Valued Veterans: GRSMA Musicians from the '70s

GRSMA proudly features our musicians who have been with the Grand Rapids Symphony since the 1970s. Take a trip down memory lane with our eleven valued veterans, who gladly shared stories and photos.

Steve Brook/Violin and Viola

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In the 1979/80 season, I started as a full-time section violist. The next season, I auditioned (on the same day) for Assistant Principal Second Violin and Assistant Principal Viola. I won both positions, so they asked me which one I wanted. I decided to accept the violin position because, by leaving the viola section, the two very good violists at the audition could be hired. But I still continued on viola in the education ensemble. I’ve very much enjoyed connecting with people of all ages through music for many years on both instruments.

Ruth Bylsma/flute

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One photo is of me in 1974 at age 19, the year I won my position with the Grand Rapids Symphony. The second one is a current photo marking my 47th (and weirdest) GRS season. The two pictures are bookends to a lifetime of music making. I wouldn't have it any other way. What a ride it has been!

Kevin Flannery/bass

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The worst memory that I have of the early days was rehearsing with Theo Alcantra in high school auditoriums in January. Yes, heat was provided by garage heaters (salamanders) which made a lot of noise and stunk. The lighting was also substantially below adequate. And then, we would go and produce one performance in the Civic Auditorium which was a literal barn and smelled like one when the circus was in town. The best memory that I have is the orchestra right now. What we are doing is amazing, and I hope that we will be able to get back to performing for live audiences soon.

Chris Kantner/flute

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My many years of service in the GRS (as part of a flute section that surely holds some kind of record for longevity!) gives me some perspective on the long arch of our evolution into the orchestra we are today. Our long term growth is the result of a shared vision of excellence that looks on the creation of a great orchestra as the defining quality of a great community. The meeting of these aspirations is the source of the kind of mutual investment the community has made in us and we in the community. These investments sustain us now at a critical time and will be essential as we reclaim our orchestral life and the communal space of live orchestral music. 

Judy Kemph/flute and piccolo

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Prior to joining the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1976, I attended Ann Arbor High School, have degrees from the University of Michigan, was piccoloist with the Flint Symphony Orchestra, and was a piccolo fellowship recipient at the Aspen Music Festival. Since the early 1970s, I have enjoyed teaching private flute and piccolo lessons, and I had the privilege of teaching lessons at Grand Valley State University from 1986 to 2007. Participating during the growth and expansion of the Grand Rapids Symphony and its many educational and Music for Health programs has been a dream come true for me.

Mike Kornacki/clarinet

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I joined the Grand Rapids Symphony when I was a graduate student at Michigan State University. It was my first job. I have the same enthusiasm for making music now as I did then.

Mary Jane Miller, viola

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I joined the Grand Rapids Symphony family in 1979. My sister was a cellist with the orchestra at that time, and this is a photo in our matching concert dresses that our mother made for us. I have had the privilege of working with conductors from all over the world. Learning to play Spanish, Russian, French, English, and now Brazilian music from these leaders has been a rare education that I have been very lucky to have. The orchestra has grown so much from those early days, and every concert brings a new and fresh challenge. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of the GRS.

Leslie Van Becker, viola

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When I joined the Grand Rapids Symphony, I also became a member of the DeVos String Quartet. The original DeVos Quartet had just quit their GRS jobs to become The New World String Quartet. The world was quite different in September of 1977. The Grand Rapids Press published a half-page picture of the new DeVos Quartet with an accompanying article. All of our concerts were reviewed, orchestral as well as all chamber music and chamber orchestra concerts. Gerald Elliot was one of two full-time classical music reporters who worked for the Grand Rapids Press. He used to send me notes after we played concerts addressed to “Miss Primrose”. Gerry knew an amazing amount about classical music and had attended many historic concerts; it was an education to talk to him! I am very happy to still be able to perform beautiful and meaningful music for our wonderful Grand Rapids audiences. It has been my joy to see our city grow and diversify over the years.

Collette VandenBerg, violin

I came aboard the GRS when Theo Alcantara was music director. He was excellent, very colorful, and a big personality. We had some amazing concerts, including one with the legendary opera star Beverly Sills. Theo began the process of converting the orchestra to eventually become what we are today. We did play at Welsh Auditorium and had orange plastic chairs for the audience. The hall held 5000, and I think that we filled it. In the 70's we were paid very little, something like  $17.50 a service. Each conductor has brought something good to our orchestra. The biggest musical highlight under Semyon Bychkov's leadership was playing Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. It was an incredible experience, and we were now in DeVos Hall. I still remember the experience 40 years later. With Theo's hard work to lay the foundation, we have been a top notch orchestra for all of these years since. I just watched a bit of our fantastic video, Deborah Henson-Conant's Grammy-nominated masterpiece "Alchemy and Invention". Making that CD, along with the GRS conducted by David Lockington, was the most fun and joy I may have ever had. Here's to continuing making more great music during the Marcelo Lehninger era!

Bill Vits, percussion

I joined the orchestra in 1979 days after getting my Masters degree at age 22 from the University of Michigan. Back then the pay was $26 a service, but I was thrilled to have a job! Little did I know I was getting in on the ground floor with a growing future major orchestra. I played the first note in Devos Hall, plus opened the Ford Museum and the Van Andel Arena, as I watched our city grow into a thriving artistic community. How lucky I've been to play orchestral, ballet, opera, Broadway and then rock and roll at midnight after I left the concert stage. 

David Wheeler, violin

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In the fall of 1973 I joined the Grand Rapids Symphony. I played second violin until leaving for military service in January of 1975, becoming a military bandsman on the tuba. Most of my service was at Fort Sheridan, a tiny post north of Chicago. I got married to a bandsman named Bonnie and came back to Grand Rapids after I left the service. In 1979 I reauditioned for the GRS and also started working at Cascade Hills Country Club on the Grounds. I was well known there as the “fiddler", "Maestro", or "Carl" (from the movie "Caddieshack"). In 1988 I auditioned again for the GRS to win a full-time section violin position. That's a lot of years in there, folks!