Meet Keith Elder
the new GRS President/CEO
Last spring, after a national search, Keith Elder was named President/CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony. GRSMA was fortunate that Keith carved out some time from his busy schedule for this interview so that we could get to know a bit about his background, his vision towards the 100th anniversary of the GRS, and why he still practices the tuba every day.
GRSMA: Welcome to Grand Rapids, Keith! Now that you’ve been here a few months, what are your first impressions of living in West Michigan?
Keith Elder: Felicia and I feel so fortunate we arrived in West Michigan during this time of year. We have been able to explore Grand Haven and Lake Michigan and all the exciting things happening in downtown Grand Rapids. We have loved meeting so many wonderful people and are enjoying this fabulous weather. I have heard a rumor that it might snow here. Hard to believe with this incredible fall weather.
GRSMA: Where did you grow up, and do you come from a musical family?
KE: I grew up in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. I was the youngest of three boys in our family, and I was the only one in music and the only one in my immediate family to go to a 4-year college. My family were all police or firemen. I was the odd person out that gave everyone perspective into amazing music. I was so lucky to have the support of my mom and dad, as having someone play a musical instrument was so foreign to them. They caught on very quickly and were always at every concert and rehearsal.
GRSMA: Tell us about your musical training. Rumor has it that you are a Hoosier.
KE: I first started out as a very bad trumpet player. I was very fortunate to have a band director that convinced me and my parents that switching to tuba was a good idea. I made that switch in 7th grade and never looked back. I had the good fortune of having wonderful teachers in high school that prepared me for my studies at Indiana University. Being invited by Harvey Phillips to study at Indiana University was life changing. Harvey was the one that suggested arts administration and got me my first internship at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony. While an intern and then as an employee, I had the privilege of playing 2nd tuba with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra for seven years, playing every summer, and all the major second tuba parts, as well as being involved with performing the last concert in the old Theatre at Tanglewood, the first season in Ozawa Hall, and being part of the CBS "Marsalis on Music" television project featuring the orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, Wynton Marsalis, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
GRSMA: For your interview last spring for the President/CEO position, we noticed that you brought along a tuba and made time to practice. And we understand that your new neighbors have commented upon your warmup routine. Do you feel that it is important to stay in touch with your roots as a performer?
KE: I do try and play every day, and I continue studying virtually every week. I take a weekly zoom lesson with Perry Hoogendyk of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Playing reminds me daily of the importance of music and how lucky we all are to be able to share musical excellence with this wonderful region.
GRSMA: You come across as a dog person. Did we get that right?
KE: Dogs have been part of my life since I was a child. We have two crazy dogs that love chasing squirrels in our backyard. Brady, named for Tom Brady, is our Goldendoodle and Quincy, named after the city in Massachusetts Felicia and I lived, is our Labradoodle.
GRSMA: We heard that you and Felicia had owned an early 17th century house in Boston, built long before Grand Rapids was founded. What led to your love for old houses and historic restoration?
KE: I have always loved history from an early age. In 1976, because of my love for history and the American Revolution, I was Massachusetts’ Yankee Doodle boy, traveling the state in period attire during the 200th celebration. Felicia and her family had the same love for history. You might see Felicia’s brother, Michael, on TV if you watch some of those historic renovation shows, as he is one of the country’s leading experts on 17th and 18th century homes and renovations. When we lived in Massachusetts, we had a 1690 home. When we moved here we purchased a 1908 home in Eastown that was originally owned by Austin McFadden, a roller coaster designer and the person who designed the roller coaster at Reeds Lake.
GRSMA: Other than historic properties and playing the tuba, do you have any other hobbies?
KE: I love to be outdoors. Whether it is cycling on a bike, at the beach, or on the water boating or sailing, I love being outside. I also have been known to continue to follow Boston sports. Go Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots!
GRSMA: This is an exciting time for the Grand Rapids Symphony, as the organization’s 100th anniversary is just a few years away. What is your vision for this monumental occasion?
KE: As we build to the 100th I look forward to connecting and building an energy in this region. The celebration will be a city-wide year of celebrating the orchestra, classical music, and the city. I see events that appeal to all parts of our city. I see this orchestra garnering national attention for this region and connecting with tourism, other arts organizations, and the region as we celebrate. It will be a year-long party.
GRSMA: Now that we are in the 2023-24 concert season, are there certain GRS concerts that you especially look forward to attending?
KE: I must say I am looking forward to attending everything. We are so fortunate to have such great musicians. I have still been thinking all day about the British concert we just performed the last weekend of September. The entire program was incredible. I did not know the Vaughan Williams "London" Symphony and now, thanks to this orchestra, I love it. My advice to anyone looking to attend a concert, don’t attend just because of programs as each program we have this year has a gem on it you might not know but you will love. https://www.grsymphony.org/2023-2024
GRSMA: Any closing thoughts for our readers?
KE: Felicia and I are so excited and happy to be here with this wonderful orchestra. We look forward to meeting all of our great musicians, staff, board, and patrons. I am very excited about the future and the big, bold, innovative opportunities that lie ahead and realizing them with all of you.