Kevin Flannery’s first foray into music was playing electric bass in a rock band.
His mother was a violinist who studied at Eastman School of Music, so Flannery eventually tried his hand at double bass.
His first teacher’s assessment was blunt.
“He said, ‘You do everything wrong,” Flannery recalled with a laugh. “But you get a really nice sound.”
For the past four decades, he’s shared that sound with Grand Rapids Symphony’s audiences. Flannery, age 62, is wrapping up his 40th anniversary season with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Principal violist Leslie Van Becker also marks her 40th anniversary season in 2016-17.
Since 1977, Flannery has played for five music directors including new Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.
“It’s been a relatively good ride,” he said.
Not always has it been an easy ride. For more than 20 years, Flannery occupied third chair in the section. Typically, chamber orchestra performances use just one or two players, scheduled well in advance. Flannery was the guy who got called in on short notice if something happened to the principal or assistant principal bassist.
“Third chair is the sixth man on the basketball team. You have to be ready for everything.”
A native of Louisiana, Kevin Flannery first studied electrical engineering in his home state, then switched to music and studied briefly in Texas. He moved to Michigan for a fresh start.
To earn money for college, he worked as a cook at Interlochen Fine Arts Camp and began studying with Peter Spring, then-principal double bassist with the Grand Rapids Symphony and an adjunct instructor of double bass at the University of Michigan.
“He said, why don’t you come over to Grand Rapids and play in the orchestra, and see if that’s what you want to do," Flannery recalled.
The rest is history.
Some of Flannery’s favorite memories over the years include playing for two productions of Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome.”
The first was a semi-staged version under Grand Rapids Symphony music director Theo Alcantara, who was music director from 1973 to 1979. The second was a full-blown production for Opera Grand Rapids under its artistic director Robert Lyall.
Normally there are two double basses in the orchestra pit for opera in DeVos Hall. “Salome,” which has one of the largest orchestras in the entire operatic repertoire, required four.
“We managed to do that without killing anybody,” he said with a laugh.
Flannery has enjoyed different facets of each music director he’s played for with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Semyon Bychkov, as a guest conductor, led the orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in November 1979, which turned out to be an epic experience. Afterward, the Russian-born conductor was appointed music director, serving from 1980 to 1985.
“The Mahler was just eye-opening for the entire orchestra,” Flannery said.
Bychkov’s successor, Catherine Comet, raised the artistic level of the ensemble during her tenure from 1986 to 1997.
“She could conduct two different rhythms with her two hands. She could do seven in one hand and three in the other, and I’d say, ‘How do you do that?’” he recalled. “But she was very musical, too.”
New music director Marcelo Lehninger, appointed in June 2016, is a breath of fresh air.
“At Marcelo’s first rehearsal, he said to the orchestra, ‘You’re looking at me. I don’t want you looking at me. I’ll tell you when I want you to look at me,” Flannery recalled. “He had us there.”
“We’ll be lucky to have him here for five years,” he added.
When Flannery joined the Grand Rapids Symphony, the orchestra performed In Welsh Civic Auditorium, which wasn’t built to be a concert hall at all.
“It was a brass band with some string sweetening,” he said. “You couldn’t hear anything else.”
When the orchestra moved in 1980 to DeVos Performance Hall and began performing concerts in pairs, the musicians had to learn to pace themselves. The season opened with Strauss’ tone poem, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” best known for its opening fanfare, used as the musical theme for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Nobody was used to doing two performances,” he said. “So Saturday night was pretty bad.”
Off stage, Flannery served 25 years on the orchestra’s Musicians Committee including three terms as chairman. He was president of the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians for 8 years and served even longer on its board of directors.
He negotiated several contracts between the orchestra and its musicians. One, in the 1990s, took all of five meetings. The past two have been more difficult.
“It’s the industry,” he said.
It’s a different business on stage as well. Modern double bass players play their instruments more like a cello with more cross-string work and less up and down the string.
“All these 20- and 30-year old kids, it’s amazing what these guys are capable of doing,” he said. “As an old dog, it’s hard to learn new tricks.”
Though he joined the Grand Rapids Symphony at the start of the 1977-78 season, he studied with Robert Gladstone, principal bass of DSO for five years in the 1980s and continued to take auditions. Eventually he stopped.
“You have to have nerves of steel. You have to be bulletproof,” he said. “I just get nervous.”
Still, he’s enjoyed life in West Michigan.
“I liked the climate and I liked the people,” he said. “Grand Rapids has quite an artistic community. People get a great deal.”
Flannery played under Principal Double Bassist Peter Spring for most of his career before Spring retired.
“Peter did it quite admirably for a long, long time,” he said.
Spring’s successor, Joseph Conyers, left to join Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and now is with Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s been a revolving door for a few years until the appointment of Christopher Hamlen in 2011.
“Chris has been here the longest, and he’s probably the best,” Flannery said.
At age 62, he’s still enjoying making music.
“Everyone has issues when you’re older,” he said. “You have issues when you’re younger. You always have issues, they’re just different.”
Since Flannery is familiar with the core repertoire, having played most of it many times over, he can relax more on stage.
“Now, it’s so easy and so much fun,” he said. “I’d like to play until I fall over.”