GRSMA Pays Tribute to John Varineau
John and Gwen Varineau after a 2016 "Notes at Noon" performance at Calvin University (Photo Credit: Ruth Vanden Bos)
GRSMA musicians share stories and photos from our years with GRS Associate Conductor John Varineau, who will be retiring in May of 2021.
My mom wants to marry John Varineau. And that bit of news didn't surprise John when I told him. She first saw him in action leading a GRS Holiday Pops concert in DeVos Hall and fell for him. According to John, this happens a lot. My mom turns 95 this summer. Those of us who work with John know that he wears many hats. But Chef John?
This photo, taken in May of 2014, shows contestant John with Leslie Van Becker during a special GRS fund-raising event based upon those popular television cooking shows. My participation was to blow the alphorn to sound the beginning and end of the thirty-minute competition. Contestants had to create an entree for a panel of judges, and I remember that John dropped his food on the ground during the rush of the final ten seconds. Following the three-second rule of fallen food, John picked up those dropped items and put them on the plate anyway. Unfortunately the judges did not abide by that rule, and John's competitor won. But it doesn't matter -- you will always be a winner with us, John!
John Varineau has been a fixture in the GRS institution since I came here in 1998. He is actually the one who hired me! The orchestra was between Music Directors at the time; Catherine Comet had moved on several months earlier and David Lockington had not been brought on board yet. John was running the show, and he needed a Principal Clarinet. So I came out from Cleveland to audition and had no idea he wasn't the Music Director until after I moved here. Since he is a clarinetist, he knows all the big solos that are in my parts, and it's been fun to play them together over the years. Somehow, that cat in "Peter and the Wolf" always made it up the tree! Thanks John for your energy and infectious enthusiasm during my time here, and congratulations on your retirement! Best wishes to you and Gwen.
At the end of my first week with the GRS in the early 1990s, which doubled as a house-buying trip, I had to make a quick trip to Meijer. While running around the store, I found John Varineau there in the plumbing aisle, picking out some parts to make a repair at home. I hadn't had the chance to talk much with him during that Classics week, so I wanted to get to know him a little. When I found out that he too was a DIYer (do-it-yourself-er), Grand Rapids felt a little bit more like home. We had a nice conversation there while looking at the selection of plumbing parts. I was so glad to know I would be working with a very personable conductor. In addition, I soon found out what an intensely hard worker he was. Just about everything he prepared for the GRS had to be done on a single rehearsal, and he was never unprepared for that task. Everything was done with the utmost tactfulness and respect. To say I was constantly impressed with his acumen would be a severe understatement. To say that the GRS was fortunate to have gained such a talented, quick witted, tireless individual to lead us in our Music Director's absence would be insufficient. To discuss his many community honors for contributions that make our city great wouldn't do him justice. Thank you John for an amazing run, for all the terrific concerts, and for all the jokes that you told to the audiences. Thank you for making me feel welcome from the start. Thank you for the wonderful chamber music concerts we've done together over the years. Working with you has been a great honor.
Congratulations to John on his retirement! There are so many reasons that I will miss seeing John at work. I will forever be in awe of his ability to graciously throw himself into any situation, from movie scores to pop shows to classical concerts. His humor and positive outlook made rehearsals fun, and I always felt that he put the needs of the musicians first, never ever his own ego. John's humor and personality shone through when he spoke to audiences. I am very grateful that he used some of my jokes in a pops show! (Though I never did receive payment for those....) The impact he made on countless students is inspiring and powerful. We will miss you, John!
John Varineau's impact on our community is immeasurable. People of all ages have been moved by the music-making that John has brought to us over the past 36 years. He has especially touched the lives of so many young people here. He has brought enjoyment to the little ones who have attended our Lollipops concerts, as well as families at our many movie concerts and the Family series. He has brought a wonderful musical experience to hundreds of thousands of 5th graders over the years. One student was chosen to conduct a march to end each of those concerts. In 1995, my 5th grade daughter got the opportunity to stand on the podium with John and conduct.
Two years later she became a member of the GR Youth Symphony cello section and played in the GRYS for the next six years under John's direction. What a privilege for these young people to have such a great leader who challenged them with great literature. I cannot adequately express my gratitude to John for all he has done to make music so meaningful and accessible in our community. He will be greatly missed.
What I am most envious about John is that he has an exceptional collection of jackets for our holiday concerts. I always drool over his Holiday Pops jackets. But, in reality, I have the highest respect for his compassion, his work ethic, and his incredible ability to reach out to various communities in West Michigan. I can’t even imagine what our 5th Grade concerts will be like without him. Sending best wishes to John and Gwen for their new chapter.
Always curious about language and terms, I admire John for always being there with a smile and with thoughts to define, explain, or research a musicology question or idea. Whether it's discovering the Dolmetsch Dictionary, or learning that a swell over a note is "messa di voce" or a turn is a "gruppetto", it was always fun to challenge him (and he never ran from a challenge). When the pandemic hit, John was also there to help define, explain, or research how to navigate students and groups to make this work. What a gift he has for never saying "NO" and always trying to solve problems no matter how small. Thank you John for always being a fabulous resource of musical thoughts and ideas, and for demonstrating tenacity of thought!
John Varineau -- where do I begin? Since I joined the Grand Rapids Symphony, John has been a constant, positive presence. From conducting education concerts to conducting complicated film scores (and to helping me find my first dog), John has been there. In his purple t-shirt (for royalty, of course), John has conducted hundreds of Lollipops concerts and, in his suit, even more 5th Grade concerts. His communication with kids is so warm and genuine, and the Youth Symphony members really enjoy their time with him. His work with film scores is really incredible, as he is able to keep everything together so well (although I imagine he won’t miss that stress!). His wonderful musicianship is present at every event that he conducts, whether it be a Pops concert at Cannonsburg or a Classical concert in DeVos Performance Hall. On a personal level, John is an incredibly caring person, and I will miss the warmth and sincerity that he brings with him to all GRS events. I wish John much happiness and joy in all the adventures that the future holds for him!
John will be missed. He took the job of GRS Associate Conductor and made it central to the mission of the orchestra. His seamless assumption of Pops Conductor after Richard Hayman (including clarinet solos), the mantle of "The Nutcracker" conductor for the GR Ballet, every run-out concert from Classical to kiddy shows, being the music advisor during a Music Director search, the mainstay for the summer season, the GR Youth Symphony, a real facility to accompany movies, an untiring advocate for the orchestra, well, the list goes on and on. Did I forget to mention the snowy Greenville Holiday Pops run-out concerts?
John Varineau is a fine musician who devoted almost his entire working life to the Grand Rapids Symphony. Whether it was a side-by-side concert, a feature film, ballet, or our flagship Classical series, John has treated each concert and each audience member with respect. He is a true professional. John has never shied away from challenges and has always risen to the occasion. Being the Associate Conductor is a difficult job. Not only did John have to prepare for all of his concerts, but he also had to be prepared to step in for every other concert that he was not scheduled to conduct. I don’t know if everyone recognizes how much and how difficult this type of work is, because John never called attention to it. He is one of the most hardworking individuals you will ever meet. It has been a privilege to work with him. I will miss him dearly.
I have known John for many years. I have played under his direction in the Grand Rapids Symphony, performed chamber music with him, and had him visit my son’s grade school early one morning to do an educational presentation about being a conductor. These are great memories for me, but my favorite thing about John (besides his jokes at our Pops concerts) is who he is as a person. John Varineau is a good man, and that is a special quality that will last beyond his professional years with our orchestras. I am so happy that John will remain involved with our wonderful symphony and community. Here’s to having time to smell the flowers, John!
Andrew Genemans/bassoon and contrabassoon
My first concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony was actually with John Varineau, back when I was a substitute with the orchestra. John was conducting Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2”, and he made my first experience with the GRS a memorable one with his musicality and kindness. I will miss John sorely and want to wish my bow tie buddy nothing but the best in retirement.
Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play my first GRS 5th Grade concert with John Varineau. Even though this year’s concert looked far different than it probably did in a typical year, when there would have been thousands of students filling the hall, I could still sense the enormity of the occasion. The feeling of community, both onstage and in the music we played for the cameras, was palpable. Thank you John for helping us build a foundation of love and support for one another and for our community members, always with great humor. This is a legacy I look forward to being a part of for many more years to come!
I have the special memory of working with John in the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony for two years. John fostered a fun and optimistic experience on one rehearsal per week, taking us into some of the big time repertoire. My most touching experience would be playing "Pictures at an Exhibition" under his baton near the end of my senior year. What a cool way to cap off my time with GRYS before going off to music conservatory. His care and dedication was always so evident. Thank you John for your service to the community and for being a voice of encouragement in my life!
John always worked hard and always treated everyone with kindness and respect. His legacy of engaging performances, audience connection, and caring about the musical education of young people is woven into who we are as an organization. As if conducting an orchestra is not demanding enough by itself, John was willing to take on countless other projects to help the Grand Rapids Symphony. With all of his intellectual gifts, I have no doubt that there were plenty of other professions that John could have chosen. I am glad that he chose music and Grand Rapids. Thank you John! May you and Gwen enjoy a wonderful time in this next chapter of your lives.
Kathleen Gomez/oboe and English horn
What can I say about JPV? He is a great educator, knowledgeable music scholar, wonderful conductor, and sincere friend. Besides that, he has so many files in his memory bank! If you are trying to remember a concert or a piece of music but just cannot, ask John. He will know! There was a fun performance that John organized years ago that I will never forget. He got a small orchestra together to perform Handel's "The Messiah" in Gaylord. The best part was that we got to stay in a ski lodge. A good time was had by all! Being part of John's final GRS 5th Grade concert brought tears to my eyes. Playing for the last time with him the J. S. Bach "Little Fugue in g minor", Beethoven's 5th, the finale to Rossini's "William Tell Overture", and the Sousa march brought a flood of memories to mind. John will be greatly missed.
Diane McElfish Helle/violin
Combining live orchestra with film is a common activity for American orchestras now. However, when John began that activity with the GRS, it was a brand new experience for everyone. Leaving the dress rehearsal on the afternoon of our very first time to do so, there was a feeling of trepidation; the projector had repeatedly broken down, and we had not managed to do even one successful run-through. John sent us off to our dinners with the promise that he’d have everything solved by the time we returned. True to his promise, when the musicians returned to the stage for the performance, all problems were solved, with a projector swapped and John ready on the podium. We went on to have a first-rate show that evening before a full house. When it became clear that our audiences enjoyed seeing films with live orchestra, we branched out to other types of movies. This became one of John’s specialties, and he did it without any of the fancy technology. John coordinated music with the film using just the timings marked in his score and a clock with a second hand sweep. One of the most memorable movie moments onstage with John occurred during our performance of "The Wizard of Oz". There is a long, non-stop, instrumental section during the film's tornado scene which culminates in the sudden cut-off of all sound at the exact moment the house lands on the ground. There was absolutely no room for error. At the performance, the scene began with the funnel cloud swirling on the giant screen above and the orchestra playing like mad. John was driving us faster and faster and then BAM, at the precise moment when we hit our last note, the house hit the ground. Perfection! It felt like a game-winning touchdown! What the audience saw at that moment was a conductor standing calmly on the podium. However, if you had been on stage facing the conductor, you would have seen something else: John's beaming face, his hands against his chest with his fingers doing an enthusiastic “happy dance” as he mouthed “WooHoo!” in a soundless but jubilant celebration.
As we all know, playing a score along with a film can be incredibly difficult, and John has led us through so many outstanding performances of movies. One instance in particular sticks out in my mind, though. When playing "Home Alone" a few years ago, there is a spot where the youth chorus sings acapella, then the orchestra has to enter perfectly synced up with the movie. With their adrenaline pumping during the performance, the youth chorus pushed ahead and got off by a couple of measures. I can clearly remember looking up at John, terrified as to how he would navigate the orchestra's rapidly approaching entrance. Then, in a herculean act reminiscent of tales of people lifting a car to help a trapped child escape, John, by sheer talent and technique, pulled the entire youth chorus back into sync with the film. Not just beats, but entire measures were recovering in just a few moments, allowing for a seamless orchestral entrance. The audience I am sure noticed nothing, but to me it was a perfect example of John saving the day, which is something we have seen him do countless times.
Judy Kemph/flute and piccolo
John Varineau has been a pleasure to work with for these thirty-six seasons. His kind heart, generous intellect, superb musicianship, and sense of humor made working with John enriching and fun. Thank you John for all of the above and for the multitudinous times you saved me with your cues and clear direction. Best wishes for a retirement as fabulously successful as your Grand Rapids Symphony career, from your colleague and fan!
Thanks for all your incredibly hard work, John. Your work both on and off stage have been essential to the growth of the orchestra, and I’m so grateful that we have such a good foundation to keep building into the future. Have a relaxing retirement!
A standout among many of fond personal recollections of what an amazing musician and person John Varineau is dates back to 2006. John was approached by the Symphony to present a Casual Classics program at St Cecilia, and he brilliantly came up with a program called "Film Transformations" (made up entirely of music written for the cinema). The program consisted of Nino Rota's music for Fellini's "La Strada", Virgil Thomson's music for the 1936 documentary "The Plow That Broke the Plains", and John Corigliano's "Suite from The Red Violin". I was honored and excited that John asked me to play the solo part to the Corigliano, one iteration of several versions of the film score (Chaconne, Concerto, Etudes) that Corigliano created from the movie (he learned how to milk a cash cow from Stravinsky!). The Suite is just for strings and percussion and so was perfect for St Cecilia's auditorium. I set about getting the part and soon learned that there was no piano reduction for the piece, obviously a major stumbling block to being able to adequately prepare a concerted work. Not missing a beat, John, in his usual unassuming manner, jumped in and created a reduction from scratch for me which I then was able to use in workshopping the piece at Magic Mountain Music Farm in upstate New York the summer before the performance. John's quiet generosity and unwavering dedication to the art of music, to his colleagues and of course to the Grand Rapids Symphony, is a model for all of us. His support in giving me such a wonderful opportunity for growth and self realization is something I will always treasure.
My first concert in DeVos Hall is one I can still see in my mind's eye, even though it took place nearly 25 years ago, with John Varineau on the podium. I was still a student at MSU and was called to come and play the extra trombone part on Witold Lutoslawski's terrific "Concerto for Orchestra". It was my first time subbing with the GRS, and I was as nervous as I ever had been. But I'll never forget that first concert, and I'll always recall that the first time I ever played with this fine orchestra was under the baton of John Varineau. Little did I know that not too long after that, I would be hired into the Grand Rapids Symphony by John Varineau as well! The second trombone position was open during the period of time between Catherine Comet and David Lockington and, for any auditions that took place during that season, John was the acting Music Director (which meant he had the final say on who would be hired). I'll never forget that audition; it was grueling, since I was asked to play five rounds. The final round was certainly unique! Apparently some members on the committee were concerned about a few issues with rhythm, and so they decided to have one final round, with me onstage along with Maestro John Varineau. The question, ultimately, was if I could follow a conductor. I'll never forget being onstage, playing my trombone part to pieces like Rossini's "Overture to La Gazza Ladra" five feet away from John, who was conducting a sole trombone player. And I'll always be thankful to him that in the final analysis, he said, "Yes, let's give him a chance". One of the highlights of my career was performing James Stephenson's "La Grand Vitesse" triple brass concerto, commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony for the (at the time) three Assistant Principal brass players: Charley Lea, Erich Peterson, and myself. John Varineau conducted the premier and subsequent performances of the piece. Essential to the success of that premier and performance was John's support of the idea from the very beginning, as well as his fine ability to accompany soloists. I'll always be grateful to John for helping bring this piece into existence, and supporting my colleagues and me in bringing this terrific piece to our audiences. It was with sadness that I heard that John would be retiring. He truly is irreplaceable, considering all he has done for our organization over the years. I admire and appreciate John immensely. He is a conductor who musicians can always count on to be prepared and knows what we need and when we need it in order to play our best. He is a remarkably humble man and has always viewed his role in the orchestra to be of service to the audience, the composer, and the musicians, and he has done that extraordinarily well through his long career. On top of this, his rapport with audiences is remarkable. He has also been a great gift to the effort of music education in West Michigan. He has introduced classical music to literally hundreds of thousands of young people during his long tenure, as well as helping to shape future professional musicians through his long tenure at the helm of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony. He has been so impactful in this regard that the GRS now has within its ranks members who began their musical journey with the GR Youth Symphony, ensuring that the legacy of John Varineau's musical gifts to the West Michigan community will endure long after his retirement. In conclusion, all I can say is "Bravo, John, and thank you"!
I don't believe the Grand Rapids Symphony Society will ever be blessed with another member like John Varineau. He has made a positive impact on every arm of the organization while simultaneously claiming none of the credit. John was a tireless educator, fundraiser, advocate for new music, artistic planner, and especially a conductor who could be relied upon to fiercely lead any type of program, even if the baton was handed to him at the last minute.
My first concert on Principal Bassoon here was with John conducting the opening Classical concert of the season! Congratulations on a great career and a well-deserved retirement.
John Varineau owns a special place in the hearts of everyone in our house. He was my wife Sarah’s first orchestra conductor in the GRYS and her first conducting teacher (on the podium of a GRS 5th Grade concert). For our two girls, he is THE conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony. They are so excited to see him conduct and always have a hug for him whenever they see him (right now it’s an elbow bump!). When we cancelled the first batch of concerts last spring due to COVID, both of our daughters were literally in tears at the news – not because they were going to miss our performances of "Peter Rabbit" or the movie "Up", but because “Now we can’t see Mr. John Varineau conduct”. When we’ve asked Amelia what instrument she wants to play, she says she wants to be a conductor like “Mr. John Varineau” and conduct concerts for kids. The list of John’s positive qualities is seemingly endless, but one thing that stands out is his “I can do that” attitude. John is always looking to help people and the GRS in any way that he can to make a difference. If there’s something that needs to be done, he will usually volunteer in some way. If he doesn’t know how to do it, he’ll learn it and figure it out. He has built his life and career around this giving attitude for helping others. You can ask him to help with just about anything and he will figure out a way that he can contribute, including being carried onstage inside of Santa’s bag of toys! John was looking for a way to make a grand entrance for a GRS Holiday Pops concert, and he asked if I thought I would be able to carry him onstage in my bag. Of course I said “I can do that!”. Here is the photo of John in that bag!
Photo Credit: Terry Johnston
This is just one silly little example of John’s willingness to do anything for us in the GRS. John is a wonderful human being, musician, educator, and colleague, and I’m honored to also call him a great friend of mine. I’m sad that my girls won’t play under him in the GRYS or see him conduct a Lollipops/Family concert again, but I’m so very grateful and thankful for him and all that he has done for so many people.
John Varineau has played a central role in many of the pivotal times of my musical life. John led the GRS Lollipops concerts where I first met the orchestra. I then had him as conductor when I joined the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and again at Calvin University, where his funny stories, memorable ways of teaching rhythms, and rather fearless programming continually stoked my excitement for symphonic music. To then become a colleague of his in the GRS family was maybe the strangest part of me joining the orchestra, and it took quite some time to switch from "Mr. Varineau" to "John"! Looking back on my time making music with John, I'm amazed at his ability to connect with all of his different audiences on both sides of the podium: professional musicians, middle and high school musicians, college musicians, elementary school concert attendees, movie franchise fanbases, Pops and Classical concert attendees, and the list goes on. I'll never forget our GRYS tour to Costa Rica where we played concerts in churches, theaters, and even someone's yard. At one concert, we were warming up and no one was showing up. We were unsure if we would play the concert when two people finally came in. John was adamant that we play the concert even though the audience was so much smaller than other concerts. He really instilled in his students and those around him both a love for music and the tenet that music is not just for big crowds or special people, it is for everyone.
Jo and Will Preece/violin and cello
Dear 'JohnVarineau' (as a single name, like Cher or Elvis), We hope you have the most wonderful retirement full of adventures, gardening, and delicious food. When we think of how you've impacted our lives in GR and what role you've played as a member of the GRS family, you are virtually everywhere. What giant shoes you are leaving behind to fill. We are so glad to have had the opportunity to work with you both on and off stage. We love it that Mina knows you, which is a testament to your presence in our community, especially for the little ones. We look forward to seeing you around, continuing to connect our community to your musical family. Just remember not to plant the seedlings in the ground before Memorial Day! Take very good care, from Jo, Will, and Mina.
While my time with the Grand Rapids Symphony has been brief, I really feel like I got to know John for the incredible human being, musician, and comedian that he is. I'll never forget him conducting "Harry Potter", "The Nightmare Before Christmas", and "Home Alone", often without a click track! How he managed to keep the orchestra with the film is beyond me. My favorite memories though are the jokes he'd tell coming out to start a show or while on the podium for the 5th Grade concerts. He made me laugh and that's not easy to do!
I can’t say I have one particular story to tell about Maestro John Varineau, but I would like to say the Grand Rapids community will surely miss him. Whether introducing the youngest audiences to classical music at our Lollipops concerts or expertly leading us through a film score or his iconic 5th Grade concerts, John has been a pillar at the GRS. He has reached so many people with his love of music and will not soon be forgotten. I wish him and his family much joy in his retirement.
I don't even know where to begin when talking about John! He is one of the smartest people I know. Who needs Google when I can just text John for the answer? John is a rockstar in our community. When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I play for the GRS, the question that comes up is quite often, "Do you know John Varineau?". John is the name and face of the symphony. The other response I get is people reminiscing about attending a 5th Grade concert as a kid. And that would be John Varineau! John and I often shared rides to run-out concerts. We've had many conversations about our families, religion, and of course music. I've worked with John as his Assistant Conductor for the Classical Orchestra starting in 2001, and we've seen a lot of students come through the program. One of my most amusing memories is from one of our DeVos Hall concerts. It was my turn to conduct and, when John went to introduce me, he couldn't remember my name! So there he was on stage trying to remember my name and having no luck coming up with it. It was highly entertaining! I am so grateful for everything that John has done for the GRS, and I don't think that we even realize how much he's been responsible for, always picking up the slack and taking care of last-minute details. He will be missed.
John always told our pops audiences that if they remembered the 60s, then they weren't really there.
What are we all going to do without John Varineau? We are all familiar with John's important roles as Associate Conductor of the GRS and conductor of the GRYS. And most of us have heard John on Blue Lake Public Radio promoting our concerts. He has been writing our programs notes for several years now. And we've spotted him in the recording booth working cues. But these make up only a fraction of the activities John has done to help this organization succeed. John is literally the glue that holds the GRS together, on and off stage. Then there's his ceaseless presence out in the community, mostly with his involvement in music education and students everywhere in West Michigan. There are many busy and successful musicians in our region, but John is by far the hardest-working musician I've ever known. Everywhere I taught, gave a masterclass, performed a recital, or worked with students, no matter what college, university, or high school, there he was. I was convinced for years that there were actually three clones of John running around town to accomplish so much! Who can forget John's rushing the clock to beat those many film cues? Or his guest appearances as the Hanukkah klezmer clarinet soloist? And Santa Claus, of all roles? But my favorite story is one John himself told: one day while getting ready to exercise in the pool, one of the other swimmers called out to him and said, "Wait, I know who you are! You're...you're John Lockington!". I will always appreciate how supportive John has been, not only of my own career and family personally, but of the entire organization, down to every single student. I'm sure my musician colleagues feel the same way. Congratulations, John, on an absolutely stunning career, and we hope to keep seeing you around for many years to come!
Leslie Van Becker and Ed Clifford/viola and flute
In the category of “you cannot make this up”, John and I actually attended the same elementary school in Palo Alto, California. Not in the same year, but still the same school. Years later we both attended the Yale School of Music together for one overlapping year. Then crazily we both ended up in Grand Rapids. I was playing in the Grand Rapids Symphony; John had a full-time teaching job and ended up conducting for the GRS. We each then bought historic homes (where we still happily reside as empty-nesters) and raised our families a few blocks away from each other. When I think of John and the GRS, I see oceans of concerts spreading over the past years. We are a hard-working orchestra. John has conducted out-of-town concerts (run-outs, usually on one rehearsal), countless high school concerts and side-by-side concerts, pops, ballet, Access to Music, and special film concerts. John always spoke to each audience on their own terms; he always geared his words to his audience and was always an advocate for the healing and inspiring power of music. His passion for music and music education was an inspiration to us all. He conducted the Youth Symphony and cared deeply about all of the young players. I know this because many of my students played in the GRYS over the past many years. A few years ago, films with live music became popular. John jumped in and learned how to do this new art form. He ended up conducting other orchestras’ film concerts around the country. I have vivid memories of learning this new art form along with John—we were truly an orchestra team! In his career, John worked very hard and loved to share his music. One summer, both John and I were teaching at Western Michigan University’s Seminar for two weeks as well as playing the GRS Picnic Pops series. We got up early every morning and carpooled to Kalamazoo. We taught all day and then drove home. Our long suffering spouses would feed us, and then we would rest and head out to Cannonsburg for our evening rehearsals and concerts. In my mind this is how John lived his musical life. Music is bread for the soul, and John had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (LBV)
In 2000, I was commissioned by The Grand Rapids Ballet Company to write music for the ballet “Caught in a Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The score for the ballet was a combination of Mendelssohn’s “Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream” and my jazz compositions. My music was to be played when the fairies were on stage, and Mendelssohn’s was to be played when the mortals were on stage. In addition, I had to compose transitions in between the fairies' music and the mortals' music. The assembled score was presented to John Varineau only a couple of weeks before the first rehearsal. This was a complicated score with lots of moving parts, and only two rehearsals were scheduled. Not only did John learn the score in two weeks, but he masterfully brought all the music and stage production together, culminating in three performances at DeVos Hall. I was so grateful that John was on the podium! The production was so well received that the show was reprised in 2004. For the second production I composed additional music. Again, John produced great performances on very little rehearsal. These performances were only possible because of the high caliber artistry of an unflappable and intelligent Maestro such as John Varineau. (EC)
John has been a fantastic representative and advocate for our symphony and a shining star as a Youth Symphony conductor. Over a span of 35+ years, I have sent my most gifted students to audition. That select group of students has been rewarded with an incredible experience. All were very inspired and quite proud to be members of John's high caliber, state-recognized Youth Symphony. He leaves very big shoes to fill. It seems that every year the GRYS got better and better, mastering bonafide music by the great composers. I will miss so many things about John. For example, his bantering with pianist Rich Ridenour during GRS Piano Pops and with Erich Peterson as Santa Claus during Holiday Pops! In addition, I will miss his love of teaching both students and adults the aspects of the world of music. John has always been a consummate professional, always well prepared, always showing respect, and always nimble when thrown difficult scores without a click track! Finally, we all will miss John's deep love to educate and thrill our next generation to deeply love music as much as he does. Have a blessed new life's chapter.
Thinking back on the incredible tenure of John Varineau with the Grand Rapids Symphony I can remember the very first time John conducted the orchestra. We were rehearsing in the Edith Blodgett rehearsal room that was located behind the DeVos Hall stage before the building was remodeled. The rehearsal room itself was supposed to mock the acoustics of DeVos Hall, but it was a multipurpose room (for ballet, opera, theater) with mirrors, curtains, and a slap back echo that made it a challenge to work in. Filled with a full-size orchestra, the room was loud and a bit uncomfortable. The piece was "Colas Breugnon" by Kabelevsky, and it is fast, brassy, and often conducted in one after a short introduction in 2/4 time. The piece also has a famous excerpt for the xylophone, so I had definite ideas on how fast the tempo should be. The introduction was just fine, but when we got to the faster section, John had a breakneck tempo in mind. The orchestra, being somewhat set in its ways, initially balked at this tempo, and I remember that we had to stop. John simply said "Let's try that again" (reminding us of the transition) and simply started the piece confidently as we roared into life and played the piece down. No insults or blame, just communication, and we all did our part. Over the decades this is the way we worked with John as often he did the impossible, conducting everything from children's concerts, Family, Pops, and Picnic Pops to the most difficult task imaginable: syncing the orchestra with live films. The "Harry Potter" series, as well as older movies where there was no click and only primitive cues to sync it all together, were sometimes terrifying, but we pulled it off. I often was the last to speak to John before he went on stage, and I would promise to watch him like a hawk. Playing the drum set with an orchestra allows you to control tempos, and I would lock onto his baton while helping to anticipate tempo changes. The orchestra trusted me doing this, and our bond and friendship made for many successful concerts that could have suffered if ego interrupted our workplace. John has been the musical glue that held us together throughout our changes in Music Directors and administrators. He is loved by our audience more than any conductor because he was exactly what Grand Rapids needed: a humble, kind, self-effacing man who was always prepared to share his love and knowledge of music. His ability to lead the orchestra while reflecting all the accolades onto the players made him a joy to work with.
Photo credit: Paul Austin
John Varineau waves "bye for now" after his final GRS 5th Grade concert in DeVos Performance Hall (March 2021). During his career, John probably has led this series to a total of over 700,000 West Michigan students!