101-year-old, former Grand Rapids Symphony musician recalls her pioneering career in music

The United States was at war.

In Europe and in the Pacific, more than 16 million Americans in uniform would join the war effort against Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. On the home front, women were called upon to take up new responsibilities.

At home, the Grand Rapids Symphony filled its empty chairs on stage with women such as Maxine Fuson.

“A lot of women got chances because of the war and the boys were gone,” Fuson recalled.  “It was all men before that.”

Fuson, a cellist, joined the Grand Rapids Symphony at the opening of the 1943 season. Today, she’s 101 years old, living in a retirement community in Atco, New Jersey.

“I’m still walking,” she laughed. “Only with a walker.”

Though she hasn’t lived in Grand Rapids in more than 50 years, she still has fond memories of her home town, according to her friend, Marlea Gruver.

“She still loves Grand Rapids. She’s from Michigan,” Gruver said. “She’s lived in New Jersey a long time, but she’s from Michigan, and she likes talking about Grand Rapids.”

The pioneering musician, who would remain with the Grand Rapids Symphony for at least 17 seasons, was among the first women to become an integral part of the orchestra.

Grand Rapids Symphony's Maxine Fuson

Founded in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony occasionally had women on its roster.  In 1939, its 10th anniversary season opened in October with four women in the orchestra, playing violin, cello, harp and piano.

But four years later, during World War II, women occupied 25 of 79 chairs, including 11 of the 29 seats in the violin section and two of the five spots in the double bass section.

“There were a lot of women, and they had no place to play before then,” Fuson recalled.

A 1933 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, though she had spent her first three years at Central High School in Grand Rapids, Fuson had played cello in both high schools as well as in a city-wide high school orchestra.

After graduation, she worked for her father, photographer Charles Fuson, in Fuson’s Camera Shop on Ottawa Avenue.

With World War II underway, Fuson, age 27, was invited to audition for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“I didn’t hardly know anyone in the orchestra,” she recalled.

In October 1943, Fuson made her debut under Nicolai Malko, the Grand Rapids Symphony's third music director, who was beginning his second season with the orchestra.

“He came from Russia, and he was hard to understand at first,” she said. “We got along all right. He made us do things right.”

“He was a good conductor,” she said. “It was difficult at first, but we had good concerts.”

Guest soloist at Fuson’s first concert featured Russian soprano Maria Kurenko, a recording artist and a notable member of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s. The program ended with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”

In the 1940s, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave seven concerts a year, one a month, from October to May.

“It always was sold out,” Fuson said, before pausing. “Maybe not completely filled, but almost.”

Concerts were held at 8:30 p.m. Friday evenings in Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium, which opened in 1933 and later was renamed Welsh Auditorium. Today, the building’s façade facing Lyon Street NW as well as its Art Deco lobby remain. The rest of the building was torn down in 2003 and incorporated into DeVos Place Convention Center, which opened in 2004.

“Civic Auditorium was new, and people liked to go just to see the room,” Fuson recalled.

Rehearsals were held each week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for several weeks leading to each monthly concert

“I was selling cameras in the daytime and playing cello at night,” she said.

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony was a community orchestra, and wouldn’t become a professional ensemble until the 1970s, the organization attracted major talent as guest artists. The soloist at Fuson’s second concert in November 1943 was the famous Austrian-American pianist Paul Wittgenstein, performing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which had been composed for the pianist who had lost his right arm while serving in the Austrian Army in World War I.

The guest soloist at one of her final concerts in the spring of 1960 was violinist Isaac Stern. During her time with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Fuson would play under five music directors.

“Every concert was different. We played all kinds of things. We just did our best,” she said.

When the war ended, the soldiers came home. But women remained in the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“We were treated just the same as everyone else,” she recalled.

In that era, principal string players were selected to be principal players, but everyone else who auditioned successfully occupied the last seat in the section and moved up only when a vacancy emerged. By the time of her departure, Fuson sat next to the principal cellist.

“I moved up from seventh chair to second,” she said. “I was working hard.”

More than half a century later, Fuson looks back on her career with the Grand Rapids Symphony with satisfaction.

“I felt like I was important,” she said.

Born in Newcastle, Indiana, Fuson moved to Grand Rapids with her family at age 3.

In school, her sister, Evelyn, who was two years older, took up cornet, which was their father’s instrument. Fuson wanted to play an instrument as well. A teacher at her school had a cello in her attic that she offered for use for free.

“A boy tried it, and my hands fit better, so I got it,” she recalled.

A year later, she acquired her own instrument, previously used but newly repaired.

“There was no name on it. Nothing special, but it had a very good tone, so I liked it,” Fuson said.

Her friend Marlea Gruver, who has known Fuson for nearly 20 years, said her talent was immediately obvious to her teachers.

“She moved as a sixth grader immediately into her high school orchestra,” Gruver said. “She wanted to go to college and major in cello, but they didn’t have the money to send her.”

Briefly, Fuson performed with an organization titled Women’s Symphony of Chicago.

“It sounds like adults, but it wasn’t,” she said with a laugh.

But it was a professional orchestra made up mostly of high school and college-age women plus a couple of men to fill out on missing instruments.

“We were trying to get money,” she said. “We didn’t get much money, but we got a little.”

Organized by a famous cornet player, the ensemble went on tour for three months from Chicago, through Indiana and Michigan, ending in Pittsburgh.

“It was good practice for all of us,” she said.

Fuson wasn’t just a cellist. In 1959, she and another woman were jointly awarded “Photographer of the Year” honors from the Grand Rapids Camera Club, the first women honored in the 60-year history of the club founded in 1889. Fuson was recognized for her work with color photography.

“Her skills with slide photography earned her acceptance in international salons,” according to the newsletter of the club, which continues to exist in Grand Rapids.

At age 40, Fuson married for the first time. Her first husband died within a year.

“I found another man who was perfect for me,” she said.

Her marriage of some 35 years to Craig Mathewson Jr., an underwriter, ended with his death at age 93 in November 2015. Today, her married name is Maxine Mathewson.

She gave her last full concert, nearly an hour’s worth of music, at age 92 in her retirement community.

“Her hands are a bit arthritic, but it wasn’t her fingers,” said Gruver, a pianist, who often accompanied Fuson. “It was the strength in her arm. She couldn’t get the sound she needed.”

Otherwise, she’s hale and hearty.

“She really is doing amazingly well. She walks with a walker, but she’s not dependent on it,” Gruver said. “She drove a car into her 90s. She’s very independent.”

In March during Women’s History Month, Fuson was honored in her community for her contributions to the musical life of her home town.

“She was among the first to play with the Grand Rapids Symphony,” Gruver said. “Her playing certainly paved the way for others.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM
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