$1 million grant from the Wege Foundation paves the way for a fundamental transformation for the Grand Rapids Symphony

Paul Doyle, who grew up in Brooklyn, was introduced to classical music by his grandmother who originally was from Trinidad.

When he was in third grade, Doyle attended his first concert in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where the Grand Rapids Symphony appeared in April. He later played French horn through high school.

Today, Doyle is founder and CEO of Inclusive Performance Strategies in Grand Rapids, which develops and implements progressive organizational transformation.

“Our community in Grand Rapids is growing. It’s exploding. But how do we make sure that everyone feels a part of it?” Doyle said.

Grand Rapids Symphony, with help from the Wege Foundation, is launching a new initiative to build diversity, equity and inclusion into every aspect of the orchestra’s operations.

Faces of Grand Rapids Symphony's audiences

The Wege Foundation has awarded the Grand Rapids Symphony a grant of more than $1 million to share live orchestral music with a broader audience. Over the next four years, the Grand Rapids Symphony will create new concerts and events, and develop new music educational opportunities alongside the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Gateway to Music, a matrix of 17 education and access programs that already reach 86,000 children, students and adults across 13 counties in West Michigan.

The first event, “Symphony on the West Side,” will be a free outdoor concert at 7 p.m., Saturday, July 21, in John Ball Park. Associate conductor John Varineau will lead a program of light classical music, featuring guest vocalist Edye Evans Hyde, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 21 in the park on the West Side of downtown Grand Rapids near John Ball Zoo.

It’s just the first of a series of events in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Neighborhood Concert Series.

Today, it’s the duty of an orchestra to connect not only with its usual audience, but with its entire community, according to Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

“A symphony orchestra in the 21st century has become a service organization,” Lehninger said. “We’re here not only to entertain our audience but also to serve our community.”

President Peter M. Perez called the Wege Foundation grant “truly transformational.”

“In the past, a symphony orchestra’s goal was to perform great works of classical music. Today, the Grand Rapids Symphony aspires, not just to play music for the community, but to make music together with its community,” Perez said. “Truly serving our entire community means we have to genuinely and faithfully be a reflection of everyone in the community.”

“The Grand Rapids Symphony is your symphony, and it’s my symphony,” Perez added. “And by working together, we can make it our symphony.”

Past successes in collaborating with community partners include the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony with Soul concert, launched in 2002, and Celebration of Soul dinner and awards ceremony, which has fostered connections between the orchestra and West Michigan’s African-American community for more than a dozen years.

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony touches the lives of 200,000 attendees per year, many more in West Michigan have never experienced a symphony orchestra live and in person.

“The Wege Foundation is pleased to support the Symphony in enhancing the diversity of its programming, musicians and staff, as well as the inclusivity of its outreach,” said Wege Foundation President Mark Van Putten. “By transforming itself the Symphony can help transform West Michigan in enduring ways that reach beyond the performing arts.”

Three years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched Symphony Scorecard to open its concert hall doors to a wider audience by providing free tickets to those with financial challenges or economic barriers. Since 2016, the program launched with funding from the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation has supplied more than 8,000 free tickets to members of the community who receive financial assistance from the state or to the families of men and women serving in the U.S. Military on active, reserve or guard duty.

Everyone is welcome, according to Lehninger.

“Sometime people feel they don’t belong,” Lehninger said. “But I have a passion and a mission to reach the hearts and souls of everyone in this community. We’re trying to show them that, yes, they do belong. Hopefully, they’ll understand that it’s their orchestra, too.”

The Wege grant also will transform the orchestra from within through new positions in the organization. Funds will establish:

A Community Engagement position on staff to develop, manage and coordinate all Grand Rapids Symphony activities to serve an audience that’s growing more diverse every day.

A Musician Fellow who will perform with the Grand Rapids Symphony. During the two-year fellowship, the musician will be mentored by GRS musicians and gain practical experience toward launching a career as a professional musician.

The Wege Grant also will fund the expansion of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s successful Mosaic Scholarship program, a mentoring program for African-American and Latino music students. Created with funding by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, teens ages 13 to 18 are provided with musical instruments and private lessons with GRS musicians along with opportunities to perform and to attend concerts.

A new component, Mosaic Music Majors, will collaborate with music students of color in local universities and colleges to mentor, advise and develop the skills and talents of collegiate musicians seeking to become professionals.

Over the next four years, the Wege grant will be a game changer for the Grand Rapids Symphony, according to Associate Conductor John Varineau, who just completed his 33rd season on staff with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“It’s going to change the way we 'do business' and the way we approach all of our already outstanding artistic products. Without compromising our lofty artistic vision, and without sacrificing our dedication to the best in our symphonic heritage, I am confident that, with the help of the Wege Foundation, the Grand Rapids Symphony is going to look and sound differently,” Varineau said. “In just a few short years, how and what we present will be even more representative of the entire Grand Rapids community so that everyone will be able to truthfully call us ‘our Grand Rapids Symphony.’”

The challenge is to create and sustain intentional relationship building so that the wider community not only participates in Grand Rapids Symphony’s activities, it also sees that it plays a role in supporting and providing for the orchestra.

“We know the ‘why.’ This is working on the ‘how,’ Doyle said. “The key to this work is continuous commitment and effort. It’s about progressive improvement, not postponed perfection.”

“I think we have the opportunity to create a best-practice model,” Doyle added. “For Grand Rapids to be on the front end of enhancing quality of life and community, I think is very cool.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 8:00 AM
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