Violinist Larry Herzberg, Grand Rapids Symphony's 'chief morale officer,' reflects on 36 years with the orchestra

For decades, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Larry Herzberg played his violin, two to five hours a day, seven days a week.

After 36 years with the orchestra, he decided it was time to retire in 2016. Herzberg, however, hasn’t retired from his other fulltime job as Director of Asian Studies at Calvin College.

For many years, Herzberg has burned the candle at both ends, performing with the Grand Rapids Symphony and teaching both Chinese and Japanese at Calvin College. Beginning this past fall, one fulltime job was enough.

Herzberg, age 67, said recently he’ll miss making music with the Grand Rapids Symphony. In all, he’s played violin for more than 56 years.

“What a great honor and joy it has been to play with some of the world’s best musicians and play some of the world’s greatest music,” he said. “There are thousands of violinists who would give their eyeteeth to do what I’ve been able to do.”

The native of Wilmette, Ill., joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1980, serving under three music directors and participating in the music director search that has brought Marcelo Lehninger to Grand Rapids.

“It’s been so exciting to watch the orchestra get better and better,” he said.

Herzberg came to Michigan in 1980 to teach Chinese at Albion College, the same year that Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov was appointed music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

A position in the violin section was open that needed to be filled promptly.

“Semyon insisted on adding 10 fulltime string players,” Herzberg said. “They were so in love with Semyon, and they wanted to build the orchestra, so they allowed me to audition privately.”

“They gave me four months to play full-time until they had the national audition,” he recalled. “Luckily, I had time to get my chops up.”

After winning the permanent position, Herzberg served under three music directors, including David Lockington, the longest-serving music director in Grand Rapids Symphony’s history, and Catherine Comet, who has the second-longest tenure.

“No conductor can do it all. Each has added something,” Herzberg said. “David Lockington doesn’t’ get enough credit for making the strings sound better and the overall sound, sound better.”

“Catherine got us to embrace contemporary music, which has continued,” he said. “The orchestra has been praised for our ability to do that. But that didn’t happen overnight.”

Bychkov left Grand Rapids in 1985 and has gone on to become one of the world’s most eminent conductors.

“He was tremendous,” Herzberg said. “Many of us remember his Shostakovich 11th Symphony was such a powerful experience, even 30 years later.”

Lehninger, who is in his first season as music director, is full of potential.

“He makes us feel like we’re making music together,” Herzberg said.

Besides the music directors, the other aspect of the orchestra that has contributed so much is the longevity of its musicians. A handful of players, including the entire flute section, have been with the Grand Rapids Symphony for 40 years or more.

“By having a large enough group of veterans who have played together, day after day for 30 years, you get better and better and tighter and tighter.” “That continuity means a lot. We know each other and each other’s playing.”

In his early years, Herzberg sat near the front of the first violin section. In recent years, he’s mostly played second violin.

“They didn’t need me as much anymore in the first violins, and I was happy to play second,” he said. “But everybody has to be a strong player. You can’t have any weakness.”

Among the most memorable concerts Herzberg remembers are performances with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto and violinist Itzhak Perlman playing Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. He has fond memories of filling in as concertmaster during performances with soprano Leontyne Price in the early 1980s.

“I can think of at least 100 different concerts that are memorable,” he said. “There have been very few unsuccessful concerts.”

Grand Rapids Symphony wasn’t his first orchestra. Before coming to Grand Rapids, Herzberg, while attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, served as assistant concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for five years.

Working as Nashville studio musician in the 1970s, he played on albums with recording artists such as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Rod Stewart, the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John and others. He played on one of Elvis’ final albums, and on an award-winning recording featuring “Whispering” Bill Anderson. 

“It was a great time to be in Nashville,” he said. “It was the beginning of crossover when Nashville was transitioning from traditional country to a fusion of different musical styles.”

He had the same good fortune to be living in Michigan when Calvin College launched its Asian Studies program, joining the faculty in 1984.

“It’s often being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “So much of it comes down to luck.”

Herzberg did his master’s and doctoral work in Chinese at Indiana University while also playing music at one of the top music schools in the country.

“I had a chance to play chamber music on a regular basis with people who went on to play in orchestras such as the Detroit Symphony.”

Today, Herzberg teaches classes in Chinese as well as overseeing the entire Asian Studies Program at Calvin College. He had two more books published this past fall and is working on his third film about contemporary China. His wife, Xue Qin Herzberg, a graduate of Beijing Normal University, also has taught Chinese language and literature at Calvin College. 

Japanese, which he tought for 30 years, though not for the past six years, is more challenging of the two languages to learn, he said.

“There are 50 ways to say no in Japanese without ever saying no,” he said with a laugh.

His double life was possible years ago because Calvin College’s Asian Studies program was small, and the Grand Rapids Symphony played fewer concerts.

“I was able to develop my careers, both of them, gradually.”

“We only played a third to a fourth as many performances as we do now,” he said.

“By the time Calvin got busy, I knew all the repertoire,” he said.

Still, there comes a time to slow down. The life of a professional symphony musician is tougher than meets the eye.

“It’s a lot more physically demanding,” he said. “It takes tremendous physical and mental work to be able to play well on so few rehearsals, sometimes with two or three different programs in a week.”

Throughout his 36 years with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Herzberg was the self-appointed “chief morale officer” who did what he could to help colleagues keep their spirits high.

“Others, like (Concertmaster) Jamie Crawford, play the violin better than me,” he said. “I’ve tried to show my love for members of the orchestra.”

With the appointment of a new music director in 2016, as well as the ratification of a new, five-year collective bargaining agreement among other recent achievements, it’s a good time to relinquish efforts as chief morale officer.

“Right now, morale is very, very high,” he said recently. “It would be very sad if I were leaving an orchestra in decline, but the very opposite is true.”

“It’s a lovely time to leave the orchestra and be a part of the celebration,” he added. 

Herzberg isn’t disappearing entirely. He’s loaned his concert violin to colleague Joshua Schlachter. Made by Stefano Scarampella, one of the finest violin makers of the 20th century, the instrument is 100 years old in 2017.

“I’m grateful my violin will still be playing in the symphony,” he said. “I’ll be in the audience.”

But Herzberg is keeping his backup violin with him.

“I can play for my own pleasure,” he said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM
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