Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates winter with Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5

Teddy Abrams (Photo by O’Neil Arnold, courtesy of Grand Rapids Symphony.)

By Jeffrey Kaczamarczyk

Grand Rapids Symphony


At the heights of their careers, the world’s great poets, painters, playwrights and performers often become cultural heroes in the native lands.


Finnish composer Jean Sibelius just may top them all.


In 1915, the government of Finland commissioned its favorite son to compose a new symphony for orchestra. But the commission wasn’t in honor of crowning a new monarch or in remembrance of an important historical event.


The new work was commissioned to honor the composer himself, and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 was premiered on the very date of the composer’s 50th birthday on Dec. 8.


To this day, the Finns remember the birthday of the composer celebrated for portraying the Finnish landscape and expressing the character of its people in his music.


Grand Rapids Symphony performs Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 for the fifth concerts of the 2016-17 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concerts on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13 and 14, in DeVos Performance Hall. Guest conductor Teddy Abrams, music director of the Louisville Orchestra, will lead the program titled Sibelius Symphony No. 5 with music by four composers all written within a 40-year period from 1915 to 1955.


A former assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 2012-2014, Abrams conducts the Grand Rapids Symphony in three important works by composers who each loomed large over their country’s cultural milieu. In addition to Sibelius in Finland, the three include Sergei Prokofiev in the former Soviet Union, and Aaron Copland in the Unites States.


Benjamin Beilman (Photo by Christian Steiner, courtesy of Grand Rapids Symphony.)

Guest violinist Benjamin Beilman, who performs this season at the Dvorak Festival in Prague, in London’s Wigmore Hall and goes on a 10-city tour of Australia, joins the Grand Rapids Symphony to play Prokofiev’s youthful Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, written against the backdrop of the looming Russian Revolution.


A winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant and First Prize in the Young Concert Artists international Auditions in 2010, Beilman has performed with orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Frankfort Radio Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal,


Many great composers of the 20th century tried their hand at composing film music. Not all succeeded. Aaron Copland’s score for the 1940 film Our Town, an adaptation of the celebrated play by Thornton Wilder, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Score, and the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Copland later adapted the film score for concert use.


The concerts open with Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, a seven-movement concert suite drawn from the American composer’s 1955 ballet, Medea.