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
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