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GRSMA musicians performing at The Littlebird in celebration of the opening of downtown outdoor dining

Frequent Flyers: A Nod to Two Birds in our Community

by Paul Austin


Many GRSMA musicians happily frequent downtown's The Littlebird restaurant and That Early Bird cafe in Eastown. But they may not be aware of how these two eateries are connected to their present jobs with the Grand Rapids Symphony.


In one of this issue's musician profiles, Grace Kim states that The Littlebird is her favorite restaurant in Grand Rapids. And in the Principal Parents feature, John Sullivan credits former GRS violist Robert Wepman as being an influential figure during his high school years. 


Such a coincidence when worlds collide! Littlebird and Early Bird are owned by Sarah Wepman and her husband Joel Wabeke. And Robert Wepman is Sarah's father. 


However, Robert Wepman was more than just a violist in the Grand Rapids Symphony. In 1973 he became the first business manager of the GRS and was primarily responsible for bringing Theo Alcantra to the organization as its music director. During his two years in this position, Wepman developed the Artists-in-Residence program that began transforming the GRS from being a community ensemble into the professional orchestra that it is today. In a 1978 interview with The Grand Rapids Press, Robert Wepman stated that “It will probably go down as my most difficult and treasured two years.” 


After he passed away in 2013, Robert Wepman was noted by Margie Gage (former GRSMA musician and longtime Third Horn with the GRS) as being "one of the greatest managers the symphony's ever had. He made many of us believe that there was no better place in the world to be an orchestra musician than Grand Rapids, Michigan."


Today, GRSMA musicians believe and know that Grand Rapids is a very special place. In spite of 2020 being an incredibly difficult year for restaurant owners, Sarah and Joel continued to safely serve patrons, first with delivery and curbside service, and now with outdoor seating. Sarah relays that "the musicians certainly have a special place in my heart. My whole entire Grand Rapidian portion of my life has revolved one way or another around the arts community downtown. Now Littlebird seems like another extension of that, and it gives me immense joy that many GRSMA members enjoy it."


Actually, Sarah and Joel have opened another eatery. Quarantino's, Detroit style pizza, is conveniently located across the street from That Early Bird on Lake Drive in Eastown. This is a bold move and shows their drive to succeed in spite of the pandemic. 


To assist in celebrating the opening of downtown outdoor dining this summer, GRSMA musicians Grace Kim (violin), Leslie Van Becker (viola), and Andrew Laven (cello) performed a brief concert at Littlebird, along with saxophonist Ed Clifford. Sarah expressed her gratitude by saying that "it was just the first night with something pleasant happening since the shutdown. Thanks so much for all your kind support. It is so meaningful to us."


But the thanks goes to you, Sarah and Joel, for providing a bright spot in the world for GRSMA musicians. Know too that we owe so much to the work of your father, Robert Wepman, in shaping the arts community that we have and enjoy in Grand Rapids today.

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