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Advancing a Legacy of Quality

By Christopher Kantner

GRS Principal Flute


As our 86th season unfolds, the GRS can look back on a period of remarkable growth. Today the GRS presents an incredibly varied musical offering to the Grand Rapids community. Its integrity as an ensemble and versatility in a wide range of musical styles are qualities that we can easily take for granted. As we look forward to the Orchestra’s centenary, it may be a valuable exercise to ask how we got here, and what conditions are necessary to ensure that our quality continues to grow.


The quality of the GRS today is the result of a commitment to building a full time orchestra that began over 40 years ago. It was then that the Symphony Society recognized the need to invest in the development of a full time, professional core. It was a watershed moment for the future growth of the GRS in that it acknowledged the necessary link between being a professional and having full time employment as a musician. It was the crucial down payment on the dream of having an orchestra with a standard complement of eighty or more full time players. At our current full time strength of fifty players (assuming all positions are filled), our project of having a completely full time orchestra is far from complete. Yet the impact of the sustained investment in building a full time core is such that today the Grand Rapids Symphony is poised to become America’s newest major orchestra.


The development of a full time core has enhanced the quality of the orchestra by attracting and retaining quality players. It takes a lot of time playing together, exposure to the demands of different repertoire, and a lot of heart, to develop a fine orchestra with its own distinctive style. An ensemble culture evolves as we listen to and learn our colleagues’ styles and meld them with our own. An orchestra that is playing well exhibits a shared intelligence that allows us to be able to synchronize and blend with each other. The process of developing an ensemble sound requires an enormous investment from each player. We have to identify with the sound of the orchestra. The sound to which we contribute our individual voice becomes our collective voice.


An orchestra’s unique interdependence relies on the quality and commitment of every member. But how can we expect individual players to invest in the creation of a collective voice if we don’t invest in them? How can we even keep them here long enough for a real ensemble culture to emerge? It may not be realistic for everyone to be full time now. Indeed, the formula of slow, incremental growth has served us well on the whole.  It has allowed us to keep moving forward. Striving for quality is an arrow that, like life itself, points in only one direction. To go backwards is artistic death. We have to create the conditions now from which the orchestra we hope to be can develop. That means investing in all our musicians who actually create the music, giving them a living wage so that they can devote themselves to their art. It means reaffirming the critical role that building a full time core has played in our evolution, building on it, and fully recognizing everyone for their essential contribution to our common effort.


The idea of being a professional in the arts is in itself considered suspect by some. You mean you don’t just do it for the love of the art? Just what does it mean to be a professional and what does it imply for creating a culture of excellence? First a moment of clarity. We are not professional because we are paid. We are paid because we are professional. At the heart of being a professional in any human activity, be it medicine, music or tennis, is the reality that practice is a life’s work. Performances are just fragments of that ongoing process. It often comes as a surprise to people not actively engaged in the arts that as trained professionals we still have to practice. We could say we are striving for perfection, but that is an abstract ideal almost by definition unattainable. We might not recognize perfection if we see or hear it. Certainly it goes beyond the arid elimination of error. We may almost realize it in performance as rare moments of freedom and elegance. We might identify it as style.


 It is important to add that the search for perfection, or whatever drives this process, is a deeply human activity. It is compelling to those who do it and those who are witness. It seems to be inherently participatory, in part perhaps because it involves an element of risk. Whether it be an assent of Everest, or hearing the Cleveland Orchestra take on Mahler 6 with an urgency that seems to rise from raw need, there is an excitement in watching or hearing people go for it. There is no guaranteed out come. Live performance will always have the attraction of an open- ended experience in which the genuinely new can happen.


What animates our pursuit of quality is the professional drive to be better. As individuals we practice today to reach the level of skill we hope to achieve in five or ten years, a lifetime. Likewise, the institution as a whole must operate from a vision of what we hope our orchestra will become. We have been fortunate in Grand Rapids to have a community that cares about the Symphony and has had the wisdom to plan on the long-term basis so necessary to building a really fine ensemble. A commitment to the process of building an orchestral team can find itself at odds with near term financial fixes. A tension between promoting a culture of excellence and serving the bottom line is perhaps inevitable. American business practice has exhibited this conflict over the years, vacillating between short-term profit and the cultivation of quality. The performing arts, and orchestras in particular, have been studied as models of organizations with high levels of integration that function with a quality paradigm. A culture based on quality, not profit, has to evolve with a long time horizon.


A number of these financial strategies are particularly damaging to our goal of creating and handing on an ensemble culture. One is the practice of hiring substitute players to fill out the orchestra rather than adding contracted positions.

This may put the requisite number of players on stage but sidesteps process of building a truly integrated ensemble. The other strategy that threatens the integrity of the team is the current trend by orchestra managements to “hold open” positions that are already under contract, thus effectively reducing the size of the orchestra. In the near term, and certainly by the Orchestra’s 100th, we will witness a substantial turnover in the orchestra’s ranks. The impact that this loss of a shared history of playing together will have on the Orchestra cannot be overstated. The unique team coordination that defines an orchestra’s quality at any stage in its evolution is a living balance of many parts. People matter. The musical personality of every player has a profound impact on the whole. It is critical that the orchestra fill all positions as they are vacated at their current contract level or higher so that the ensemble culture that we have worked so hard to create can be passed on.  A renewed commitment to the goal of a salaried, full time orchestra is critical at this time. It represents a continuing dedication to the pursuit of quality that has brought us this far.


Quality, both as it is created and as it is perceived, is a shared experience. It is the pursuit of quality that defines our life as an arts organization and should guide our future growth. This quest derives from a basic human need to share in something that expands the dimensions of our individual experience. We are vital to our community because our mission is communication, not consumption. The effort to make our audience understand what drives us, to invite them into a fuller participation with the art, is an essential part of building the future of our orchestra. We must be involved at all levels in a sustained conversation with our community. What must be communicated above all is our conviction that our devotion to our calling is of great value to every one it touches. We have to believe that sharing the richness of Western classical music changes people for the better. It is almost a sacred trust. If we play the classics with the devotion they command, if we seek out what will be classical music in two hundred years, our art will thrive and our growing city will have the great orchestra it deserves.

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