top of page

Here are Ed and Leslie hiking in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada. They will have

been married 45 years on May 24th of this year and hope for many more adventures!


Leslie Van Becker - Viola


I started playing the viola in fourth grade in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I wanted to play the cello but when I went to school pick out my instrument the only string instrument they had left was a viola. I immediately fell in love and never looked back.


While I was in high school in Palo Alto, California, I played in the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. We played music of the Baroque and early Classical period, and I learned to really listen to every part. I got my bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of my teachers was John Adams, and I was fortunate enough to be in his New Music Ensemble. Since then I have always loved contemporary music.


While I was in school I got a job as Assistant Principal Viola in the San Jose (now Silicon Valley) Symphony. George Cleve was the conductor. He taught me a lot about phrasing and musical form.  


Then I went to the Yale School of Music to get my Master of Music degree. While at Yale I studied score reading with Otto Werner-Mueller. I can honestly say that his classes changed my life. I find such joy in studying the scores of the pieces I play. My viola teacher Raphael Hillyer taught me the value of hard work. There were many nights that I heard him practicing Hermann Concert Etudes (devilishly hard studies) until 10 pm after teaching all day.


While I was studying at Yale, my husband Ed Clifford decided it was time for him to get a Master’s degree. He chose Michigan State University. I wrote every college and orchestra within a sixty-mile radius of Lansing. The Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) was holding auditions, and I was lucky enough to win the job of Principal Viola.


During the first years that I played in the GRS, I studied with William Lincer, Principal Viola with New York Philharmonic (1943-72). I used to fly back to New York City to take lessons with him. He used to give me three-hour lessons and only charge me $30! I learned an extraordinary amount from him. He was 86 years old and still teaching at Juilliard when I studied with him. He taught me how to lead a section, how to teach and just everything about playing the viola.


There have been so many great GRS concerts over the years. It was wonderful to work with Theo Alcantara for two years. We gave so many spirited and musically exciting programs. Our concert version of Strauss’s Salome was a high point. After Theo we had Semyon Bychkov as our Music Director. I will always remember the Mahler 5 we did with him. Catherine Comet always had the highest musical standards and she knew her scores inside and out. We recorded three CD’s with Catherine and recording helped us grow into a higher-level orchestra. David Lockington was our music director for sixteen years. We made a wonderful Aaron Copland CD with David. He started our Mosaic Scholar program and added a Symphony with Soul concert to our yearly calendar. David focused on improving our symphony chorus to the high level they are today and added the youth chorus to our symphony family.


Now we have our new conductor Marcelo Lehninger. I am so happy to be able to work with Marcelo. His conducting is on a very high level, and playing our concerts is a joy. In October 2020, I look forward to performing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with GRS Assistant Principal Concertmaster Grace Kim and the Grand Rapids Symphony.


I was a member of the GRS negotiating committee in 2009 and 2016, the site committee for Picnic Pops, and the conductor search committee when we hired Catherine Comet. In addition, I served on the Grand Rapids Symphony Women’s Committee (now Friends of the Symphony) and the Grand Rapids Ballet Guild, and was program chair for the Women’s Committee and membership chair of the Grand Rapids Ballet Guild.


I love teaching many young violists, as I learn so much from my students and find teaching to be interesting and invigorating. For one year I taught at Western Michigan University as interim viola instructor, and I taught at Calvin University from 2008-2019. Today I have a private studio in my home.


For many years I participated in the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz, California (1978-80 and 1988-2013; principal viola from 1996-2013). I was privileged to work with Dennis Russell Davies, Aaron Copland, John Adams and Marin Alsop. Working with Marin was amazing, and there were countless musical highlights. I loved all of the crazy modern music we played and our adventurous audience. 


Over the past years, I am grateful that I could play so many chamber music and solo recitals, plus collaborate with my wonderful colleagues. I am especially proud of my group Castalia, which has been performing music by women composers for the past eleven years.


My husband and I have lived in the Heritage Hill District of Grand Rapids since we moved here. We love old houses and have stored five Heritage Hill homes. We worked very hard with our community to get rid and crime and beautify our homes and the whole neighborhood. We even started the Heritage Hill Chamber Music Series which ran for many years.


We had and raised our children Matthew and Genevieve here and were thrilled that the City of Grand Rapids has such good programs for kids. Both Matt and Genevieve sang with St Cecilia Choir and North American Choral Company. Genevieve danced with the junior and senior company of the Grand Rapids Ballet. For ten years now our children have lived in Brooklyn NY. Genevieve works for Tory Burch as a shoe designer, and Matt is a working bass player plus has a grilled cheese business called Grilled Cheese Alley.


Ed and I love to walk both in cities and in nature. We have walked the footpaths of France and many national parks. We hope to walk as much of the world as we are able. In addition, I love to garden and always have plenty of perennials to give away. I am a reader and always want to hear about a good book.


It was the fall of 1977 when I won my job as Principal Viola in the Grand Rapids Symphony. Standing on Monroe Street in a deserted downtown Grand Rapids, I called my mom and dad from a pay phone and told them the news. Both Grand Rapids the city and the Grand Rapids Symphony have had amazing growth between then and now.


Ed and I are overjoyed to see the restaurants and shops and the walkability of our area. We so appreciate the giving community that we have in Grand Rapids. We know that we will weather the coronavirus storm and come back stronger than ever.

bottom of page