THE MAGIC FLUTES OF THE GRAND RAPIDS SYMPHONY: 40 YEARS TOGETHER
by Larry Herzberg - GRS Violin
Whenever a team of highly trained and talented professionals works together for many years, they generally produce amazing results. They learn to work together as a team, feeding off each other’s strengths to create something great. If they’re a sports team, it usually means a championship season. If it’s a music group, it means an extremely high level of ensemble and spectacular music making.
And so it is with the Grand Rapids Symphony, where many of our players have worked together week after week for 35 or more seasons.
What has made the Grand Rapids Symphony an especially cohesive ensemble is the fact that the three members of our flute section have now played together for 40 years, and are still going strong! To have any section of a professional orchestra perform together on a weekly basis for four decades is very possibly a world record. It definitely is something we would like to celebrate and honor.
Christopher (Chris) Kantner, who grew up in many places from Indonesia and Pakistan to New York and Baltimore, Judith (Judy) Kemph from Ann Arbor, and Ruth Bylsma, a native of Grand Rapids, all came together back in the mid-1970’s to form a most remarkable trio of flutists. All three had begun playing the flute at the age of 9 or 10, and all did their undergraduate work here in Michigan, Judy and Chris at the University of Michigan and Ruth at Calvin College. All three flutists received Master’s degrees in music performance, with Judy obtaining hers at U. of M., Ruth at M.S.U., and Chris at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
As three of the nation’s finest flutists, they could have chosen to focus their energy on moving to a “bigger” orchestra. Early in their careers Chris had made the finals for the Baltimore Symphony, and Judy made finals for the National and Denver Symphonies. But each of them felt they could make a special contribution here in Grand Rapids and decided to put down roots in our community.
These three flutists have had some very memorable experiences over the past 40 years with the orchestra. For Judy Kemph, special memories include our Carnegie Hall performance in 2005, the Live Arts performance last year at the Arena, playing the soundtrack for films like “Lord of the Rings” and “Battleship Potemkin”, and our performances of Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies. She also fondly remembers being soloist on a number of occasions, including performances of “The Elephant and the Fly”, in both versions for piccolo and tuba with Monty Burch, as well as for piccolo and contrabassoon. When performing the latter version at a Family Concert with Vincent Karamanov, she recalls wearing a pair of black wings, a gift from former principal bassoonist, Martha Bowman.
Ruth Bylsma will never forget her very first concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Theo Alcantara was on the podium, and the guest artist was Placido Domingo! Ruth also lists as highlights her solo performances together with Chris Kantner of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto #4 and the Bottje Double Flute Concerto. For his part, Chris Kantner says that there have been many great moments for him, but that perhaps the most poignant was the orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, just after Theo Alcantara and his wife had lost their second child at four months old from SIDS. Also memorable were his performances together with the legendary flutist, Jean Pierre Rampal.
Besides performing more than one hundred concerts each year, each of our Magic Flutists is a highly accomplished teacher who has enriched the lives of countless young people in West Michigan. They all continue to teach private students of all ages at their home studios. Ruth Bylsma taught as many as 50 private flute students at the height of her teaching career back in the 1970’s, when the orchestra had nowhere close to the full season we now enjoy. Judy Kemph taught flute at Grand Valley State University from 1986 to 2007, and still teaches private lessons. Chris Kantner also teaches a lot these days, including at Grand Valley. He says it seems a logical progression for an “old salt” like him.
Our trio of flutists value highly the gift of being able to play together on a permanent basis with colleagues who bring an equally high level of musicianship and dedication to the job and to our organization. As Judy Kemph puts it, “it is essential to be able to count on the others in your section to always be there doing their best. The high quality of tone, intonation, rhythm, and technique are all a given.” Ruth Bylsma says that “I know my colleagues’ playing so well. It’s a huge advantage in creating real ensemble. It seems like I’ve spent more time with my colleagues than I have with my husband!”
Chris Kantner comments that he keeps on learning and improving, modestly proclaiming “no illusions that I can ever repay this community or this orchestra for the privilege of having a life in music.” In fact, it is all of us, the audience members and colleagues of Chris and Ruth and Judy, who are blessed that they chose our community to share their life in music.
Here’s our wish that this special flute section, sitting right at the heart of the orchestra, will continue to play together for many more years to come!
36 years violinist with the GRS