Grand Rapids Symphony's Roger Nelson remembered as innovative, trusted, behind-the-scenes leader

As Grand Rapids Symphony’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Roger Nelson took no bows on stage and gathered no applause from enthusiastic audiences.

But whenever the Grand Rapids Symphony over the past 13 years gave a great concert, it often was a result of Nelson’s work off stage and behind the scenes.

“He was the man behind the curtain,” said Associate Conductor John Varineau.

Nelson died Thursday, March 30, in his home in East Grand Rapids. He was 56 years old.

A musician turned administrator, Nelson was a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony for nearly 30 years.

Grand Rapids Symphony's Roger Nelson

“He was a strong and trusted leader who touched every aspect of the symphony’s work,” said former President Peter Kjome who left the Grand Rapids Symphony in January to become President of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

As head of artistic operations, Nelson was the right-hand man of former Music Director David Lockington.

“Roger had to have his eye on the business side of the operation and the practicalities of the operation,” Varineau said. “His job was to take David’s dreams and wishes and to turn them into reality or to steer David in another direction.”

“Often his role was to be an enabler or naysayer,” Varineau said.

In either event, Nelson was a pleasure to work with because he always planned for the highest artistic goals, said Lockington, who became Grand Rapids Symphony’s first Music Director Laureate in May 2015.

“He believed in innovation and drove many exciting and meaningful projects,” Lockington said. “He was smart and witty, and we laughed a lot to lighten things up during difficult times, which made our working relationship all the richer.”

Big projects, including the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2005 appearance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall and its 2006 album and DVD, Invention and Alchemy, with jazz harpist Deborah Henson Conant, which was nominated for the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album,were successes because of his administrative leadership.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s LiveArts, a multimedia, multi-genre extravaganza with 1,500 performers, drawing an audience of 7,100 to the Van Andel Arena was due in no small part to Nelson’s organizational skills.

“He was determined to help the Grand Rapids Symphony pursue ambitious projects,” Kjome said. “LiveArts would not have been what it was without Roger, and that’s something our community will never forget.”

Frequently, when it was easier to follow the familiar path, Nelson would take the rocky road less travelled.

“He often championed ideas for artistic programming that seemed out of reach,” said Claire VanBrandeghen, director of education.  “He fought for LiveArts to happen, even against the reservations of others in the organization, myself included.”

“It was his vision that has changed the programming that our audiences are enjoying,” she said. “Sure, he did it in collaboration with others, but it often was his will that could sway the day.”

Even further behind the scenes, Nelson was the chief contract negotiator for the Grand Rapids Symphony, forging several collective bargaining agreements with its musicians, represented by the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians. The most recent contract, an unprecedented five-year agreement, was signed in April 2016.

Nelson played a key role in managing the Grand Rapids Symphony’s three-year search for a new music director, which ended with the selection of Marcelo Lehninger in June 2016. With Lehninger, Nelson organized the upcoming 2017-18 season, including a return to Carnegie Hall in April 2018.

“He was a quiet and unassuming sort of person. But he also was, for a long time, from the very beginning, the go-to person in the organization,” Varineau said. “People kept coming to him for things that needed to be done.”

Nelson, a native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, spent the first half of his career with the Grand Rapids Symphony on stage as a double bass player. He joined the Grand Rapids Symphony at the start of the 1987-88 season under former Music Director Catherine Comet and played with the orchestra for 17 seasons through the 2003-04 season.

“He really was quite a wonderful bass player,” recalled Varineau, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony as assistant conductor two years earlier in 1985. “He was a strong player and a good player.”

Yet in 2002-03, Nelson became Grand Rapids Symphony’s Operations Manager, dividing his time between performing and stage managing. In 2004-05, he became full-time Director of Operations. The following year, he was promoted to Vice President and General Manager, the No. 2 spot on the administrative staff.

“It’s a big job being general manager. It’s about putting all the pieces together,” Varineau said. “Many of the great artists we’ve had have been a result of his work and networking in the orchestral world.”

“Unlike musicians, unlike the conductor, unlike the president, there’s no glory,” he added.

Nelson, a father of three, took a keen interest in Grand Rapids Symphony’s education programs. The administrator tasked with spending money to produce programs understood the importance of fund raising.

Nelson facilitated programs and events that brought musicians together with symphony donors and supporters. Those gestures that would have a major effect on fundraising such as the completion of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Legacy of Excellence Campaign that met its $40 million goal in 2016.

“Roger understood the possibilities in everything,” said Diane Lobbestael, Vice President for Development. “He understood that programming was connected to marketing and marketing led to ticket sales.”

Nelson worked with guest conductors and guest artists in ways large and small. In April 2013, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Pops Series welcomed an act called Cirque Mechanics, a show with cirque artists performing on a massive, mechanical apparatus, a Gantry Bike, which itself was in motion while the cirque artists performed on it. The show debuted in Grand Rapids.

“They didn’t have a symphony show, and Roger worked with them and put their symphony show together,” Varineau said. “They wouldn’t have had anything to do unless Roger worked with them.”

The final Grand Rapids Symphony concert Nelson attended was Wednesday, March 29 for the orchestra’s Sacred Dimensions series. The program held at the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts at Hope College featured music by Bach, Telemann, Schutz and Buxtehude featuring guest soprano Maria Jette.

“It was his idea to bring in Maria Jette,” said Varineau, who conducted the concert.

A 1979 graduate of Waukesha High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985. He then attended Chicago Musical College, now known as Chicago College of Performing Arts, at Roosevelt University, earning his bachelor’s degree in music in 1988.

Nelson is survived by his wife, Linda Nelson, a violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony; and their three children, Elizabeth, Andrew and Hannah. 

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Monday, April 10, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 47 Jefferson Ave. S.E., in Grand Rapids. The family will greet relatives and friends from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, and from 10 a.m. to 12 noon on Monday, April 10, at the church. 

“Roger was a big man with a big heart and really big shoulders,” Varineau said. “And the Grand Rapids Symphony put an awful lot on those big shoulders.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 PM


3/31/2017 at 08:31 PM by Eric Sooy

A nice tribute to Roger and all the work he put into the orchestra over the years. And yes, he unfortunately did not get credit for some of the bold things he pulled together. My condolences to his family.

3/31/2017 at 08:39 PM by Evette Pittman

Roger had an intuitive sense of the elements needed to create a wonderful and unique experience for the listening audience. Alongside of David Lockington and John Varineau, Roger combined artistic excellence with innovation and good business sense to create the onstage magic that we all enjoy today. He will be missed. Our prayers are with Linda, their children and our Symphony family. Pastor JR and Evette Pittman

3/31/2017 at 08:44 PM by Erik Zehender

This is so tragic. My heart goes out to Linda and family and to everyone at the GRSymphony. Roger was such a leader, so passionate and articulate, a teacher, and the GRSymphony such a joy to hear anywhere but especially to work with during their extraordinary lakeside symphony performance at Fountain Point. My family and I are deeply saddened and in mourning. No tribute to Roger could do his enormous contribution justice.

3/31/2017 at 10:00 PM by Jamie G

Thinking of you all as you make your way through Roger's loss individually and as a group. My deepest sympathies to Linda, Elizabeth, Andrew & Hannah; my heart aches for you.

3/31/2017 at 10:08 PM by Beth (Hall) Zaluba

I am saddened by this news. I attended Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University with Roger. I am proud to have shared stands with him at school and as members of the Civic Orchestra. Linda and his children are in my prayers.

4/1/2017 at 12:18 AM by Reyna Jimenez

Roger Nelson, though I never got to know him on a personal level, was always helpful and kind to me as a music student during my time as a Mosaic Scholar. Whenever I seemed lost backstage, he was there to greet me and direct me in the right direction. You could tell he had an amazing sense of humor. His presence will never be forgotten and forever will be missed.

4/1/2017 at 06:12 AM by Dave Adams

I began working for SMG part time in 2004. That's when I first met Roger during the symphony season. Years later I became head usher with front of house managing responsibilities, which had me work closer with Roger and the symphony staff. He was always kind and a good listener as we would share ideas for future symphony events, comments on the current performance, or just small talk. I will miss him dearly and pray for his family and loved ones.

4/1/2017 at 07:25 AM by George Vander Weide

My thoughts and prayers go to Roger's wife and children at this time of loss and sorrow. I also send my thoughts and prayers to the Grand Rapids Symphony and all the people in the organization that he has touched over these years of dedication to the GRS. May the memories of what he has done and who he was comfort and inspire all of the people he has touched.

4/1/2017 at 09:13 AM by Steven and Paula Reiley

Steven and I were so sorry to hear about the passing of Roger! Our prayers and love go out to Linda and her family ❤

4/1/2017 at 10:28 AM by Pam Condie

What a beautiful tribute and what a great loss for all who knew and loved him. Prayers and God's comfort for his family and co-workers.

4/1/2017 at 06:28 PM by Larry Rachleff

In my brief time as Artistic Advisor with your wonderful orchestra I was deeply fortunate to interact with Roger. He was one of the kindest people I have ever been around. Thoroughly talented in a myriad of ways, Roger was a gem to interact, dream, and plan a future. What a lose to all of you and to his wonderful family....myself, well I feel blessed to have been in his glorious presence.

4/2/2017 at 08:12 AM by Larry Robson

Unbelievable tragedy. A deeply religious man who defined the words decency, kindness, competence, and altruism. A giant in the Grand Rapids Art Community. He will be missed greatly. He left the world a better place.

4/2/2017 at 08:31 AM by John Tegner

What a tragic and shocking loss. Roger was such a great guy. Deepest condolences to Linda and their children.

4/2/2017 at 06:03 PM by Diane Rudnik

My prayers and thoughts to Roger's wife and children and to the Grand Rapids Symphony for the loss of this young, energetic man. It was a shock to read of his passing. He will be missed by so many of us.

4/3/2017 at 06:39 AM by Corey Niemchick

We were deeply saddened by this news. Roger was a gentle bulldog. It was an honor and pleasure to creatively collaborate with his vision for the GRSO. He was a true leader in the sense that he brought out the best in others; he gave people creative latitude, he recognized his own limitations but then surround himself with those who would compliment his strengths, complete his vision and accomplish the task at hand, while never compromising his expectations. He was a good man. He was a kind man. He was a 'present' man. His spirit and his leadership will be missed.

4/3/2017 at 02:24 PM by Tommy Tallarico

So sad and devastated to hear this. :( I performed my Video Games Live show with the Grand Rapids Symphony in January and just like the article said... Roger was the "behind the scenes" guy always making sure we had everything we needed to put on the best show possible. So sorry for his family, all the local symphony patrons, GRS staff and of course the wonderfully talented musicians of the GRS. You have lost someone very special. I perform the show about 50 times a year all over the world and not many folks make an impression on me as much as Roger did. Tommy Tallarico

4/3/2017 at 02:48 PM by David Hoekema

Roger has been an imaginative and resourceful advocate for the orchestra, for broadening and diversifying its audience, and for new programming of many kinds. His passing is a great loss to all of us who love music.

4/3/2017 at 06:46 PM by Joe and Carole Davio

Carole and I are saddened by this news. Roger was always so dedicated always working behind the scenes. Our prayers go out to his entire family. Peace!

4/4/2017 at 09:10 AM by Mark Potter

I met Roger in 2006 when we worked together on a community event, and we developed a valued friendship. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and he was always supportive, non-judgmental, empathetic, caring, and genuine - characteristics of a great friend and a truly special human being.

4/4/2017 at 09:40 PM by JoAnn Falletta

I am heartbroken to hear of Roger's passing. Having spend a very happy week with him and the orchestra just a few days ago, it seems unbelievable that we have lost this talented, caring , brilliant musician and human being. I feel to privileged to have been his friend and to have worked with him. Roger made the music world- and the world around him- a better, warmer, happier place. I send my deepest sympathy to his beloved family. Roger will always live in the hearts of all of us who knew and cherished him. JoAnn Falletta

4/6/2017 at 11:30 AM by Steven Smith

I am so saddened by the shocking news of Roger's passing. It has been a number of years since I last saw him, but I always remember his cheerful, positive, friendly nature. Linda, my heart goes out to you and your family. You are in my thoughts.

4/10/2017 at 02:09 PM by Terry & Susan Bishop

We were deeply saddened by the news from Roger's brother and sister-in-law, Doug & Jenny Nelson. Jenny is a cousin of Susan's. Doug and Jenny Nelson (and family) were so proud of Roger's accomplishments at the GR Symphony. He will be deeply missed as a brother and as a critical member of the Symphony. Our prayers go out to Linda and the entire Nelson family. With love, Terry & Susan Bishop Louisville, AL

4/10/2017 at 11:52 PM by Andrew von Oeyen

I am very sorry to learn of this tragic news. Having just seen Roger in February when I came to play with the Symphony, it is hard to believe. I didn't know him well, but always enjoyed working with him over many years. My thoughts go out to his family.

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