If you live in West Michigan and haven’t ever heard the Grammy-nominated Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, well, shame on you. Regarded as one of the best regional orchestras in the country, “it gives a glimmer of hope for all of us in the music world,” The New York Times wrote in a review of the orchestra’s 2005 debut at Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall? Yup. That’s where the orchestra celebrated its 75th anniversary, playing to a full house that included more than 1,100 people from Grand Rapids proudly cheering them on. (The performance was also broadcast live back home and recorded for an album.)
That event, perhaps, represents the very best of what our orchestra is all about: wonderful musicians, excellent leadership, and fantastic community support.
“Part of what makes our orchestra so good is that we’ve been able to retain our musicians,” said GRSO President Melia Tourangeau. “Most orchestras our size are a stepping stone for musicians, but ours have stayed. Some of them have been playing together more than 25 years, and that makes for a strong artistic ensemble.”
And one of the things that keeps them here is Grand Rapids. “People always say it’s a great place to raise a family, and it’s true,” said GRSO Music Director/Conductor David Lockington, who settled here with his family in 1999. (His wife Dylana Jenson is a violinist with the Orchestra.)
“We have a very talented group of musicians with a desire to build something really special and unique,” he added. “Fortunately, they’ve had the kind of support needed to make that possible.”
Much of that support comes from private donors. Loyal patron and longtime GR philanthropist Peter Wege, for example, provided the financial backing needed for the orchestra’s work with “wild woman” harpist Deborah Henson-Conant of Boston. The DVD they made together, “Invention & Alchemy,” received a 2007 “Best Classical Crossover” Grammy nomination. They were the only American orchestra nominated out of five in the category.
"I couldn’t have found a more willing and open group of collaborators to help me create “Invention & Alchemy,” Henson-Conant said. “It was so moving to me that the musicians were willing to go where I wanted to go, to cross into ways of playing. Instead of balking, they jumped right in, coming up with ideas of their own, entering completely into the spirit of each piece.”
The performance was broadcast on more than 60 PBS stations across the country in March 2007.
Over the years, the orchestra has played with numerous high-ranking names in the entertainment industry, from James Taylor to Kathleen Battle to Martin Short and Olivia Newton-John. Wynonna Judd will be here for a Chase Picnic Pops concert in August, a popular outdoor series that held at the Cannonsburg Ski Area for the past 13 years.
“That’s another great thing about our orchestra,” David Lockington said. “We can perform so many different styles of music. We do serious work, such as African American Adolphus Hailstork’s Second and Third Symphonies, which we recorded a few years ago, and we do fun projects, like our Piano Pops CDs.”
“And they play with as much passion and enthusiasm in a community outreach program as they do in a classical symphony,” added Melia Tourangeau.
Lockington gives a lot of credit to conductor John Varineau for creating much of the symphony’s popularity. “John has been a great asset to the orchestra for 20 years,” he said. “He’s a visionary; he has great insight – and a fantastic sense of humor. He’s been central to the growth of our education program. Kids – and adults – all love him.”
Lockington, too, deserves much of the credit: “His passion, his personality, his willingness to try new things; he’s really helped break down the stereotype of what a community orchestra is,” said Melia Tourangeau.
Originally from the U.K. – he started his career as principal cellist with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain – Lockington has performed as guest conductor in prestigious orchestras throughout the world, from San Diego to Beijing.
Lockington’s predecessor, Catherine Comet, was also a strong leader. The very first female music director of any orchestra in the world, “she brought us a lot of national recognition,” Tourangeau commented. “We received two [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] awards and the first Governor’s Arts Award under her tenure.”
Last year, more than 100,000 people attended the Symphony’s 80 ticketed concerts and more than 77,000 students, senior citizens, and people with disabilities enjoyed their extensive education and community service programs.
The Symphony also travels to outlying communities throughout Michigan. In 2000 they toured the Upper Peninsula giving thousands of people the chance to hear a first-class, 80-piece orchestra.
But they don’t have to go far to be appreciated. “This community really values what we do,” said Tourangeau. “We think our aspirations are the same as Grand Rapids’: They’re focused on becoming a destination, a place to move to that’s affordable and has a great quality of life. Well, one of the hallmarks of a great community is the quality of its orchestra.”
“We’re not just seen as an asset in the community,” added Lockington. “We’re also perceived as a good neighbor.”
Photographs:The Symphony in their DeVos Performance Hall home
David Lockington - GRSO Music Director
Deborah Henson-Conant (courtesy of the artist)
The stage at the Bank One Picnic Pops
Lockington and Symphony take flight
Photographs courtesy of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra