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Mary Tuuk at her happy place, the shore of Lake Michigan, with her great nephew Micah.

Interview with Mary Tuuk, new GRS President/CEO


2019 began with Mary Tuuk becoming the new President/CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony. She is no stranger to GRSMA, as Mary's committee leadership and dedication to the GRS are recognized and appreciated by our membership. We were pleased that Mary took a few minutes from her busy schedule to sit down with GRSMA to answer some questions so that we could discover more about her background and her vision for the symphony

GRSMA: You were born and raised in Grand Rapids. Do you recall the first time that you heard the Grand Rapids Symphony? 

Mary Tuuk: Yes, I do! It was a Fifth Grade concert. I remember being there with all of the other school children, with the impression that it was huge, and that I was in awe of the orchestra.


As a member of the GRS Chorus, you have a bird's eye view of the orchestra. And we know that you have been a faithful GRS audience member for years. What observations do you note from being on both sides of the stage?

First, being on stage and with a direct view of the conductor feels like such a personal experience, even though I am one of many on stage. I get a first-hand view of the individual musicians nearby and what it takes for them to produce their art. Now, from the audience side, I enjoy the assimilation of sound from the orchestra and all of the various colors, as well as the passion and excitement of the orchestra as a complete ensemble.


As a Grand Rapids native, you have seen much change in our city. What updates make you the most proud as a resident, or are there regrets that you have to the rapid growth of Grand Rapids?

Growing up, the downtown area was almost desolate and with very little activity. I do recall the Pantlind Hotel which is now the Amway Grand Plaza. The updates that make me the most proud are DeVos Performance Hall (which will have its 40th anniversary), Van Andel Arena, and the expansion of the health care sector on Michigan Street.


You are an accomplished musician, having studied violin, organ and voice. Did any of your musical training assist you in the business world?

Yes, it did, especially in two ways. The first is that music is a discipline of preparation. The skill of practice and preparation has been very valuable in the business world. The other way is that you are ultimately part of a larger group or ensemble. Music teaches you to be part of a team, which translates well into the business world.


The 2018 trip to New York City to perform in Carnegie Hall was a highlight for the GRS. Are there any cities or concert halls that are on your wish list for future GRS tours?

A European tour would be on my wish list, which would include major European cities and concert halls. 


For the 90th season of the GRS, is there a specific concert or event that you look forward to the most, and why?

Without a doubt, Mahler's Second Symphony. Specifically, the last part of the "Resurrection" symphony, because it combines all of the musical forces. There is the large orchestra with heavy brass, a large chorus, plus full organ. For me, the pinnacle moment is the large E-flat major chord, when the chorus comes in on "Auf er Stehen" and when the organ comes in for the first time. Hearing the build up to this moment is incredibly exciting. Mahler's ability to move to hope from the heels of despair in this symphony is apparent to the listener.


(Link for information about this GRS concert:

We know that you have lived in Bloomington IN, Chicago and Cincinnati, all cities with impressive arts scenes and a notable quality for classical music. Does this have an impact upon how you view the future of the arts in Grand Rapids?

I will say that all of these places have made a very specific impact upon my artistic vision. When living in Bloomington, I was a student musician taking organ lessons. I was able to see first-hand fellow colleagues in masters and doctoral programs and the kind of discipline and dedication that it took to perform at that level. This solidifies the respect I have today for the Grand Rapids Symphony musicians. When I was in Chicago, I used to go to Orchestra Hall and hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was from those experiences that I discovered the pure silkiness of the sound of the CSO: warm, precise and expressive. From Cincinnati, it was the structure of the performing arts organizations that made an impact upon me. There was a successful arts culture for the performance arts organization, demonstrating artistic quality as well as financial support and structure.


The GRS has the unique ability to perform classical, pops, opera, and ballet at a high level, and the GRS choral programs are quite special. How do you envision a heightened collaboration within the arts organizations in west Michigan?

We already have engaged in discussions with Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet for more collaborative opportunities.  


When you are away from the office, what do you do for fun or relaxation?

I go to the beach in Holland — that’s my happy place. I love nothing better than a Lake Michigan sunset.


Now that you have been in the GRS President/CEO position for nine months, what are the differences that you have noticed between corporate America and the non-profit arts world?

The biggest difference is the leadership requirements are more complex because of the different constituencies that are part of the organization. This includes the board, the artistic leaders, the musicians themselves, the administrative team, our donors, and our community partners. The leadership required just isn’t black and white. Instead, it is one of judgment and requires navigating all constituencies in order to move forward for the benefit of the symphony.


When introducing a newcomer to Grand Rapids, what are the must-do things that you show about our city?

The downtown and its arts opportunities, the Lake Michigan lakeshore, and Meijer Gardens would be on my list.


Anything else you wish to share with our readers?

That I have great joy in this job. 

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