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My Half Century with the GR Symphony

by Susanne Vanderstarre

GRS Violinst 1954-2004


I heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform Tchaikovsky’s "Romeo and Juliet” when I was 13 years old and decided right there that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  The Grand Rapids Symphony gave me the chance to do just that.


I came to Grand Rapids in the fall of 1953.  I subbed for several concerts the season I arrived and was delighted when I collected $2.50 per service.  The next season I auditioned and management started counting till I reached my 50th season and retired in 2004.


In the 1960’s, when Robert Zeller and later Carl Karapetian were our conductors, the orchestra began to make some musical progress.

One week we would have rehearsals on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and the following Wednesday and Thursday we would continue to rehearse the same program, with the concert that Friday.  We only gave one concert a month for six months out of the year.  The violinist, Don Armstrong, owned a huge orchestra library and organized park concerts in the summers.  We would also do an occasional gig here and there for Music Trust Fund money.   Principal players in the orchestra now made $5 for a concert, but still $2.50 for each rehearsal.  


It wasn’t until Theo Alcantara arrived in the 1970’s that the Grand Rapids Symphony really began to become a truly great ensemble.  Theo’s second season with us saw the debut of the DeVos String Quartet.  In the two years following he hired five full-time woodwind players and then some full-time brass players.  The wind and brass players were largely chosen from the best players at the U. of Michigan School of Music.  Some of these fine players are still with the symphony. We started doing more concerts, including a separate series in the newly opened Fine Arts Center at Calvin College.  We did opera and ballet and run-out concerts, and were getting paid much better.  We always had some great guest artists.   


Under Semyon Bychkov and then Catherine Comet, we became a top regional orchestra, with a budget to match.  We were excited about having the first woman conductor of a major orchestra.  As for pay, we finally did have a sizable number of "full time" musicians, who actually could make a living playing in the orchestra.  Of course they also had to give lessons and pick up extra gigs, doing weddings and funerals and running all over town between rehearsals.  Fortunately, I had a husband to support me and my four kids, so I didn't have to scrape out a living as a part-time musician.  

I will always be so grateful for my husband, Evert's, support.  Not just for me, but for the orchestra, too.  Most of you probably don’t remember that he made the conductor’s wooden music stand to Theo Alcantara’s specifications, one that I believe David Lockington was still using. Talk about being around long after I'm gone!


I continued playing in the orchestra for 50 years for the joy of making great music with others who loved it like I did.  I wanted us all to be reimbursed to the amount that the organization was capable of. Now it seems that management wants the work to fit the money instead of vice versa, and it's not fair.  Too many people have worked for too many years for us to slide backwards.  Not just the orchestra, but all the volunteers, all the generous donors, enthusiastic and faithful board members, and always the audience.  I hope we don't all get cheated.


However speaking of money, I remember the year that I first drew Social Security.  The clerk said “But you're still working. You can't earn more than $10,000 a year!" I said “No problem!” I realized that with all those years of studying, practicing, rehearsing, and performing under all sorts of peculiar and sometimes difficult circumstances, I never ever made even ten thousand dollars a year. It's a good thing I loved making music as much as I did!


Given little or no federal or state aid, management must create more programs to draw in new audiences and the Board must raise more money, if great orchestras like the Grand Rapids Symphony are to continue to grow and thrive.




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