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Musician Profiles:
Charley Lea and Louisa Blood


(Photo Credit: Carl Buckland)


(Photo Credit: Jenna Buchner)

GRSMA musicians come from near and far, and the two featured musicians in our spring 2024 newsletter clearly fit that description! Trumpeter Charley Lea grew up about 50 miles from Grand Rapids, and violinist Louisa Blood grew up over 3,000 miles away. Get to know Charley and Louisa as we asked them about their background, favorite composers, and the things that they love about West Michigan.


GRSMA: Where did you grow up, and were you part of a musical family?


Charley Lea: I am a native Michigander! I grew up in Charlotte, attended the University of Michigan, and joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1991. I am very proud to call Michigan home! I am not from a particularly musical family, but my parents were always very supportive. My older sister played flute in the school band, and I remember clearly thinking when I was very young that I had to be involved in that!


Louisa Blood: I was born in Alaska and grew up in a small town in the middle of the state called Delta Junction, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. Though no one else in the family is a professional musician, both of my parents appreciate classical music, and my mom grew up playing the piano. My parents had a collection of good recordings, so I was exposed to a lot of great music from a young age.


GRSMA: Tell us about your musical studies. Where did you receive your training to win an audition for the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS)?


LB: I was really fortunate that even though I grew up in a small town, the nearest big city was Fairbanks, which happens to have a lot going on musically. There is an impressive community of dedicated Suzuki string teachers there, excellent music teachers, and a good-quality orchestra affiliated with the university. I actually started playing the violin with the Suzuki method in Anchorage when I was 5. When I got older, I started playing in a youth orchestra in Fairbanks, so we drove there regularly for that and violin lessons. From 6th grade through high school, I took lessons with the violin professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kathleen Butler-Hopkins. She had studied at top schools, including Juilliard, so it's thanks to her that I was able to reach the level needed to audition for music schools. When it was time for college, I went to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and then I got my Master's degree from New England Conservatory in Boston. After that, I played in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which was good training.


CL: And I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to study with Armando Ghitalla at the University of Michigan. He was an amazing teacher and a respected pedagogue. I also studied with Ramon Parcells, the former Principal Trumpet of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. My other teachers include Bill Lucas, Gilbert Johnson, and Arnold Jacobs.


GRSMA: Who are among your musical mentors and heroes?


CL: While I was a student, we were all in awe of our teacher, Armando Ghitalla. Other special trumpeters to me are Adolph Herseth, Doc Severinsen, Maynard Ferguson, Wynton Marsalis…I could go on and on. I love jazz, and John Coltrane is one of my musical heroes, too.


LB: A transformative mentor for me was Violaine Melancon, my violin teacher at Peabody. She was always urging her students to go beyond focusing only on the technical difficulties of the violin, and to think about the big picture and the things that are ultimately most important (things like what the character of the music is, what the composer's emotions and intentions were, and how we as performers can express those better). Lucy Chapman, my violin teacher at New England Conservatory, was also very influential. She has had a career in both chamber music and orchestral playing, so she helped me hone skills that are essential for both roles. I also think of Itzhak Perlman as a musical hero, since his sound was the first violin sound I remember hearing and being attracted to as a little kid.


GRSMA: Who are your favorite composers?


CL: I’ll try to keep it to just a few! Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Richard Strauss. One of my recent discoveries is the Polish composer, Andrzej Panufnik.


LB: It would be easiest if I could list 15 names instead of narrowing it down! One of the things I enjoy most about being an orchestral musician is that we get to play music by such a variety of composers. I'm constantly surprised by how much pleasure it gives me to work on music by composers who I originally thought weren't my favorite. Then when we play their music in the GRS, I have a better opinion of the composer than I had before. To name only a few, I love Brahms (especially his chamber music), Beethoven, Debussy, and Richard Strauss.


GRSMA: What are your hobbies or interests?


LB: I enjoy reading, good movies and theater, and I like running, hiking, and traveling. I also appreciate yoga and would like to do it more regularly. And I love going to the beach and being in the water, so I've enjoyed exploring some of the beautiful beaches that are close to Grand Rapids.  


CL: I follow Formula 1 racing, golf, and most other sports as well. I have watched the Tour de France race in its entirety for the last twenty plus years. Also, I enjoy collecting watches, learning new music, and traveling!


GRSMA: If you weren't an orchestral musician, what career path would you have taken?


CL: I’m pretty sure I would have become a Formula 1 race car driver. Ha! Seriously, I’m not sure. I’ve always loved reading true crime books. Maybe a forensic scientist?


LB: I might have wanted to do something connected to international studies. I like learning about other countries and cultures, and how their history brought them to the present. Or I might have been a psychologist. Working in music administration or arts administration is possible to imagine too.


GRSMA: Is there a Grand Rapids Symphony concert that you will always remember fondly?


LB: My first year with the orchestra, in 2018, we played "Ein Heldenleben" by Richard Strauss. I know I'm not the only person to mention that concert as a favorite, and it honestly is one of my favorite memories with the GRS too. It had been one of my all-time favorite pieces for years, and I had always wanted to play it but never had. When the GRS performed it, all of us in the orchestra gave it everything we had, and there was an exhilarating, special energy on stage. 


CL: For me, that would have to be our two Carnegie Hall performances. I was especially proud of the first concert we played in the Van Andel Arena in the fall of 2020. Our fantastic orchestra staff found a way to perform and be relevant to the community in the midst of the Covid lockdown.  


GRSMA: The 2024-25 GRS season has been announced, and we were happy to see that you will be a featured concerto soloist. Have you performed the Haydn Trumpet Concerto before, Charley?


CL: I think I first played the Haydn concerto when I was about 15. I’ve played the piece many times. I played it for my degree recital at the University of Michigan and had a memory slip. Fingers crossed that won't happen again!

On a visit to Moscow in 2019, Charley rubbed the nose of the dog in this statue in a subway station, which is believed to bring good luck. GRSMA wishes him well for his Haydn concerto performances in January 2025!  (Photo Credit: Olga Ziabrikova)

GRSMA: What concert are you looking forward to the most, Louisa, and why?


LB: I'm especially looking forward to the last Masterworks concert in May 2025. We'll be playing "Death and Transfiguration" by Richard Strauss, and a world premiere of a piece by Jake Heggie, called Earth 2.0. I'm really interested to find out what Heggie's piece will be like, and Strauss is one of my favorite composers, as I mentioned. In his orchestral tone poems like "Death and Transfiguration," all of the instrumental families in the orchestra usually get to play important parts. The tone poems are full of interesting harmonies and sound colors, and they have a wide range of all the emotions you could imagine. I think his orchestration is awe-inspiring in the way it depicts things like a dramatic storyline or for example, the traits of a particular person. So there's a lot about his music that's satisfying to play. 


GRSMA: You both relocated to Grand Rapids after winning your GRS audition. What advice would you give to new GRS musicians about moving to West Michigan? 


CL: We live in a great city in a beautiful state! Explore! Oh, and eat at Two Scotts Barbecue, ASAP.


LB: This might sound obvious, but the level of snowiness in west Michigan is intense (in a normal winter). If you don't have good waterproof snow boots, it's definitely worth it to invest in some. I also recommend the crepes at Brown Butter Creperie.


GRSMA: You both performed recently for the Saturday morning Breakfast Café at St Mark's Episcopal Church, where GRSMA has been providing live chamber music for disadvantaged persons in our community. Can you tell us something about that experience? 


CL: That was very special. I performed in a brass trio last December, and we played Christmas carols. It's always good when you can give back to the community. 


LB: It was my first time playing at the Breakfast Café, and I was happy to be a small part of it. Everyone was welcoming, and the people listening were really appreciative. I've always thought that it's a valuable thing to share our gifts and skills with the community, especially with those who are less advantaged and might not be able to come to our concerts on a regular basis. Doing this confirmed my feelings -- it was a reminder to me about some of the core reasons we play music: that it's a beautiful art form that moves and enriches people everywhere, no matter who they are.

Last March, Louisa performed with GRSMA bass players Jonathan Reed and Robert Johnson for the Breakfast Café. (Photo Credit: Barbara Corbató)

GRSMA: What would you say is the most rewarding part of being in the Grand Rapids Symphony?


CL: Aside from playing the greatest music in the world with amazing colleagues and hearing the applause of the audience, I would say that being part of the GRS family is a very special thing. The best part about being a musician has always been the chance to be surrounded by wonderful, interesting, and talented people.


LB: I can mention a couple things. The stellar music-making from the other musicians and conductors has been inspiring, and musicians in this orchestra are great people besides being great musicians; they have so much compassion and generosity, and are really making a difference in the world in many ways, not just musically! Also, the orchestra has had good leadership, which helped us get through the pandemic and made the musicians' well-being a priority. I've been grateful for the respect that I feel the management and administration have for the musicians, during the time I've been in the orchestra. So for me, one of the most rewarding aspects is the fact that many people in different roles are coming together for a common cause, our love of live music. It's meaningful to feel like you're part of a team.

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