Grand Rapids Symphony Announces Retirement of Mary Tuuk Kuras as President and CEO

Mary Tuuk Kuras, President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony, has announced her retirement, effective December 31, 2022.

“Mary has administratively led the Grand Rapids Symphony through a critical chapter, and we are grateful for her leadership,” said Luis Avila, Board Chair of the Grand Rapids Symphony. “Her unique blend of business leadership experience, passion for the Symphony’s mission, and love of people has propelled the Symphony to a bright future.”

Upon retirement, Mary will remain connected to the Symphony in a transitional role for some time to ensure stability of artistic operations, continuation of strong financial performance and effective stewardship of donor support. The Board of Directors will immediately form a committee to search for Mary’s successor. Renee Tabben, Chair-Elect of the Board, will chair the Search Committee.
“It has been an honor to pair my personal passion for music with my profession in my final career stage prior to retirement,” said Tuuk Kuras. “Serving the Symphony stakeholders and West Michigan community has been pure joy, and my heart sings as I look forward to the Symphony’s future innovation, financial stability, and vibrancy.  I am incredibly proud of our gifted musicians and talented administrative team, and ask the members of our Symphony family and West Michigan community to offer them full support and advocacy in this next chapter. I am also deeply grateful to our dedicated Board Members, Foundation Trustees, generous donors and loyal patrons for their tremendous support during the pandemic.”

Grand Rapids Symphony Team Highlights during the tenure of Tuuk Kuras:
● Celebration of Symphony’s 90th anniversary season, including a special event concert featuring internationally renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman
● Extension of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger’s contract to 2026
● Immediate innovation during the pandemic to continue delivery of the Symphony’s mission to the West Michigan community, including From our Home to Yours, a nationally acclaimed virtual production of the Hallelujah Chorus, creation of the virtual Pathwaves concert series, Pop-ups in the Park and Sidewalk Serenades, virtual education delivery, and expansion of the Neighborhood Concert Series
● Curating a new collaboration with Frederik Meijer Gardens on its summer music concert series
● Expanded artistic relationships with Grand Rapids Ballet and Opera Grand Rapids
● Sold-out Symphony with Soul events featuring Black Violin, Terence Blanchard and Leslie Odom, Jr.
● Continuation of La Sinfonia Navideña in collaboration with the Hispanic community
● Revitalization of the Symphony’s education strategy, resulting in greater focus on outcomes and the transition to the nationally recognized Link-Up program
● Three consecutive years of operating surpluses on a cash basis, with likely achievement of a fourth consecutive year surplus at August 31, 2022
● Strong annual audit results
● No musicians were furloughed during the pandemic
● Successful and collaborative negotiation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with orchestra musicians in August 2021, resulting in growth of full-time orchestra positions and a 2023 2% pay increase
● Development of a multi-year scenario-based financial plan through August 31, 2024 to support a balanced budget during a time of audience rebuilding post-pandemic
● Recruitment and/or development of talented senior administrative team leaders who will be pivotal to the Symphony’s future
● Selection of Duo Shen as Symphony’s new Assistant Conductor
● Continuation of the Symphony’s DEI journey in all aspects of operations, with emphasis on bold transformation on stage and off stage

"The Symphony would simply not have thrived as it did during COVID had it not been for Mary's steadfast and caring leadership. Personally, it has been an honor to work alongside her during these difficult years and to see firsthand how to be a true servant-leader. On behalf of the Board of Directors, we thank Mary for her leadership and dedication and wish her all the best as she pursues retirement," said Avila.   

To read more click HERE for our official press release.

at Wednesday, June 22, 2022

BWW Review: Symphonic Return To Bid Farewell to John Varineau at An American in Paris!

Written for Broadway World Detroit by Brian Hilbrand, Jan. 20, 2022 

I was fortunate enough to get to head down to DeVos Hall for the first live event I have been to there in over two years, the last being to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the week the tour was put on pause due to Covid. I was very excited to come back for a very special event, to not only hear a great concert but to help send off someone whom I've gotten to see quite a bit since starting BroadwayWorld Detroit back in 2018. Grand Rapids Symphony, Associate Conductor John Varineau, retired in May 2021. He was recognized at an outdoor event on August 1, 2021. This concert marked his farewell, where he lead the orchestra Grand Rapids Symphony Adult Chorus.

The 2020-21 season marked his 36th anniversary season as a conductor with the Grand Rapids Symphony and his 33rd as conductor of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra presented by Meijer. Additionally, he has conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony in performances with the Grand Rapids Ballet including the 2014 world premiere of a new version of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, a production co-designed by Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of The Polar Express.

Varineau's guest conducting appearances have included the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony, the San Antonio Symphony, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and the Traverse City Symphony Orchestra as well as the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Oklahoma City Philharmonic. He formerly served as music director of the Holland Symphony Orchestra.

For 38 years, he taught at the college level at Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids Community College, Aquinas College, and Grand Valley State University. Most recently, he was on the faculty at Calvin University where he conducted the college orchestra, taught academic courses and clarinet, and also conducted the Calvin Community Symphony. He is now retired from college teaching.

Committed to nurturing the next generation of classical music lovers, Varineau is a frequent visitor to area schools and shares an infectious enthusiasm with students throughout West Michigan.

A native of Laramie, Wyoming, Varineau attended Michigan State University and the University of Wyoming for his clarinet training and earned his master's degree at Yale School of Music. He has made three recordings with the Grand Rapids Symphony and three with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

With John being a clarinetist, the guest being Anthony McGill was a great way to say "farewell" to someone who has had such a positive impact on the Classical music scene in Grand Rapids and more!

We were so fortunate to hear the lovely title piece for the show, An American in Paris by George Gershwin, a cheery number with a strong rhythm and almost a blues sound to it. The next piece presented appropriately titled Concerto for Clarinet by William Bolcom, where our guest, Anthony McGill, shined though out Allegro, Cantabile, and Scherzo- Finale. This was an incredible piece as not only was he animated well he played, he was able to play for the full 23-minute duration of the piece!

Coming back after the intermission, Anthony wowed us once more with the same energy as the first number with Première Rhapsody for Clarinet & Orchestra by Claude Debussy, a piece with plenty of variation in its 8 minutes. It ranges from slow hushed melodies from the clarinet to quickened passionate tempos, along with a great built-up ending. Our final piece for the night was another multi-section piece Gloria written by Francis Poulenc. This contains six movements, which were accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and special soprano guest Soloist Elena Villalón, whose beautiful opera-like voice was guiding the wonderful Chorus and Symphony through the full piece.

at Thursday, January 20, 2022

2020-2021 Season Highights

92 years ago, advocates for the arts in Grand Rapids determined that an orchestra would not only enrich the city and region, it would contribute greatly to economic growth and quality of place. Established in 1930, the nationally recognized Grand Rapids Symphony serves West Michigan both in DeVos Performance Hall and in the community.


As the world changed in 2020, many orchestras around the country closed their doors. However, the Grand Rapids Symphony embraced strategic artistic advances and successfully fulfilled our mission to provide great music to the West Michigan community. Innovative summer programing in 2020 led to our virtual Pathwaves series which premiered in September 2020 and carried forward through May 2021.

One of the best ways to savor all that summer has to offer is with LIVE music. We expanded our musical presence in all parts of West Michigan–from the lakeshore to Meijer Gardens and many neighborhood green spaces in between, reflecting our commitment to serve all areas of our community. We also partnered with neighborhood associations through our Neighborhood Concert Series to perform short pop-up concerts in parks around the city. This series provided more than 1,400 attendees with 12 free performances across West Michigan, making music free and accessible to all.

It is with the utmost excitement that we move into the 2021-22 season, Together Again–LIVE which features a lineup of concerts, soloists, and composers who underline our commitment to celebrating diversity. Patrons will experience music from Mozart, Mahler, Beethoven, as well as music from new composers, works, and artists such as Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, Asian American violinist Simone Porter, and Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas.


Prudent management of private and public support during the pandemic has resulted in the following milestones:
→ For the third consecutive fiscal year, the Grand Rapids Symphony achieved a positive net cash surplus from operations as of August 31, 2021.
→ On August 31, 2021, a two-year Collective Bargaining agreement was reached, strengthening the core orchestra position structure, retaining focus on artistic excellence and financial sustainability, restores the 5% compensation reduction taken this past fiscal year due to the pandemic, and increases compensation by 2% in January 2023.
→ Over four seasons, from Fiscal Year 2018 – Fiscal Year 2021, the Symphony’s cash position improved by approximately $2MM.

Now more than ever the Symphony is committed to finding inclusive and healing ways of bringing music to our community. Combining artistic innovations, long held traditions and your support, the Symphony will continue our 92-year commitment to West Michigan.


Through innovation and virtual programming, we continue to grow our education and access initiatives so more people can enjoy the transformative power of music. This year our PNC Lollipops concerts served over 23,000 students and teachers -- which is more than twice as many as our previous season! By delivering educational concerts online, schools that were previously unable to participate due to busing fees or distance enjoyed the Grand Rapids Symphony in their classrooms.

As we prepare for the next season of education and access, we are excited to be launching Link Up, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Link Up will provide free, high-quality, year-long curriculum which will inspire and enrich the minds and shape the future for students in grades 3-5.

We are excited to share that the exceptional virtual education content created for the 2020-2021 season will be available in our new Digital Library on YouTube for teachers and students throughout the school year. Content includes: Peter Rabbit and Winter (Lollipops K-2 content), Instrument Discovery Videos (4th or 5th Grade centered), Education Ensemble Videos (K-5 focused), and the 2021 Fifth Grade Concert.

Our Mosaic Scholarship continued to serve the West Michigan community through cultivating and nurturing 20 talented young Black and Latinx musicians during the 2020-21 season. We are happy to report the successful adaption of a completely virtual format; scholars met weekly via Zoom or Facetime with their private instructors for lessons, and met monthly for groups sessions.

"It helped me become more confident in my playing and in my speaking. I also found life-long connections from my fellow scholars and have had so many opportunities come to me because of the people I worked with in and outside of the Symphony.”

Kennedy Dixon, Mosaic Scholar Alumni Graduate, Viola

Our Music for Health Initiative engages and promotes health and well-being by creating supportive physical, emotional and spiritual experiences for patients affected by various serious, or life-threatening illnesses. Despite delays due to the pandemic, musicians shared the power of music with more than 600 patients and their families this past July, through eight therapy sessions and two live-streamed interactive events. Pre-recorded meditations were made available year-round, 24/7, on internal channels inpatient rooms and community spaces throughout the hospitals.

"To have so many people move close to us to listen, applaud between selections, and to see the joy in their eyes as they listened was incredible. I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to bring music to people in this way, and I think yesterday is a perfect example of the importance of music therapy to people as they move through their health journey.”

- Michael Hovnanian, Grand Rapids Symphony, Bass

at Friday, October 29, 2021

What was YOUR Gateway to Music?

What was your gateway to music? Maybe it was the first time you heard a trumpet call, or the deep pulse of a drum, or maybe it was a field trip to a Symphony concert! Enjoy Gateways to Music through a series of stories from Grand Rapids Symphony musicians, students, and more below.

For many people, their gateway to music is one of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 18 music education and access programs. To provides these gateways, the Symphony relies on your support. Now through April 10th, your gift to the Grand Rapids Symphony will be matched dollar for dollar up to $50,000, thanks to the Daniel & Pamella DeVos Foundation.

Donate HERE and help ensure our many gateways to music are accessible to all.

My gateway to music began with two incredible music educators (my high school band directors who instilled a joy and love for music in all their students), and a clarinet resting in the attic of my home (that's how it was decided I would play the clarinet: because we already had one!).

When I was a sophomore in High School I got a "3" (far from great) at Solo & Ensemble Festival. I still have the judge's comments hanging on my study wall: "This piece is too hard for you." From that day forward, with the help of fabulous mentors, I was motivated to do better. The following year I received a "1+" and the encouraging words from the judge: "You need to major in music, and you need to attend Michigan State University." Well, I did, and with stops at the University of Wyoming and the Yale School of Music, I ended up here as the Associate Conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Throughout my 36 years as Associate Conductor, I’ve dedicated my career to creating pathways to music appreciation through our Gateway to Music initiatives. What has made this possible? The generosity of many wonderful donors in our community has provided valuable Symphony experiences for thousands of students, from pre-school through high school, every year. Please join them in helping us continue to provide these programs! 

As I retire this year, I am confident that our Gateway to Music initiatives will carry on, with your help. 

Being a Mosaic Scholar was one of Jonelle’s gateways to music.
“I still remember my 6th-grade audition…I was a little intimidated and nervous…a few months later I got an acceptance letter in the mail and I was surprised, excited, and ready to begin.”

Jonelle and 19 other African American and Latinx students were each paired with a Symphony musician to learn to master their instruments. Through those partnerships, Mosaic Scholars build valuable skills like personal discipline, perseverance, and the pride that comes from accomplishing your goals.

As a Mosaic Scholar Jonelle learned that she didn’t need to be a perfect musician and that mistakes could help her learn to grow as a musician and as a person. Jonelle is using her experiences as Mosaic Scholar and is applying them as she studies to become an accountant. “But don’t you worry, I don’t let my cello collect dust.”

Learn more about Jonelle’s story and experience HERE.

Grand Rapids Symphony violinist Linda Nelson’s gateway to music was being part of the Cincinnati Youth Symphony Orchestra. “We were all high school students exploring amazing works for the very first time. For most of us it was our first experience making music with so many different types of instruments all played excellently by other young students.”

Hear more of Linda’s poetic retelling of her time in the Cincinnati Youth Symphony Orchestra HERE.

Today, Linda is a vital member of the Grand Rapids Symphony and has performed in DeVos Hall and in the community for over 35 years. She also takes her talents into classrooms as part of an educational ensemble. Her favorite gateway to music that the Symphony offers is the Neighborhood Concert Series. Each year, the Grand Rapids Symphony leaves the concert hall to perform free concerts in community parks and venues.

“As much as I love performing downtown, it brings me even more satisfaction for our Grand Rapids Symphony to bring live music to the children and families of Grand Rapids in their own neighborhoods.”

The Neighborhood Concert Series is made possible by the gifts of generous sponsors and donors.

Principal Percussionist Bill Vits experienced his gateway to music at the Fourth of July Parade in Evanston, Illinois in 1961.

“I was impressed by the Scottish Shrine Band that had bass drummers twirling their sticks with elaborate routines. Two years later I started piano in Nashville which lasted until I heard the teacher's son playing drums in his bedroom. I asked my Mom if I could take drum lessons and she agreed if I promised to practice more than I watched TV.”

When not performing with the symphony, ballet, opera or Broadway Theater you can find Bill drumming with "The Concussions," a 60's surf rock combo. In addition to performing with the orchestra for 42 years, Bill Vits plays the drums for thousands of third graders from around West Michigan.

“My favorite Gateway to Music program might be my Percussion Discussion that I've done for Third Graders for the past 20 years!  I've had adult strangers stop me on the street to tell me they remember seeing my program when they were in grade school and now their children are attending.”

See Bill in action HERE.

Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus member Kate traces her gateway to music back to her childhood.

“One of the earliest childhood memories that I can recall is of my mom singing me lullabies before I went to sleep. As time went on, I would sing with her. That memory was my gateway to music. Music became an undercurrent in my life.”

Kate is now a high school sophomore and weekly from September to May joins her voice with almost 200 students in the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus. Chorus members experience more than excellent choral training and the opportunity to perform with the Symphony, the Youth Chorus is also a setting for positive peer relationships and personal growth.

Experience the Grand Rapids Youth Chorus perform “Come and Sing” here.

What was your gateway to music? Did the stories of John Varineau, Jonelle, Linda, Bill, or Kate trigger any memories for you?

We hope the Grand Rapids Symphony is one of them. When you make a gift please add a comment with your story. Or email us at

Many of us are not professional musicians but still have a deep love for music and the Grand Rapids Symphony. Ric Roane and Leandro Robles are longtime Grand Rapids Symphony patrons and supporters. Ric has served a board member since 2016 and sat on the committee for the Symphony’s Bach Festival. You can find Ric and Leandro at almost all of the Richard & Helen DeVos Classical concerts.

They shared a little about their lives and their gateways to music with us:

What were your gateways to music?
Ric:  I grew up in Seattle and my first symphony experience was going to a performance of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra as a 5th grader for their concert in the schools’ series.  I was hooked and that year I began playing clarinet in the band.

Leandro:  Raised in northern Argentina, I accompanied my father to Friday barbecues where his friends would play Argentine and Spanish folk music on guitars, bandoneons and percussion instruments and sing ballads and drink wine.

What made you music lovers?
Ric:  My love of music derives from the diversity of musical styles, from modern to classical or regional or nationalistic.

Leandro:  The beauty of music is sensible and I cannot recall one day in my entire life when I was not surrounded by music.

What is your favorite memory of the Grand Rapids Symphony?
Ric:  Without question, the 1812 Overture at Picnic Pops when the cannons go off and the summer sky is filled with the spectacle of fireworks. Thrilling!!

Leandro: I love when the symphony leaves the performance hall and goes into the community into different and diverse spaces, bringing its beauty to a broader audience.

What is your favorite Gateway to Music Program? Why?
Ric:  Since it was my gateway to music, my favorite is the 5th Grade Concert series.  My hope is that new generations of children will be inspired to a lifetime of music appreciation and perhaps performance starting with the 5th grade concerts.

Leandro:  I love the Neighborhood Concert Series as it brings music into the community and makes symphonic music accessible to a diverse audience.

In addition to being subscribers, Ric & Leandro are Symphony supporters. Orchestra performances and the music education programs we know and love are not possible without the support of people like you.

Join Ric & Leandro and make a gift to support the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Posted by Corey Holcomb at Monday, April 5, 2021

Bravo John Varineau, we will miss you!

A letter from Grand Rapids Symphony President & CEO, Mary Tuuk Kuras...

Our mission to deliver great music to the Western Michigan community is paramount and it brings us together as a Symphony family in life-changing ways.  We build cherished relationships with each other and feed our collective souls, all through the lens of our musical mission.  Creating, performing, entertaining, educating, and innovating is something we just do because of our passion for our mission.

Our Associate Conductor, John Varineau, has walked this mission daily for 36 years and his story is one of heart, dedication, education, and extraordinary innovation.  So, it is with conflicting emotions of sadness for our Symphony family, and happiness for John and his wife Gwen, that we share John’s decision to retire at the end of our main season on May 16, 2021.  Feelings of deep appreciation, respect, awe, and inspiration come to mind as we reflect on his legacy.  We will also feel the indelible loss of John’s brilliant presence on and off our podium, as John and Gwen transition to a new chapter of desired life experiences with their family.

Describing John’s multi-faceted journey with the Symphony over 36 years is akin to telling the story of a Renaissance man’s travels.  Frequent stops along the way range from Beethoven to John Williams to Harry Potter… from Holiday Pops to Nutcracker to Symphony with Soul to Sinfonia Navideña… from Manistee to Greenville to the Ford Museum to Picnic Pops at Cannonsburg… from DeVos Performance Hall to St. Cecilia to Van Andel Arena… from archival recordings to recording CDs to virtual concerts on Vimeo. John also embodies our mission as the familiar voice of Symphony broadcasts on Blue Lake, exquisite orator at remembrances of Symphony family members no longer with us, and tireless advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

But, most of all, John’s passion for students and music education touches our hearts deeply and his contributions are imprinted all over the Western Michigan community. He has shaped countless lives in our community and beyond over the years.  Babies become patrons, fifth graders learn a musical instrument, and teenagers become adult musicians; all under John’s influence, teaching, and example.  Leading and guiding our musicians of tomorrow for 33 years in Grand Rapids Youth Symphony rehearsals and concerts is yet one more radiant example of John the teacher.

Simply put, John is a treasure to our Symphony mission and our Western Michigan community.  We will look forward to the creative ways in which we can express our appreciation for his incredible legacy publicly in the upcoming months.  So, for now, we begin our path of gratitude, celebration, and recognition of John’s abundant contributions to our lives.  We, the students of John’s classroom, applaud his teaching and will carry his lessons with us for life.

Mary Tuuk Kuras
President and CEO
Grand Rapids Symphony

Posted by Corey Holcomb at Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Grand Rapids Symphony Remembers Mary Ann Keeler

Our Grand Rapids Symphony family mourns with heavy hearts the loss of Mary Ann Keeler, lifelong advocate for the arts in the Western Michigan community and a treasured part of our Grand Rapids Symphony family. At the same time, we smile because it was her vision and passion that birthed the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. Her guidance and support has left an indelible legacy in our grateful souls.

“How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from A German Requiem, Op. 45, Johannes Brahms.
Rune Bergmann, conductor | Jeanine De Bique, soprano | Norman Garrett, baritone |
Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, Pearl Shangkuan, director

A long-serving Board member from 1952-1970, she was a champion for the Grand Rapids Symphony. Mrs. Keeler donated countless hours of her time and talents, not only as a Board member, but also by serving on the BRAVO Awards Committee, supporting many major fundraising campaigns – including two orchestra tours to Carnegie Hall, underwriting the Principal Oboe chair, and, of course, as an inspiring patron of the Grand Rapids Symphony for several decades. Mrs. Keeler was also a recipient of a BRAVO! Award in 1993, the Symphony’s highest honor that recognizes leadership and advocacy for the orchestra.

Mary Ann’s vision resulted in the creation of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in 1962. Now in existence for over 50 years, with over 120 members, the Chorus has reached a high level of artistic excellence, performing regularly in the Symphony’s Classical Series, Holiday Pops concerts, and in the Grand Rapids Bach Festival. Fifty-six years after its founding, the Chorus also performed with the Symphony in 2018 on its tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

But there was much more to Mary Ann's lifelong, enthusiastic backing of the Grand Rapids Symphony and Chorus. To encounter her personally after a Symphony Chorus performance was a tonic for the collective Chorus spirit. She delighted again and again in hearing how the seeds she had planted had grown, blossomed, and flourished. Chorus member and former Chorus historian Richard Krueger remembers Mary Ann Keeler as a radiant presence in the Chorus family. “To have Mary Ann in our corner was to have more than a benefactor; it was to have a true fan, a friend, and a lifelong partner in our ongoing artistic quest”, said Krueger.

Mrs. Keeler also provided great encouragement and support to Chorus Directors, including Dr. Pearl Shangkuan, current Chorus Director since 2004. Privately, for a number of years up to the Chorus’ last classical performance on stage in November, 2019 prior to the pandemic, Mary Ann would have a gorgeous, huge bouquet of flowers delivered to Dr. Shangkuan’s home in appreciation of the Chorus' work following a performance along with a personal note of thanks. “These were gestures of great encouragement and affirmation that I'll forever cherish. Her advocacy and support for the arts in the Grand Rapids community is a most beautiful legacy of her life”, said Dr. Shangkuan. Dr. Shangkuan also thought of Mary Ann Keeler as the Chorus’ most enthusiastic cheerleader. “Every personal encounter I had with her would leave me energized and doubly grateful for the support of the community for our Grand Rapids Symphony”, said Dr. Shangkuan.

Krueger further reflected on the musical history of the Chorus and Mary Ann Keeler’s legacy. “Throughout its history, the Symphony Chorus has performed Requiem settings by Brahms, Britten, Duruflé, Fauré, Mozart, and Verdi. As we remember Mary Ann Keeler's life of dedication to supporting music and the arts and mourn her passing, it's lovely to think that the eternal rest and perpetual light we sang of in those masterworks are the gifts she now enjoys in full.”  

We will forever remember Mary Ann Keeler for her perpetual shining light on us.  May she rest in peace, surrounded by her beloved everlasting music.

at Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Grateful for Change - Donor Spotlight

In continuing our series on being Grateful for Change, this week we want to shine a spotlight on our amazing DONORS. During this past year of many, many changes, we have been trying to focus on the things that have been positive.

Donations have come in from individuals, corporations, and foundations. Every donation matters, every donation counts, and all donations have helped keep the Grand Rapids Symphony in a position to provide music for our community. This year our donors have really stepped up to help us continue our mission of sharing great music!

Below is a note from our Senior Vice President for Development, Diane Lobbestael:

How often have you thought or heard others comment on how grateful they are to live in West Michigan?  Our quality of place is extraordinary. Grand Rapids and West Michigan offers so much beyond access to natural beauty and a strong economy.  We share access to great art – visual, performing, botanical and musical arts.  Each art form, as well our museums, enriches our lives, educates, enlightens and inspires us, as well as broadening our world.

Founded and funded by the community 90 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s contribution to the fabric of West Michigan is established and respected.  We are grateful for a history of leadership donors who allow the orchestra to serve our region in the hall, in the community and, now, virtually.  Investments, big and small, provide the orchestra’s performances to the delight of patrons of every age.  Individuals, foundations and corporations sustain the orchestra by making it a priority in their philanthropy…an enduring West Michigan tradition that shows no sign of changing.

Thank you donors, we are grateful for you!

at Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Six youngsters have holiday experience of a lifetime, guest conducting the Grand Rapids Symphony Holiday Pops

For many years, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Holiday Pops have been a family tradition for West Michigander to celebrate the season in song.

More than 10,000 guests were in DeVos Performance Hall last week for six performances of the Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus and guest vocalist Capathia Jenkins.

But the 2019 Wolverine Worldwide Holiday Pops were extra special for six students who had an opportunity to join Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and the Grand Rapids Pops on stage.

One youngster was selected at each concert to come up on stage and conduct the Grand Rapids Symphony in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” beginning with Aidan Vermeulen, age 11, at the opening concert on Thursday, Dec. 5.

“We were surprised and delighted when Aidan was chosen, and what an amazing experience it was,” said Aidan’s father, Jason Vermeulen.

Kids guest conduct Grand Rapids Symphony's Holiday Pops   

It was a very special experience for all of the guests who volunteered to participate and were chosen at random in a drawing held at each of the afternoon and evening Holiday Pops concerts continuing through Sunday, Dec. 8.

But it was extra special for Aidan because his mother Anne Vermeulen, an alto in the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, had the best seat in the house to see Aidan’s conducting debut.

At each concert, the drawing was held after the concert was underway, so it came as a complete surprise to Anne, who already was seated on stage with the Symphony Chorus when her son’s name was announced.

“I could barely contain myself,” she said afterward. “We’re supposed to be somewhat incognito on stage since we’re so visible, but I couldn’t help being excited.”

Following an introduction by Bob Bernhardt and a quick lesson in baton technique, each student was off to the races with “Sleigh Ride.”

“While he was conducting, he would catch my eye and smile,” Anne Vermeulen recalled.

The Vermeulens said they’re so grateful for the experience given to their son.

“Music is something Anne and I both value, and we hope to pass that love of music on to our boys,” Jason said.

The other special guest conductors were:

  • Maddie Decker, age 11, daughter of Jason and Tina Freese Decker, at the morning concert on Friday, Dec. 6.

  • Nadia Alderman, age 10, daughter of Eric and Amy Alderman, at the evening concert on Friday, Dec. 6.

  • Luke Barrett, age 14, son of Michael Barrett, at the afternoon concert on Saturday, Dec. 7

  • Ellie Blink, age 8, daughter of Emily Blink, at the evening concert on Saturday, Dec. 7

  • Chandler Baillie, age 15, daughter of Julia Baillie, at the afternoon concert on Sunday, Dec. 8

Each student got a peak behind the scenes at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s concert and was given a souvenir baton to take home.

“Bob Bernhardt as so supportive and encouraging to him,” Anne Vermeulen said. “Capathia Jenkins, too, was giving him little pointers and encouragement backstage before he went on, which meant a lot to us.”

A 6th grade student at Baldwin Street Middle School in Hudsonville, Aidan began studying cello this fall.

“He has really come alive with it, practicing daily as one should,” Jason Vermeulen said. “His playing cello has led to shared joy as we’ve gotten to watch and encourage him.”

“It was an unforgettable experience for our family,” Jason said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Grand Rapids Symphony renews Music Director Marcelo Lehninger's contract for 5 more years

Grand Rapids Symphony concert goers came to DeVos Performance Hall on Friday for an evening of music by Wagner and Stravinsky. But along with the music came the unexpected surprise announcement that Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will remain on the podium with the orchestra for years to come.

The Grand Rapids Symphony has extended Lehninger’s contract with the orchestra for another five years through the 2025-26 season.

Appointed Music Director in June 2016, Lehninger’s original 5-year contract was due to expire at the end of the 2020-21 season. But with the addition of another five years, the Brazilian-born conductor is on the road to becoming the third-longest serving Music Director in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 90-year history.

The announcement came at the start of the second half of the program titled Tristan & Isolde. But before continuing with Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser and Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Lehninger told the audience “it’s an incredible joy” to make music with the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“Not only are they great musicians, but they’re great people, and that feeling of family on stage is very special,” he said. “We enjoy what we’re doing here, and I hope we can send you the message that we love playing for you.”

Marcelo Lehninger told the audience how much he appreciates the community’s support of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“What is really touching is the support the community has for the orchestra,” he said. “It tells you a lot about a community that wants to have a high level, wonderful orchestra.”

The concert featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus singing Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Tickets are available from the DeVos Hall box office and Ticketmaster outlets.

Marcelo Lehninger, Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director

Lehninger, who served five years on the conducting staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and who has guest conducted the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Houston and Detroit, has emerged as one of the top American conductors of his generation.

Grand Rapids Symphony is fortunate to have Lehninger on the podium in West Michigan, according to Chuck Frayer, chair of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors.

“A great community deserves a great orchestra, and a great orchestra needs the capable and inspiring leadership of a great music director,” Frayer said. “Since Marcelo’s arrival, he’s raised the quality of the orchestra’s music making and elevated the profile of the Grand Rapids Symphony in the world of classical music. We couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s accomplished, and we’re looking for more to come.”

Lehninger, who led the Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus in a critically acclaimed appearance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in April 2018, said he’s thrilled to continue making music in Grand Rapids.

“I am deeply humbled by the confidence shown me and for the past three years it has been an honor to work with the wonderful musicians of the orchestra, administration, board, donors and volunteers of this cherished cultural institution,” said Lehninger, whose chair as Music Director is underwritten by George H. and Barbara A. Gordon. “The Grand Rapids Symphony has a big impact on the vibrant cultural life of our city, and it’s been extremely inspiring for me to see the community support and involvement that shows the city wants to have a high-level orchestra.”

Now in his fourth season with the orchestra, Lehninger has brought such internationally acclaimed artists as pianists Nelson Freire, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Olga Kern and Gabriela Montero to Grand Rapids for their debut performances. He’s also brought such world-class musicians as violinist Sarah Chang and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung back to DeVos Performance Hall for the first time in many years.

Last year, Lehninger conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony in performances of Gustav Holst’s The Planets along with Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41, which sold out 2,400-seat DeVos Performance Hall. This past summer, he led the orchestra in its first appearance in northern Michigan in many years when the Grand Rapids Symphony performed at the Great Lakes Center for the Arts at Bay Harbor in July.

Under Lehninger’s leadership, the Grand Rapids Symphony last year launched a Neighborhood Concert Series with performances throughout the community. In September, Lehninger led the orchestra in its second annual “Symphony on the West Side” in John Ball Park for the series underwritten by the Wege Foundation.

Lehninger has led performances of music ranging from Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben and Gustav Mahler’s sunny Symphony No. 3 to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s sultry Scheherazade, and Maurice Ravel’s mesmerizing Bolero. But he also has premiered new music by composers with direct ties to West Michigan including Alexander Miller and Jeremy Crosmer.

“Marcelo is a magnificent musician who is grounded in the great works of classical music that our audiences know and love. But he’s also an innovator, determined to expand the repertoire, to perform in unexpected ways and places, and to create inclusive experiences for new audiences,” said GRS President and CEO Mary Tuuk, who earlier served as co-chair of the 14-member search committee who recommended Lehninger’s appointment as Music Director. “I’m elated to continue working with Marcelo and our Symphony constituencies as we chart the course of the Symphony’s future with further artistic excellence, vibrancy and accessibility.”

Grand Rapids Symphony’s musicians are looking forward to many more years of making music with Lehninger, said Principal Harpist Elizabeth Wooster Colpean, who serves as chairperson of the GRS Orchestra Committee.

“The musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony are thrilled that Marcelo will continue to serve as Music Director,” said Colpean, who is in her 20th anniversary season with the orchestra. “He has an extraordinary gift of breathing life into each note we play, resulting in a beautiful picture created entirely out of music.”

“It’s magical!” she added. “We’re fortunate to have him here in West Michigan.”

As part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 90th anniversary season in 2019-20, Lehninger will conduct the orchestra in all five of Beethoven’s Concertos for Piano and Orchestra over two consecutive nights in March 2020. Pianist Kirill Gerstein, winner of the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award given by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, will be soloist for all five.

Also later this season, the Grand Rapids Symphony will launch a new series, The Pianists, featuring Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter, the winner of the 2006 Gilmore Artist Award, as part of the 2020 Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

“When planning the 90th season, we decided that, although this anniversary is a wonderful reason to celebrate, from now on, each year will be a stepping stone to our centennial celebration in the 2029-30 season,” Lehninger said. “Another five years will give us time to implement some of the projects and ideas I’ve been cultivating with our team. The future holds some innovative and novel plans for the orchestra, and I am truly excited to be a part of this vision.”

Winner of the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award for an Emerging Music Director by the League of American Orchestras in 2014, Lehninger made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut in February 2015 with an electrifying performance of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony No. 9. Following an explosive performance of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” in April 2016, Lehninger was the unanimous choice to become the orchestra’s 14th Music Director since the ensemble was organized in 1930.

Lehninger lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, Laura Krech, a Research Scientist at the Trauma Research Institute at Spectrum Health, and their daughters, Sofia and Camila.

“The community has been extremely welcoming to my family, and we’re very happy here,” he added. “Grand Rapids is a wonderful place to live, work and raise children.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, October 26, 2019

Live music doesn't get much better than Tchaikovsky and the Grand Rapids Symphony

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

As a composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was, and is, without equal.

He was a Russian nationalist as well as an internationalist. His music sets scenes that are descriptive and evocative. His melodies are lush, sweeping and memorable. Musicians admire his music. Audiences love it.

The genius that was Tchaikovsky was on full display at the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, October 4, in DeVos Performance Hall. In part because the entire program was devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky.  But especially because pianist Olga Kern was at the piano and Music Director Marcelo Lehninger was on the podium.  The Russian-born pianist poured her heart and soul into Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Lehninger conducted one of his favorite works, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6.

Live music doesn’t get much better than this.

Olga Kern, GR Symphony, and Tchakovsky's 'Romeo & Juliet'

Nearly 25 years of Tchaikovsky’s work was on display beginning with his first success, the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy, and his final work, the “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6. The second concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 children, remain available.

Olga Kern, the Gold Medal winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is one of today’s top piano soloists. It’s a wonder that she’s never previously appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto, especially compared to his First, is less known and less played, probably because it’s a one-movement work that lasts a mere 19-20 minutes.  Some have said the concerto lacks virtuosity for the soloist, but no one who heard Kern play it would ever say that again.

A commanding performer who often plays hunched over the keyboard, Kern doesn’t dominate a performance, but she makes her presence known. Her notes are clear and carefully etched despite the challenges of the tricky runs and arpeggios. She anoints each phrase with authority.

The solo cadenza is an orchestral-sized tour de force, alternating bravura from one hand to the other, which she played with sparkling brilliance and dynamism.

The Russian pianist, descended from a long line of musicians, delighted the audience with not one but two encores. First an electrifying performance of Rachmaninov’s Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 4 in E minor followed by a fiery performance of Prokofiev’s Etude in C minor Op. 2 No. 4.

The applause for Kern’s performance was long lasting and heart-felt.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6 may have been his greatest accomplishment. Certainly it was his last. Nine days after its premiere, he died tragically after drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. One can’t help but wonder what he would have composed had he lived another 10 or 20 years.

Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a well-balanced performance, fully in command of the music and of his orchestra.

Burnished woodwind ensemble playing, carefully controlled brass at the climaxes, and well-balanced strings were hallmarks of the performance.

Lehninger’s opening was subdued and sepulchral. Sweeping strings and explosive brass were soon to follow. The second movement was voluptuous bordering on the exotic.

The scherzo was propulsive, determined yet nimble. It sparkled so much that the audience broke into spontaneous and sustained applause afterward, never mind that there was one more movement to go.

Lehninger led a finale that was thoughtful and introspective. It needs to be. The final movement turns the whole symphony upside down. The conclusion, full of private suffering, was deeply felt.   

The evening opened with the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. Lehninger led a performance of meticulous music making a dramatic battle sequence that had the audience on the edge of its seats. Precise accents and energetic phrases portrayed the clash between the Montagues and Capulets. The breathtaking final chords led to sustained applause.

Lehninger led the well-known love theme with great clarity with little schmaltz. Passion without pathos. It’s an old familiar favorite, but in the right hands, it becomes brand new and wonderful to hear again.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at Saturday, October 5, 2019
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