927.

That same year, George Antheil, the original “Bad Boy of Music,” caused a minor scandal when his propulsive A Jazz Symphony was premiered at Carnegie Hall. Hear for yourself what caused all the fuss in New York City in 1927.

Two years after Gershwin was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, and the same year that Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey, the Bronx welcomed another notable composer, Aaron Copland, into the world. Americana continues with Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring Suite, drawn from his music for the ballet that celebrates the simple life of pioneers in the 19th century as they build a house, witness a wedding and treasure the gift to be simple.

Rounding out the program is the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe by French composer Maurice Ravel, who later became a great admirer of jazz himself. Unlike Copland’s setting in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, Ravel’s musical tale is set in a country side in ancient Greece where the shepherd, Daphnis, woos his beloved Chloe with the help of the mythological god, Pan.

Though Ravel’s 1912 suite predates jazz, years later the French composer met Gershwin in New York City in 1928.

As the story goes, Gershwin asked the famous French composer, who was some 23 years older, for lessons in composition. But after hearing Gershwin play his own music, Ravel declined, explaining that he could only make Gershwin a bad version of Ravel when the American already was a superb Gershwin.

Another version of the story has Ravel asking the American how much money he was making in royalties from his songs. When Gershwin answered him, Ravel is said to have replied, “Mr. Gershwin, it is I who should be taking lessons from you!”

Pianist Ralph Votapek, winner of the prestigious Naumburg Award, has made hundreds of appearances with major American orchestras including performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Pops as well as several past appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The Milwaukee native, who studied under Robert Goldsand at the Manhattan School of Music and under Rosina Lhevinne at The Juilliard School, was Artist-in-Residence at Michigan State University for 36 years. Today, he’s Professor Emeritus of Piano at MSU’s College of Music.

Guest artist sponsor is the Edith I. Blodgett Guest Artist Fund.

  • Upbeat, a free, pre-concert, multi-media presentation will be held before each performance at 7p.m. in the DeVos Place Recital Hall. Upbeat is sponsored by BDO USA.
  • The Grand Rapids Symphony this season is introducing special cocktails for its audiences in DeVos Performance Hall. Especially for Rhapsody in Blue, enjoy a “Gershwin Goodie” (also called an Old Fashioned) or a “Dash of Jazz” (also known as a Gin Rickey). At every concert in the 2016-17 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series, try a “Spirit of the Symphony,” also called a French 75.
  • The complete Rhapsody in Blue program will be rebroadcast on March 5, 2017, at 1 p.m. on Blue Lake Public Radio 88.9 FM or 90.3 FM.


Tickets start at $18 and are available at the GRS box office, weekdays 9 am-5 pm at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, (located across from the Calder Plaza), or by calling 616.454.9451 x 4. (Phone orders will be charged a $2 per ticket service fee, with a $12 maximum.)

Tickets are available at the DeVos Place box office, weekdays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. or on the day of the concert beginning two hours prior to the performance. Tickets also may be purchased online at

Full-time students of any age are able to purchase tickets for only $5 on the night of the concert by enrolling in the GRS Student Passport program. This is a MySymphony360 eligible concert.

About the Grand Rapids Symphony

Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series are presented, featuring a wide range of music and performance styles. More than 400 performances are given each year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses. GRS provides the orchestra for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet and sponsors the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, which returns in March 2017.