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Ten Questions for Michael Naess, GRS VP of Development


Who unpacks moving boxes in their apartment while listening to a recording of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble? That would be the new GRS Vice President of Development Michael Naess. GRSMA was pleased to sit down with him to learn more about his fascinating background and was impressed by his musical training and passion for the arts.

GRSMA: Where did you grow up, and what are your first memories of classical music? 

Michael Naess: I was born in Houston, Texas, but was sent to an all-boys boarding school at age 10 and from then on spent most of my life on the East Coast. My parents allowed me to take drum and piano lessons early in my childhood and then I fell in love with classical music after witnessing a 12-year-old pianist perform Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. From that point forward I was glued to the piano, started singing in various choirs and male a cappella groups, and played drums in a few rock bands in high school and at Bowdoin College. I graduated in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in music, with a focus on Renaissance and Baroque choral music and performance, and two years of organ instruction. 


GRSMA: Tell us about your musical career and the path that brought you to your current role as Vice President of Development for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

MN: After graduating I went to live with my sister in DC. I waited tables and managed restaurants with a part-time job as a telemarketer, selling subscriptions for the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Since I was good at talking about classical music and had a strong knowledge of orchestral repertoire, my sales on the phone were high, so I was swiftly drafted into management. I spent eight years as a campaign manager, and later an account executive, for two different performing arts telemarketing and telefundraising companies, working on campaigns for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre, Detroit Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Alliance Theatre, Toronto Symphony, Art Gallery of Ontario, Arts Center of Ontario, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I then moved to NYC to direct the Carnegie Hall campaign and after a year they hired me in-house. I worked in marketing for eight years at Carnegie Hall and then went on to director of marketing positions at Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, and Dallas Symphony. 


GRSMA: You are a trained musician and very well-spoken about classical music. How have your musical experiences assisted you in the business world today? 

MN: I think to be truly good at selling and promoting something, or raising money for it, you have to have a passion for it and really enjoy it. I still hold subscriptions at Carnegie Hall, Orpheus, Young Concert Artist, and now St. Cecilia Music Center. Talking about the music and watching people fall in love with it is my favorite part of the job of being behind the scenes to make sure amazing artists can keep on playing to welcoming audiences! 


GRSMA: By now you have resided in Grand Rapids for all four seasons. How do you find your first year of living in west Michigan? 

MN: It's beautiful, clean, very affordable, and the pride of West Michiganders palpable. The weather is not hard for me, as I lived in Chicago, Toronto and NYC for many years. My biggest challenge is the lack of public transportation and dating at 45 in such a small town that seems to be designed for budding young families. 


GRSMA: We know that you have worked recently in major cities with big budget orchestras. Have those past positions been helpful for your current role as VP of Development with the GRS? 

MN: Yes and no. A positive is that I know how those organizations create, utilize, and sustain structures and processes to solve some of the most challenging problems. The big challenge of working at small, ultra-ambitious organizations with very lean budgets is the lack of human resources. The volume of work that gets done with such a small crew here at the GRS is staggering, and a true testament to the dedication of those that rise up to meet the challenges year after year.  


GRSMA: We hear that you enjoy running as a hobby. Do you have any favorite paths in west Michigan, and do you plan to run in one of our city’s marathons soon? 

MN: While I had a very strong marathon career in my 20s and 30s (PR of 3 hours and 20 minutes) and completed the Empire State Building Stair Climb (96 floors) in 14 minutes (top 100 runners), a major split-tear in my right post tibial tendon coupled with multiple knee surgeries back in December of 2018 has sidelined me from longer distances and fast finish times. Currently I attend Orange Theory fitness classes 3-4 times a week, practice yoga at Funky Buddah on Mondays and Wednesdays, and still do 5-10 mile races here and there. I have enjoyed the loop at Reed's Lake and paths of Millennium Park. 


GRSMA: Is there a specific GRS concert that you look forward to attending this season? 

MN: For sure! Dvořák's New World Symphony was premiered at my beloved Carnegie Hall and some of the original score hangs in the hallway (stage right). I used to give VIP tours of the hall and show the score, so I am very excited to hear Marcelo conduct that piece, as it is very special to him as well. Second favorite will be the Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with Gerstein, as I love to hear the concertos evolve from the classical Mozartean style of the first two to the heroic, romantic flavor of the Emperor


GRSMA: We know that you have an extensive record collection. When did this start, and are we talking vinyl? 

MN: After listening to my parent’s Time Life Classical Collection of CD recordings ad nauseam, I started collecting classical recordings at the age of 12 and then inherited some vinyl from my German grandparents. I have over 1,000 recordings in storage. 


GRSMA: If you could invite any classical musician, living or dead, to your home for dinner, who would it be and why? 

MN: Mozart, and we would probably have a good time together. He partied like a rock star and had a wicked sense of humor (read some of his letters to his sister). I would love to chat about his tributes to Bach in a lot of his music, and the joy he experienced shocking the opera crowd in Vienna. 


GRSMA: Is there anything else that you wish to share? 

MN: Thank you to GRS for giving me this wonderful opportunity to experience the city, an amazing orchestra, and trio of conductors, and an exceptional staff of dedicated arts lovers.

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