Principal Parents: A Destiny to a Career in Music
What happens when both of your parents are principal wind players in the Grand Rapids Symphony? Chances are that you will end up with a career in music!
GRSMA checked in with two musicians who grew up in Grand Rapids with principal parents and are thriving today in their musical careers: John Sullivan, violinist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, whose parents were Principal Oboe and Principal Clarinet in the 1950s and 1960s, and Sarah Bowman Peterson, Grand Rapids Symphony's Principal Librarian and substitute oboist, whose parents were Principal Bassoon and Principal Trumpet from the 1970s until the 2010s.
GRSMA: Do you recall the first time that you heard the Grand Rapids Symphony? What are your earliest memories of the GRS?
JOHN: I’m not sure I recall the very first time I attended the Symphony, but I do remember being perhaps 5 or 6, getting dressed up in my little sports coat and tie. What I learned to do at these early concert experiences was to listen for the various instruments. I knew from hearing my parents and their students at home what an oboe and clarinet sounded like, and it was rewarding to be able to hear when Mom or Dad were playing during a piece.
SARAH: I don’t recall the exact concert, but I remember attending many concerts while I was in junior high and high school. Many times I would bring friends from Grand Rapids Youth Symphony (GRYS) or from school, but I would also attend alone. I was very lucky to have the exposure to essentially limitless live classical music because of my parents. I know this is not the normal experience of many kids growing up. It helped solidify my passion for the oboe and performing classical music.
GRSMA: What was the city of Grand Rapids and its classical music scene like when you were growing up in west Michigan?
JOHN: I do remember there were productions aside from the GRS that my parents played in, such as various musicals at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. My Dad actually played the Page Boy in Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1963. He wasn’t a trained singer, and I seem to recall that he was a last minute replacement. Partly as a result of that connection, I myself got to do bit parts in a couple of musicals in which my parents played in the pit orchestra. During my senior year of high school, all three of us played in the pit orchestra for a Civic Theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof, and I got to open the show each night playing the iconic recurring theme.
Both Mom and Dad also played in the AFM Local 56 Federation Band and Orchestra which played during the summer at Garfield Park and Reeds Lake. It was at Reeds Lake where I played the final movement of Mozart’s 3rd Violin Concerto with the Federation Orchestra while I was still in high school.
SARAH: I definitely remember downtown Grand Rapids not being as vibrant and diverse as it is today. Going downtown, you only had a few options of what to do in the evening. There were a few concert and theater venues, but many of the museums, the Arena, the diverse restaurants and breweries, etc. were not there thirty years ago. I really think that downtown Grand Rapids has grown so much and become very vibrant and diverse! Also I remember when the GRS added the four-week summer season in the 1990s which brought music to more people in a different, casual setting.
GRSMA: Growing up in a household of GRS Principal wind players must have been lively. Did you play chamber music together as a family?
JOHN: What I recall from the home scene was hearing practicing and a lot of music lessons. Both Mom and Dad taught on Saturdays at home, and on weekdays during the summer. I even helped Mom make oboe reeds at one point. We didn’t play chamber music together aside from an occasional read through once in a while. And I did get to try both the clarinet and oboe, as well as other instruments brought home from school.
SARAH: We did play together many times. My mom and I played more together as oboe and bassoon go very well and there is a lot more chamber music to choose from. A particular favorite was the many times we performed the Poulenc Trio together. It is one of my favorite pieces, and playing with mom was very easy. I had to look this up, but there was one piece I played with both mom and dad - it was the Biscogli Concerto for Oboe, Bassoon and Trumpet. It was fun to play on a recital but there is probably a reason that this piece is not performed that often! Growing up I have a memory of watching my mom make reeds with the former GRS Assistant Principal/Second Bassoonist Chip King. They would make a bunch together before the season started in September. Oboe reeds don’t last as long as bassoon reeds do, so it was a shock when I realized that my whole life would basically be spent making reeds.
GRSMA: Who were your musical mentors from the Grand Rapids Symphony? Did you take private lessons from any GRS musicians, and did you play in the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony?
JOHN: My first musical mentor from the Symphony was Donald Armstrong, who started me on violin in the summer of 1963. Armstrong was an amazingly versatile musician and music educator. I remember asking him once how many instruments he played. He responded with "I play everything, badly".
Probably the most inspiring mentor I had was Charles Avsharian, who was GRS Concertmaster from the mid to late 1960s. I still remember going to the old Pantlind Hotel with Mom to meet Mr. Avsharian. He agreed to take me on as a student, and I studied with him during my 7th and 8th grade years, my senior year of high school, and then again during my first summer home from college.
I did play in the GRYS from 1966 to 1972. Its founder, Dan Kovats, was another important mentor and family friend. He also conducted the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp orchestra in 1967 (its second year of operation, which I attended). During my junior year of high school, I became concertmaster of the GRYS. In 1973, was invited back to solo with them, playing the first movement of Saint-Saens’ 3rd Violin Concerto.
Another influential person who I should mention was GRS violist Robert Wepman. In 1969 he approached some select GRYS players, myself among them, to form a string quartet which he coached on a strictly volunteer basis. A notable and somewhat quirky experience with the GRYS string quartet was being invited to play as a warm up act for Frank Zappa (who really did request a string quartet!) at Fountain Street Church. I recall that we played a slow movement from a Bartok string quartet and the fugue movement from Beethoven’s Opus 59, #3.
SARAH: I played in the GRYS all through high school. Its conductor, John Varineau, is certainly a musical mentor to me as one of the first conductors I worked with on major repertoire. I am very lucky to still work with him currently in my job as GRS Principal Librarian. I also studied with former GRS Principal Oboe Peter Kjome, who really inspired me with his beautiful oboe playing and very regimented approach to reed making and practicing. In addition, I studied for a year with current GRS Assistant Principal/Second Oboe Alexander Miller. I actually performed a trio he composed on my senior recital at Juilliard!
GRSMA: You both have performed on the GRS stage. Was it with your Principal player parents? Are there any memorable moments to share?
JOHN: I never actually shared the GRS stage with my parents. By the time I played in the GRS, they had already left the orchestra. During the year I played regularly with the GRS, which was the 1971-72 season, Susanne VanderStarr was Principal Second Violin and I was her stand partner. I believe that she began playing in the GRS around the time of this historic photo from the 1950s, and she retired in the late 1990s after 50 years with the GRS. Susanne is one of the few musicians who would have worked with both my parents (Murray and Florence) and the Bowmans (Michael and Martha).
Historic photo of the Grand Rapids Symphony with Florence and Murray Sullivan as Principal Oboe and Clarinet
Florence Sullivan, former GRS Principal Oboe
John with his father, Murray Sullivan
SARAH: I have so many memories from performing on the GRS stage with my parents, but I will pick only two to share. When I was quite pregnant with my first daughter, I played principal oboe onstage for Symphonie fantastique. This is one of my favorite pieces, but I hadn’t played it in a while so I felt a little pressure coming in at the last minute. Having my mom sit behind me and “shuffle” after my solos was a great feeling! The most memorable, though, has to be our final performance all together. It was 2015, Mahler’s Second Symphony. Both Mom and Dad officially retired from their GRS Principal positions after those concerts. We had played together so many times over the years, it was very hard not to be emotional that this would be our last time. The Resurrection Symphony is already so special and powerful, and when you add that in, it is impossible not to remember that moment forever.
Sarah Bowman Peterson with her parents, Martha and Michael Bowman
Sarah with her parents and her husband, GRSMA hornist Erich Peterson
GRSMA: Where has the classical music world taken you? Describe your travels for training and work, plus your current job in music.
JOHN: The world of classical music has taken me to many places. In 1970 I attended the Congress of Strings at the University of Cincinnati and got to study with a man who had played under Toscanini. Next, I attended the Meadowmount School for three years, where I studied with David Cerone, who accepted me to continue as his student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. After six years and two degrees, I won a one-year position with the Minnesota Orchestra. My first experience playing at Carnegie Hall was during a two-week tour with them in April of 1979. By the time the tour started, I had already landed a position in the second violin section of the Rochester Philharmonic, where I play to this day.
SARAH: In high school I went to Interlochen for a summer, then for college I attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. I loved that school and everyone I worked with there, but the real learning was just being in New York among so many amazing players and starting a life as a professional musician. The first professional audition I won was actually for the Long Island Philharmonic where David Lockington conducted before he came to Grand Rapid (so I worked with him even before my parents did officially!). After Juilliard I moved to Dallas to start my Master’s degree. This is where I first worked in an orchestra library as a part time job with the Dallas Symphony. I then won an audition for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, where I played Associate Principal Oboe for four years. I came back to the states and pursued performance as well as working in libraries. I won a job with the Virginia Symphony as Principal Librarian, all while still playing the oboe and teaching as well. As I worked more as a librarian, I began to realize that it was something I really wanted to focus upon. I then got the opportunity to move back to Grand Rapids to have the same job with the GRS, so I took it and have been here for almost thirteen years. I met my husband Erich, and we have two amazing daughters.
GRSMA thanks John Sullivan and Sarah Bowman Peterson for giving us these insights and their perspectives on growing up in Grand Rapids as symphony kids!