HSO’s Pops at the Pier celebrates the influence of Black culture on music

When Byron Stripling performed at the Pops at the Pier last year, he had people up and dancing and clapping to his music. Along with engaging rapport, jazzy vocals and virtuosic trumpet sounds, Stripling delivered an important history lesson about ​​the important role African American spirituals, gospel, and folk music played in the Civil Rights Movement.

Stripling’s electrifying and heartfelt tribute to Louis Armstrong has become America’s most popular orchestral pops program. His baton has led orchestras throughout the United States and Canada, and he has been a featured soloist on the PBS television program, "Evening at Pops." 

So HSO President Kay Walvoord says it was a no-brainer to ask Stripling to return for this year to headline the popular Pops at the Pier concert. 

“Byron Stripling is a charismatic, dynamite performer who charmed the Holland audience last summer with his Louis Armstrong trumpet and voice as well as his warm personality. He engaged people in a brief history of the gifts of black people to the American music scene.  He held the audience in his hands with humor and sincerity in a gentle style that involved all ages,” Walvoord says. 

This year’s concert, “Byron Stripling: Blues, Rag & All That Jazz!” will be held at Eldean Shipyard on Thursday, June 16 at 6 p.m.

Byron Stripling performs at the HSO's Pops at the Pier in 2021.

Offering the experience to students

This year, the orchestra’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative is using the concert to do outreach to the local African American community. HSO is partnering with I Am Academy, providing the enrichment program's students with front-row seats and time to visit with Stripling and the symphony musicians.

Tara Weymon Leonard, who is on the board of both HSO and I Am Academy, sees the concert as a way to give students an opportunity to learn more about their culture’s long musical heritage and its pivotal role in American history. 

Leonard, who is MillerKnoll’s vice president of global contract and field marketing, grew up playing the violin and performed in HSO’s youth orchestra program. She has handed down her passion for music to her children, who are part of West Ottawa Public School’s music program. A West Ottawa High School graduate herself, Leonard credits her classical music training for giving her the discipline that prepared her to attend Purdue University and then the University of Michigan. 

“Music has been an integral part of my life from a young age, which I thank my parents for; it is a great connector across cultures and an engaging way to bring people together," says Weymon Leonard.  

More inclusive programming

The community orchestra is putting a priority on making its programming more inclusive in a meaningful way. HSO has lifted up a once-renowned composition by 19th-century Black composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Not only did the orchestra introduce Coleridge-Taylor’s music to its small-town audience in a concert last fall, but it now is making the arrangement available for free to orchestras around the world to perform.

So far, two larger orchestras have contacted HSO about performing the music, which is gratifying, says Johannes Müller Stosch, HSO's musical director and conductor.

Müller Stosch contracted a former student at California State University-Long Beach, where he teaches at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. The former student then produced a full score from the individual instrumental parts. 

“This mammoth undertaking took a lot of dedication and a great amount of work,” Müller Stosch says of the work done by Nate Tronerud, a composer and musician, who has done work for film studios.

Growing up with music

Stripling credits music for changing his life. The Atlanta native is the son of a classical singer and grew up listening to gospel music.

“In our house, music was essential to everything,” he says in his bio. “My father loved jazz, including Miles Davis, Clark Terry and Louis Armstrong. My brother played clarinet and sax, and I played trumpet starting when I was 10 or 11. I did a lot of singing from the start because, when your father is the choir director, you have to sing whatever he needs each Sunday.”

Walvoord notes the concert wouldn’t be possible without the support of countless volunteers and sponsors. The event sponsor is the University of Michigan Health – West, and the artist sponsor is the MillerKnoll Foundation. In-kind support is provided by Eldean Shipyard, Waterfront Film Festival, and Anchorage Marina Yacht Club. 

Tickets are $30 for adults and $5 for students, and are available from the Symphony online, at the door, or by phone at 616-796-6780.  Audience members are encouraged to bring their own chairs, but some seating will be available.

The Holland Symphony will take the stage at 7 p.m., and the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra will offer a pre-concert performance at 6 p.m. Food trucks from Mezkla and Holy Smokes BBQ will be on hand, and beer, wine, and water will be available for purchase starting at 5:30 p.m. 

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.