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Eileen and Aaron Doty at the Symphony

Interview with Aaron Doty,

GRS Vice President/General Manager


GRSMA was pleased to speak with Aaron Doty this summer to assist in getting to know the newest member of the Grand Rapids Symphony's leadership team. We hope that our followers will enjoy the answers to our questions about his background, his views on diversity, how his family is adjusting to living in west Michigan, and cooking for Beethoven.


GRSMA: Tell us about your musical career and the path that brought you to your current role as Vice President and General Manager of the GRS.


Aaron Doty: I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by music my entire life. My mother was an amateur pianist/organist and my father was involved in drum corps. I began playing piano at an early age and started studying trumpet in 4th grade. My introduction to the double bass occurred rather late in school (9th grade) when I started studying the instrument in order to participate in jazz groups. My first experience playing in an orchestra wasn’t until college, but the moment I experienced the visceral power of a symphony orchestra I was hooked!


After graduation, I lived in Madison, WI for 5 years where I played with the Madison Symphony while I also taught elementary and middle school orchestra, served as adjunct faculty at Edgewood College, and coached the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra bassists.


After my time in Madison, I moved to Ann Arbor, MI where I studied conducting privately for a year and then began and completed a Master of Music in Conducting at Ohio University. After graduation, I moved to Washington DC and began working as the Personnel and Library Assistant for Washington National Opera. I worked at WNO 14 years in roles which gave me the opportunity to work with the WNO orchestra, library, operations, finance, education & engagement, and strategic planning.


GRSMA: Where did you grow up, and what are your first memories of classical music?


Aaron Doty: I grew up in Eau Claire, WI (about 90 miles east of Minneapolis). My earliest exposure to classical music was listening to my mom play piano. I also have vivid memories of a children’s record which was a narrative about Beethoven accompanied by his symphonic excerpts. I remember playing that record over and over again and didn’t necessarily understand why I loved it so much then, but I do now!


GRSMA: Before you came to Grand Rapids, you were Director of Strategy and Engagement for the Washington National Opera. What was it like to work at the Kennedy Center and for an opera company?


Aaron Doty: The Kennedy Center is an incredible institution with performances running 365 days a year. There are multiple departments and affiliates which specialize in everything from symphony, opera, dance, comedy, and hip hop. Working there helped build an appreciation for the interrelatedness of all of the art forms. To paraphrase Duke Ellington: There are simply two kinds of [art], good [art] and the other kind ...


There are so many wonderful memories of working at WNO, though for me, the highlight was the 2016 presentation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It involved so many people engaged in years of planning, which paid off at the end of every cycle as the emotional message of renewal and rebirth bring Goetterdammerung to a close.


GRSMA: You and your wife Eileen have resided in Grand Rapids for one year now and have experienced all four seasons. How do you find living in west Michigan?


Aaron Doty: We are so happy to be back in Michigan (we met in Ann Arbor) and really LOVE the west Michigan area. This area takes such pride in its arts institutions and there are fun things to see and do in all four seasons (it’s nice to really have four seasons)! While the DC area can be cold and snowy at times, winters are often shorter and more temperate. Having grown up in the Midwest, I am used to winter and excitedly prepared myself with a snowblower, cross country skis, and a real winter coat.


GRSMA: Last February you were a panelist in Detroit for a presentation entitled "Vision 2020: Rumble to Action" at the Sphinx Organization's annual conference. Tell us about this session and any ideas that you have for improving diversity in the classical music world.


Aaron Doty: The session used a collaborative digital platform where a wordcloud, updated in real time based upon submissions from attendees, focused discussion on addressing diversity disparities in our organizations. My biggest takeaway from that session, and the many conversations I’ve had since, have impressed that the cries for justice require all of us to act. This requires urgent dialogue with arts leaders, community leaders, and musicians on a more widespread basis. We need to acknowledge that the lack of diversity is a systemic problem and I think the Grand Rapids Symphony can help to take an important role in this conversation. The best idea I can share with others is that we need to listen to diverse voices when trying to create change.


GRSMA: We hear that you have a love for fine culinary arts. If you could host a dinner party and invite three famous musicians, living or dead, who would they be and, most importantly, what would you serve?


Aaron Doty: This is a really fun question, and I really had to think about it. I passed on Bach because it is likely he wouldn’t like food with strong spice profiles. That tends to be the type of cuisine I gravitate toward so I would pick Beethoven, Duke Ellington, and Joan Tower. I’d have to have surf and turf of haddock and ribeye (apparently Beethoven preferred fish to meat so the protein would be served family style). I’d also have a side of cubed potato gratin, and grilled peaches on ice cream for dessert.


GRSMA: COVID-19 caused the cancellation of concerts for all American orchestras during your first year with the GRS. In spite of this, do you have any memorable moments from the 2019-20 GRS season?


Aaron Doty: Yes, there were many great moments in the 2019-20 season, starting with the season opener with Marcelo Lehninger and Augustin Hadelich. It really set a high artistic bar and the orchestra seemed really energized by it. Other powerful musical moments that standout for me include Shostakovich 11 and Terence Blanchard’s improvised solo during A Requiem for Katrina. The orchestra is so versatile and dedicated to making each performance as good as it can be so there were so many special memories.


GRSMA: Now more than ever, social media has become an important way to reach our loyal audiences. How has the GRS used these platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic, and are there any future plans that you can tell us?


Aaron Doty: Social media has definitely changed the way people access and consume arts and entertainment. During this time when people need comfort more and more to handle stress, it has been the generosity of the musicians in the orchestra dedicating their time to provide musical moments that has sustained so many and allowed us to keep delivering on our mission. The From Our Home To Yours series was very successful and, on average, we had a few thousand people tuning in every day to listen. 


Whether these were solo or small chamber works or bigger virtual performances, the excitement of the musicians and our audience has connected us in very positive ways. As we look to the future, it will be important to keep this content fresh. Look for continued opportunities for Volunteer Promotional Videos for adult and youth audiences.


GRSMA: We know that you and Eileen have cats. How have they adjusted to their new home?


Aaron Doty: It’s really their home -- we’re just the staff! Yes, they have much more space in our home than the place we had in Maryland and particularly love the porch where they can watch all the birds.


GRSMA: Is there anything else that you wish to share?


Aaron Doty: I am excited about the year ahead. While it is not the season any of us thought we would be having, it has been testament to the great musicians and staff that we have. Mary Tuuk’s incredible leadership and dedication to the organization ensures we keep delivering music to west Michigan, and Marcelo Lehninger’s creativity in programming gives us a season we can truly be proud of. The Grand Rapids Symphony really is a family, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.  


Finally, I’m grateful to the production team, Julie, Sarah, Erich, Kyle, Larissa, Dale, and Mady for their flexibility and dedication in making this new season happen. It’s been a whirlwind adventure, and I’m looking forward to the future with them!

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