After violist Leslie Van Becker played her audition to become part of the Grand Rapids Symphony, she stopped at a payphone to call home to her parents in California.
Forty years ago, there were no cell phones or internet. Nor was much going on in downtown Grand Rapids.
“Nobody was on the street,” she recalled. “There was trash blowing down the street, and it was deserted.”
Today, of course, you can send a text all over the world. And Grand Rapids is a happening place.
“It’s a nice change,” she said. “The city is so much nicer.”
The principal violist is wrapping up her 40th anniversary season with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Only five members of the orchestra, including double bassist Kevin Flannery, who also is celebrating his 40th anniversary with the orchestra, have been on the roster as long as or longer than Van Becker.
“I still love my job, and I love music, and I love being able to play for people,” she said.
In the 1970s, the Grand Rapids Symphony began the journey of transforming itself from a community orchestra to a professional orchestra with the appointment of two violinists, a violist and a cellist as full-time, paid professionals. Together, they formed the DeVos String Quartet.
Over the next couple of years, principal players in the woodwinds and brass plus a pianist and double bassist had been hired as well. But in 1978, the original four members of the DeVos String Quartet left the orchestra, launching themselves as the New World String Quartet.
“They had to replace everybody,” Van Becker recalled.
She auditioned successfully for Music Director Theo Alcantara and joined the orchestra in 1978. Though she only played under him for two seasons, she has fond memories of the fiery, Spanish-born conductor.
“The person who hires you, you always love best because they hired you,” she said.
Over the years, Leslie Van Becker has appeared many times as soloist with the orchestra including four times in St. Cecilia Music Center. Twice, she’s performed Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote, which features solo cello and solo viola.
Over 40 years, she’s played for five music directors and countless guest conductors.
“Musically, we’ve grown quite a bit,” she said.
A few of her favorite memories include performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 under guest conductor Semyon Bychkov in November 1979, the final season the Grand Rapids Symphony played in Welsh Civic Auditorium.
“It was a once in a lifetime thing,” she said. “People went insane afterward, and I wondered, ‘What just happened?’”
The following year, the Grand Rapids Symphony moved less than a block away into the newly opened DeVos Hall with a new music director on the podium, the Russian-born Bychkov.
Another highlight was a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand” under Music Director Catherine Comet.
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony doesn’t really need 1,000 musicians. But this production employed nearly 500.
Eight vocal soloists, the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the University Musical Society Choral Union from the University of Michigan, the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys and the Boychoir of Ann Arbor all combined to give two performances in Grand Rapids and one in Ann Arbor.
“That was amazing. Just amazing,” Van Becker recalled. “Catherine was so educated, and she knew her scores backward and forward. She was exceptionally prepared for every single thing she did.”
In recent years, especially since the appointment of Marcelo Lehninger as music director, it becomes harder to single out particular programs.
“Every concert we’ve done with Marcelo has been memorable,” she said. “I’m thrilled I’ll be able to play with him. I have a newfound faith in the direction we’re going.”
Van Becker speaks highly of the rest of the artistic staff including Principal Pops conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau.
“Bob is fantastic,” she said. “John’s hardworking and knows how to put a show together fast.”
“Our schedule is harder than a lot of major orchestras,” she said. “We play so much. We play all the time.”
A native of California, Van Becker began musical studies while attending elementary school in Colorado when her father took a temporary teaching job in Colorado Springs.
Originally, she wanted to play cello.
“The only thing they had left was viola,” she said.
Though the viola isn’t as prominent as its slightly smaller cousin, the violin, or its much larger brother, the cello, pitched exactly one octave lower, Van Becker is fond of the instrument that occupies the center of the string section.
Many great composers were violists. Antonin Dvorak and Paul Hindemith played viola professionally. Mozart and Beethoven, when they played chamber music for their own pleasure, preferred to play viola.
“I think you’re on the inside of the harmony, and they liked that,” she said. “I enjoy it.”
Van Becker earned her bachelor’s degree in music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and her master’s degree in music at Yale University School of Music. What brought her to the Great Lake State was her husband, saxophonist and flutist Ed Clifford, who was accepted into graduate studies in music at Michigan State University.
“We were so poor, he just took the one that gave him the most money,” she recalled.
Yet the couple remained here in West Michigan.
“The audience in Grand Rapids is just wonderful here,” she said. “That’s one of the things that keeps us here.”
Over the years, the couple bought and restored five Victorian-Era homes in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood.
“We wanted to live downtown and walk everywhere,” she said. “We ended up with the life we wanted.”
“When you look back, it worked out really well,” she said.