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Tribute to our Four Retiring Musicians

Exactly 150 years! That is the total that our four retiring musicians have performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS). GRSMA says goodbye to long-time colleagues in our string and percussion sections.

Vladimir Babin.jpg

Cellist Vladimir Babin was born in Azerbaijan where he studied at their State Conservatory of Music’s gifted child program. Once in the United States, Vladimir settled in Michigan and performed with the Ann Arbor Symphony and Windsor Symphony Orchestra, in addition to being a member of the GRS since 1994. GRSMA cellist Alicia Eppinga offers these thoughts about Vladimir upon his retirement. "During his time with the GRS, Vladimir has been known for his entertaining stories about the many amazing musical experiences he has had, especially with some of the well-known Russian musicians. As a hobby, Vladimir enjoys photography and has shown many of us his beautiful photos. As a proud grandpa, most of these have been of his adorable grandchildren! Vladimir has had the opportunity to sit with many different stand-partners in our orchestra, and he would usually come to me to tell me that (with a Russian accent) 'they play perfect'! We will miss Vladimir and wish him much happiness and much more time enjoying his grandchildren. Spasibo, Vladimir!"

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A member of the GRS double bass section since 1986, Leo Hazen led a double life for decades. In addition to performing in our orchestra, Leo was a music teacher in the Portage public school system, located south of Kalamazoo. GRSMA violist Kristen Shoup shared the following about Leo: "It’s really pretty amazing that Leo even became a bass player. When he was at Western Michigan University, majoring in music education, he was part of the band where he played the euphonium. He started playing double bass in college and took a few lessons. It wasn’t until after graduation when he started studying with Lawrence Hurst at the University of Michigan that Leo got serious about the bass. But he wasn’t just a great bass player. Leo was also a great teacher. He spent two years teaching in Sturgis before moving to Portage, where he taught for 30 years. He’s also been an adjudicator for MSBOA Orchestra Festival and Solo and Ensemble Festival. Leo’s been a positive musical influencer for quite awhile and is always quick to share a joke or two. Currently, he can be found enjoying retirement with his wife Dianne and their dog Scout."

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Leslie Van Becker had been Principal Violist of the GRS since 1979! She grew up in San Francisco and came to Grand Rapids fresh from graduate school at Yale School of Music. GRSMA horn player Paul Austin described how Leslie assisted with this summer's ICSOM conference in Grand Rapids, just one of many times that Leslie went beyond the call of duty. "When it was announced that Grand Rapids would be the site of ICSOM's 60th annual conference, Leslie immediately contacted me to ask how she could be of assistance. Leslie was given a job that ended up being a perfect fit for her: hosting the opening night reception at Downtown Market. And Leslie organized every last detail to create a memorable event, with menu options and decorations that represented West Michigan, all while coming in on budget! Looking back on our decades together in the GRS, I observe how Leslie treated every aspect of her life in this detailed way: how she led the viola section, her drive and passion when serving on committees, the personal connections she made with colleagues and donors, and her involvement in our community. Leslie's level of dedication is a model to us all." (Read more about GRSMA and ICSOM HERE)

Bill Vits.jpg

1979 was also the year that Bill Vits joined the GRS as Principal Percussionist. Bill's retirement from the GRS came upon us suddenly, as he stepped down after the first concerts of the 2022-23 season after a long battle with cancer. Noted composer and GRSMA oboist Ale Miller relayed the significant impact that Bill has had upon his compositions. “Bill is a generous soul, a versatile musician, and a tireless educator with an entertainer’s sense of timing. Bill has been the backbone, the pulse that has run through this orchestra during the past six decades. He is a consummate professional, a very funny guy offstage, and the kind of musician you rely upon because, besides nailing everything, he is always listening, always balancing sensitively to the textures around him. Bill was so helpful to me when I was learning the ropes as an orchestral composer. After my first piece used only one percussion instrument — a lone triangle — Bill took me under his wing, gave me an out-of-print reference book (which I use to this day) and showed me how to dream in the language of percussion. He showed me the unlimited possibilities, anything from the 12-foot thunder sheet he sourced from scrap metal to an antique box of Vaudeville sound effects. Anything that made a sound was something Bill could repurpose into a musical instrument. The vintage Texaco sign that hangs in his studio makes a wonderful gong sound, and he memorably used it as an instrument for the “Percussion and Friends” concert that was such a hit (twice) a few years ago. It is difficult to envision the future of our orchestra without the steady beat of Bill’s drum. I don’t know how we can manage without his sensitive musicianship, his wisdom, and the warm embrace of his humanity, but we will have to try.”


GRSMA will miss seeing Vladimir, Leo, Leslie, and Bill on stage with us and wish them the best in their retirement. Thank you to all four of our dear colleagues for their dedication and service for a total of 150 years!

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