GRS Archival Work
GRSMA violinist Adam Liebert writes about his passion for researching the history of the Grand Rapids Symphony's musicians and shares some interesting items that he has uncovered.
I started keeping tabs on who has held different positions in the orchestra probably well over 10 years ago. Originally it was just a means for me to remember names, audition/starting dates, along with other useful information like birthdays and spouse’s names - things for which I might doubt relying on my memory alone. Some of my friends and colleagues have joked that I was stalking everybody; however, this quickly grew into a much more involved history, tracing who has held each position in the orchestra going back further and further until it became necessary to do some real research. In August 2015, I made a trip to the Grand Rapids Public Library where I learned they keep a non-circulating collection of programs, concert reviews, and other symphony related articles. It was interesting to learn I wasn’t the first to be interested in such research. There were many printed programs in this collection, so I used my phone to take pictures of covers, orchestra rosters and concert programs to add to my personal research. Many thanks to violist Glenn B. Litton (GRS 1940s - 1966), long-time board member True O. McDonald (aka Mrs. John Duncan McDonald) for the excellent work compiling these memorabilia throughout the years.
Later, my colleague Chris Kantner offered me a rather large collection of programs; a few from the 1930s and 1940s, then more or less complete from the 1950s straight through the mid 1990s. I think he said he was given those by a neighbor or found them at a garage sale. I had the idea to scan those electronically and eventually make them available online with searchable text. I also have been working to create a “composite roster” as I call it - a list of every person who has ever played in the Grand Rapids Symphony along with some biographical data and interesting facts. It is a daunting task and one that I would like to do properly. I thought it could be interesting to document the people and events on these programs in a Wikipedia-type resource (searchable, cross-referenced, media-rich). I guess more on that later…
It is commonly given that the Grand Rapids Symphony was founded in 1930, but that is actually far from the true beginning of its story. An article in the Grand Rapids Herald from December 1909, speaks of two different symphony orchestras being organized at that time. One group was formed by G.A. Goble at the Temple Theater (formerly at 78 Market NW – that would be currently near the south end of Rosa Parks Circle) had engaged a talented local violinist, Wilber Force, to be its concertmaster and hired three members of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra (Chicago Symphony) to be featured on the season’s series. The other group was organized by Fred A. Wurzburg (talented musician and youngest son of department store owner Frederick William Wurzburg) with the name “Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra”. This orchestra gave 10 concerts during the winter at Powers’ Theater (formerly on Campau Square) every second Sunday, when the theater was not otherwise engaged. Many members of this group (in all 33 players) were again seen on future orchestra rosters in the city. This particular effort to form a permanent orchestra lasted only a couple seasons. Other endeavors were made at St. Cecilia throughout the 1910s led by Leo Rucker, and Reese Vetch.
By 1920, Ottokar Malek had taken over at St. Cecilia, moved the orchestra to Central High School, and gave it the name “Grand Rapids Civic Orchestra”. Upon Malek’s death in 1923, Karl Wecker of Cincinnati was engaged as conductor. In the meantime, yet another group developed, led by concertmaster Sherman Tuller, registering the name “Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra”. Under Wecker, the two groups were merged and reorganized to provide more generous financial support. Its directors and officers were many of the same who had previously been involved in forming an orchestra. Starting in 1925, Musicians were paid on a professional basis and presented a season of six subscription and six popular concerts. The first program by this “Grand Rapids Symphony Society” was given on Nov 28, 1925, at the Michigan Street Armory – once located in the current path of I-196 just to the northwest of Immanuel Lutheran Church. It was a very popular center of community events until the Civic Auditorium was built in 1933. Unfortunately, this effort did not last and ceased to exist between 1926 – 1929.
Once again, under the direction of Karl Wecker, a successful concert was given on the final Saturday (December 28) in 1929. Soon after, a new reorganization of the orchestra was formed (January 11, 1930) and a second concert announced for February 11. This concert featured locally known pianist and patron, Helen Baker Rowe, performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. At the time, this was a relatively new piece (written in 1924). It is interesting to note, the full orchestra accompaniment to which we are now accustomed did not even appear until 1942. Tickets were twenty-five cents and season tickets could be had for $3.00. This was the start of our current Grand Rapids Symphony.
There are many interesting events and developments to observe in these early programs such as the opening of the Civic Auditorium with a performance of the GRS on Jan 2, 1933. The Civic Auditorium (later renamed after Grand Rapids city manager and Mayor George Welsh) was an immense multi-use space with a capacity of 3,800. In addition to becoming the primary home of the Grand Rapids Symphony for almost 50 years, the Auditorium hosted many other concerts, conventions, and sporting events (even the circus when it came to town). It really was the main focal point for all of the important events and happenings in the area. Unfortunately, as the orchestra grew and improved quickly, it became clear that it wasn’t really an ideal acoustic performance space. The idea to build a more fitting venue had been discussed many times over the years. A few current members of the orchestra remember playing at Welsh Auditorium when they first joined the symphony in the late 1970s, and have attested to this. Finally, a solution came when DeVos Hall was built. Its premier event on October 14 and 15, 1980, featured performances by the Symphony, Grand Rapids Ballet and Opera Grand Rapids.
The Ballet and Opera, both had strong roots in the symphony. Starting in 1954, the Women’s Committee, as a fund raiser, brought in the New York City Opera Company to perform La Traviata albeit with their own conductor and orchestra. The following season, the GRS under Désiré DeFauw presented the first of four operas in concert form with soloists brought in from the New York City Center Opera Group. (Pagliacci - 1955, Cavallieria Rusticana - 1956, Cosi Fan Tutte - 1957, and Der Rosenkavalier - 1958). Concurrent efforts at St. Cecilia and other local organizations eventually resulted in a homespun opera company in the city. Opera Association of Western Michigan (now Opera Grand Rapids) gave its first performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the new Calvin College Fine Arts Center Auditorium on June 2, 1967.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s story is a similar one. In December 1958, the symphony, conducted by Robert Zeller, broke with tradition in presenting an unprecedented performance of Tchaikovsky’s complete Nutcracker Ballet Music including orchestra, narration and women’s chorus. It was meant to be the orchestra’s new regular family concert for the holiday season. Just one problem: no dancers, or costumes, or staging. The following season, now as Music Director, Zeller had a new idea to bring in ballet soloists from New York City to dance one full ballet of Tchaikovsky each year (Swan Lake – January 1960, Sleeping Beauty – 1961, and back to Nutcracker - December 1961). This was followed by additional programs wholly dedicated to ballet (1962 “Music of the Ballet” and 1967 “Jose Molina Baliles Espagnoles”). As in the case of the Opera, efforts began to bring a permanent ballet company to Grand Rapids. Finally in 1971, the Grand Rapids Civic Ballet, began under founding Artistic Director Sally Seven. The Grand Rapids Ballet remains Michigan’s only professional ballet company and celebrates its 50th season next year.
Looking through the programs, a clear progression to form a professional chorus in Grand Rapids can be seen. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the formation of the Youth Festival Chorus (Christmas Festival Chorus, School Festival Chorus, Inter-High Festival Chorus; depending on the year). This was a mass chorus of 500-600 young voices recruited from Christian, Central, Creston, Ottawa, South, Union, East Grand Rapids High Schools and Junior College. At first this chorus was mainly reserved for the seasonal December subscription concerts, but after the Nutcracker replaced the normal holiday program in 1958, the youth chorus began to be also utilized for non-holiday programs (Gounod Motet - 1959, Borodin Prince Igor - 1962, Prokofiev Scythian Suite - 1963, Brahms Song of Destiny - 1964). For larger works, The Westminster Chorus had been guest “soloist” in February 1958 for Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The University of Michigan Chorus was brought in from Ann Arbor to perform Verdi’s Requiem in May 1960 and Brahms Requiem May 1961. Clearly a professional quality adult chorus was needed to be in residence and so the Grand Rapids Symphonic Choir was founded in 1962. In March 1963, they performed for the first time with the Symphony in Honegger’s massive King David. The chorus was placed under the direction of Albert P. Smith – affectionately known as “Smitty”. Albert, had been a first violinist with the orchestra in the 1940s, and then long-time director of choruses at Junior College (todays GRCC). He would lead the Grand Rapids Symphonic Choir until 1979. 10 years later, in 1989, it was renamed the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; as it is known today.
There’s certainly a lot to observe about the growth of the community when looking through these programs: the board members, advertisers, the repertoire, visiting soloists, program notes (often written by members from the orchestra or local scholars), activities of the Grand Rapids Symphony Friends (founded in 1941 as the “Women's Committee”), addition of full-time positions and underwritten chairs. Perhaps the most important part is the performers themselves. All of those items probably deserve discussion in further detail, but it is the people of the orchestra that interest me most. After carefully scanning each program electronically, I made a list, by instrument, of every player who had ever been on a roster and indicated every program on which they appeared. I call this list the “GRS composite roster”. It currently is about 131 pages and covers 1908 through 1981.
Below is a brief excerpt from the violas; last names starting with K. I chose this page at random, “Go Violas!!!”, but on every page there’s something interesting to find about the players of our orchestra. You will see each player listed under section by last name, then any other interesting facts: date of birth, when they died (if known), spouses, other family members who may have also played in the orchestra. Sometimes I include what schools a player had attended, famous teachers, degrees earned, etc... All of this information is publicly available although I did use my subscription to Ancestry.com occasionally to access census data or dig a little deeper. Since there was typically only one program per month back then, I listed each year with the months in parentheses. In 1958, there were two programs in February so we see “1958(feb7, feb28)”. Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the programs from the 1930s and only two programs from the 1940s. This might make it seem like players played very sporadically but, I wanted to be as precise as possible and not assume anything. Because of the pandemic, it has not been a good year to do more research on these missing programs and I hope to fill in that information soon. The roster printed in the program in some years would indicate principals, but section players were typically listed alphabetically. This made it impossible to glean seating order in the string sections. In the case of the violin section, some seasons simply showed “violins” and did not specify first or second violin.
By 1920, Ottokar Malek had taken over at St. Cecilia, moved the orchestra to Central High School, and gave it the name “Grand Rapids Civic Orchestra”. Upon Malek’s death in 1923, Karl Wecker of Cincinnati was engaged as conductor. In the meantime, yet another group developed, led by concertmaster Sherman Tuller, registering the name “Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra”. Under Wecker, the two groups were merged and reorganized to provide more generous financial support. Its directors and officers were many of the same who had previously been involved in forming an orchestra. In 1925, Musicians were paid on a professional basis and presented a season of six subscription and six popular concerts. The first program by this “Grand Rapids Symphony Society” was given on Nov 28, 1925, at the Michigan Street Armory – once located in the current path of I-196 just to the northwest of Immanuel Lutheran Church. It was a very popular center of community events until the Civic Auditorium was built in 1933. Unfortunately, this effort did not last and ceased to exist between 1926 – 1929.
Kingsbury, J. (Josef or Jack?) Ronald
1906 – 1967
Married to GRS violinist Jane Kingsbury
principal viola 1954-65
principal 2nd violin 1925
section violin 1950(jan)
section viola 1952(mar, apr, oct, nov), 1953(jan, mar, apr)1953(oct, nov), 1954(jan, feb)
principal viola 1954(oct, nov, dec), 1955(jan, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1956(jan, feb, apr, oct, nov), 1957(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct), 1958(NO jan, NO feb7, feb28, oct, nov), 1959(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1960(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1961(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1962(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1963(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1964(jan, feb7, feb21, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1965(jan, feb, mar, apr)
section viola 1965(oct, nov, dec), 1966(jan, feb, mar, apr)
Kleynenberg, J. M.
Joseph or Johannes Martinus; also Kleinenberg
8 Oct 1894 - 8 Apr 1974
brother of GRS cellist Peter A Kleynenberg
viola 1925, 1931(mar), 1932(feb, nov, dec), 1933(mar), 1934(mar), 1935(mar, apr, may), 1936(feb, mar), 1938(jan, feb, apr, nov, dec), 1939(jan, feb, apr), 1940(apr), 1942(oct), 1946(apr, dec), 1950(jan), 1952(mar, apr, oct, nov), 1953(jan, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1954(jan, feb, oct, nov, dec), 1955(jan, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1956(jan, feb, apr, oct, nov), 1957(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1957(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct), 1958(jan, feb7, feb28, oct, nov), 1959(jan, feb, mar, apr)
Kovats, Daniel (Jr.)
29 Sep 1931 - 29 Nov 2012
son of GRS violinist Daniel Kovats Sr.
see also under trumpet
also assistant conductor Nov 1962-64 and 1973-79
also GRYSO director 1959-80
viola 1953(oct, nov), 1954(jan, feb, oct, nov, dec), 1955(jan, mar, apr nov), 1956(jan, feb, apr), 1957(oct),
principal viola 1958(jan, feb7)
viola 1958(feb28, oct, nov), 1959(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1960(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1961(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1962(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1963(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1964(jan, feb7, feb21, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1965(jan, feb, mar, apr)
principal viola 1966(oct, nov, dec), 1967(jan, may, oct, nov, dec), 1968(jan, feb, mar, apr, oct, nov, dec), 1969(jan, feb, mar, may, oct, nov, dec), 1970(jan, feb, apr, may, oct, nov, dec), 1971(oct, nov, dec), 1972(jan, feb, apr, sep, oct, dec), 1973(feb, mar, apr, may, oct, nov), 1974(feb), 1975(apr)
viola(2) 1974-75, 1975-76(NO feb27, mar, apr), 1976-77,
viola(4) 1977-78, 1978-79, 1979-80
Kuiper, K. G.
viola 1950(jan), 1952(oct, nov), 1953(jan, mar, apr, oct, nov), 1954(jan, feb, oct, nov, dec), 1955(jan)
J. Ronald Kingsbury had played as Principal Second Violin in the 1925 version of the Grand Rapids symphony and wasn’t seen again until 1950. Since I haven’t had a chance to see many programs from the 1940s, it’s possible he was there earlier than 1950. In 1952, he seems to have switched to viola and in the space of a couple years became principal for eleven seasons, 1954-65. He then stepped down and played in the section for a couple more years. He had a wife, Jane, who played violin in the orchestra from 1950 until her death in 1961
Looking at the second example of violist J. M. Kleynenberg, you’ll see he lived from 1894-1974, was a charter member of GRS and was also involved in the earlier Grand Rapids Symphony effort of 1925. He had been listed as “J.M.” most of the time, but also as Joseph or Johannes. A Germanic spelling of his last name had also been used. He had a brother who was principal cellist of GRS until 1935. His brother Peter married pianist Florence Malek, the widow of St. Cecilia’s conductor Ottokar Malek (1875 - 1923). To go a little further into local history, Florence Malek, was a long-time friend of artist Mathias J. Alten and his wife Bertha. Florence was said to have dressed in mourning black for a period of about two years after her husband died; and was captured in this portrait (ca. 1924). I realize we drifted away from J.M quite a bit, but I do find these connections interesting. J.M. was not seen on programs after Spring 1959, so I thought must have retired from playing until his death in 1974. I discovered an article in the Holland Sentinel from 1964 which mentions that he had retired 5 years before from R. C. Allen (a Grand Rapids company known for typewriters and aviation equipment) and that he and his wife enjoyed traveling.
In the third example, Daniel Kovats (Jr.) played in the viola section starting in 1949. This is according to other sources I found about him. The first program I have with his name is October 1953. It’s probable that he was 2nd chair in the section for at least a part of this time since in January and February 1958 he was shown as Principal when regular principal J. Ronald Kingsbury was absent. Then, Mr. Kovats became Principal Viola permanently from 1966-1974. In addition to viola, he was known as a fine trumpet player and was listed in the trumpet section as an extra player in January 1956 and then twice more in 1964. Daniel Kovats was the first director of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony from 1959-80 and was assistant conductor of the GRS under Robert Zeller from 1962-64 and, again under Theo Alcántara, 1973-79. In 1974, efforts began to add full-time players to the orchestra and the DeVos Quartet was formed. Dan stepped down and sat second chair with new principal and DeVos Quartet violist George Woshakiwsky [aka Yuri Vasilaki]. The programs at that time showed the seating order and were not alphabetical. To make room for new full-time and “artist-in residence” positions being added to the orchestra, he stepped back to 4th chair in 1977 and 5th chair in 1980. His father, Daniel Sr., was also a violinist with the orchestra all through the 1930s and 1940s.
The last two examples show K.G. Kuiper who played most but not all programs in the early 1950s; and Sam Kurlandsky who played only once in February 1970. A little web search shows that Sam had been a violist with the Kalamazoo Symphony and also principal violist during his time at the University of Michigan (’39) under Thor Johnson (GRS music director 1940-42).
To finish up this article. I would like to post a few programs from various years and let you possibly discover something interesting for yourself.
-Adam Liebert, violinist GRS 2001-present
February 25, 1938
This program is notable since it features Cuban-born pianist Jose Echainiz as soloist 10 years before he would become GRS music director in 1948.
A few other items to notice:
James H. Sheppard, was the first board President when the Symphony was reorganized in 1930. He served successfully until October 1948. Since then, no President has served longer than 5 years.
Mrs. Helen Baker Rowe, mentioned earlier in this article as one of the first soloists with the orchestra, was a long-time supporter and served on the Symphony Society Board as secretary.
Violinist Samuel Ragir (1892-1946), contributed a prime advertising spot for his department store on the back cover of the symphony program for many years.
Peter Pocze (1896-1991) was GRS principal bass from 1933-1959. He also served as librarian for the orchestra from 1925 until 1959. Kevin Flannery (GRS bass 1977-present) told me that Peter, in retirement, would always attend GRS concerts and visit the bass section at intermission.
April 12, 1946
Mrs. John Duncan McDonald (1905-1999), President of the Women’s Committee. Mentioned earlier in this article, True O. McDonald served in important role over many years on the Women’s Committee, on the Symphony board and as an official historian for the orchestra. Helen Devos credited True McDonald with recruiting her to the Symphony Board in the early 1970s. Rich and Helen DeVos provided the initial funds to hire four full-time musicians in 1974, beginning the process of transforming the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra to a thoroughly professional orchestra. The initial four – two violins, a viola and a cello -- were named the DeVos String Quartet. Today, the four principal players continue to perform as the DeVos String Quartet.
Artist Reynold H Weidenaar Sr. is featured in an advertisement for Raymers Book Store. Weidenaar (1915-1985), was an artist from Grand Rapids, recognized nationally as well as locally for his technical virtuosity as a draftsman and printmaker. Weidenaar designed the GRS program covers 1960-63.
His son, Reynold Henry Weidenaar Jr. (b. 1945), is an American composer, film maker and video artist. He worked with Robert Moog at the Independent Electronic Music Centre in Trumansburg, New York (1965–69) and studied composition at the Cleveland Institute with Donald Erb, and at NYU with Brian Fennelly. Reynold Jr. played clarinet twice with GRS in 1963.
An advertisement for a children’s concert to be conducted by Rudolph Ganz, who would become music director the following season.
Program notes by Gerald A Elliott (1907-1994), performed this task for many years and also wrote the concert reviews for the Symphony. He was an editorial writer for the Grand Rapids Press.
April 17, 1952
As a violinist myself, I thought this program of Ruggiero Ricci making a third appearance with the GRS was interesting. Maybe this partly explains why there were only his recordings of Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos at the Grand Rapids Public Library when I was growing up.
Page 16, an advertisement for a Spring Opera Festival at Wealthy Theatre. Here is an even earlier effort to bring Opera to Grand Rapids than those directly sponsored by the GRS mentioned earlier in this article. Three operas were presented over 2 weeks and the Wealthy Theatre (Rigoletto, Pagliacci, Il Trovatore) with touring orchestra. Not sure how they fit that all in there???
January 15, 1960
Swan Lake full ballet mentioned earlier in this article.
An Article about the Women’s Committee’s 16th Annual Contest in which winners would perform with the symphony on the February subscription programs. Mention of Neal Plantinga, age 13 as runner-up. Neal would later join the orchestra in Fall 1962, serve as Associate Concertmaster 1966-67 and as Concertmaster 1968-1970. Neil most notably served as president of Calvin Theological Seminary from 2002 through 2011. He is the brother of philosopher Alvin Plantinga and noted musicologist Leon Plantinga.
November 10, 1967
I think it would have been interesting to take part in this program with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Noted for their elegant presentation, they were one of the first small jazz combos to perform in concert halls rather than only nightclubs. Check out their album: The Modern Jazz Quartet & Orchestra including a work written for them and orchestra by Gunther Schuller.
Note: advertisements for local restaurants now only remembered… The Schnitzelbank, Tony Lakos, Beefeater Room, and those at the Pantlind Hotel (Amway Grand). Brann’s still has several locations around the area.
Violinist Suzanne [O’Neal] VanderStarre (GRS 1954- 2005) appears in this program as Associate Concertmaster. She is one of a few musicians who have played with the orchestra for over 50 years culminating with the orchestras first performance at Carnegie Hall.
February 7, 1975
First appearance of the DeVos Quartet.
Kathleen Winkler and William Patterson, violins
George Woshakiwsky, viola and Ross Harbaugh, cello
Can you name any players who are in the orchestra today?
May 3-14, 1977
3rd annual Mozart Festival, 2 weeks featuring opera, symphonic works, and chamber music performances.
October 30 & 31 1980
Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beethoven 9th Symphony!
Symyon Bychkov’s first concert as music director.
First GRS subscription concerts in DeVos Hall after premier event (October 14 & 15)
How many players do you recognize from today’s GRS on this program???