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Monday, 06 February 2012 10:12

Symphony of talent: West Michigan Symphony’s success bred from inspiring best in all people, letting go of naysayers

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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Symphony of talent: West Michigan Symphony’s success bred from inspiring best in all people, letting go of naysayers PHOTO: Jeff Hage

MUSKEGON — Any organization features people with various levels of natural talent, but the key to how well the organization performs lies in how that diversity of people works together.

When Scott Speck joined the Westshore Symphony — now called the West Michigan Symphony — in 2003, the board of directors challenged him to turn the symphony into a world-class organization. He took over a group of musicians with a disparity of talent: Some had auditioned for their parts, others had not. Music came naturally to some of the musicians, while others in the group needed hours upon hours to practice to get the pieces right.

Speck challenged all the musicians to come to rehearsal having mastered their music beforehand. But while rehearsing “Sibelius Symphony No. 2,” an extremely difficult piece, he became frustrated because he said it was apparent that the musicians had not sufficiently prepared. Speck wrote each of them a letter that some of the musicians considered threatening.

“The person in your chair will come to rehearsal from now on playing the notes to the best of their ability,” Speck said, recalling the letter. “Hopefully, the person in your chair will be you.”

That letter ignited a firestorm now referred to as “The Year of the Brouhaha.” Speck deflected barbs that he was trying to morph the organization into “another Grand Rapids Symphony” by explaining that — with all due respect to the Grand Rapids organization — what he hoped to create was another Berlin Philharmonic, generally regarded as the best orchestra in the world.

The Berlin Philharmonic doesn’t necessarily have the best group of musicians in every chair, Speck said, but the group focuses on how it plays together. As Speck told the crowd at TEDx Muskegon last year, “It’s almost as if these musicians have their nervous systems connected by wires from one side of the stage to the other. Before they play, they all breathe. When an orchestra breathes, the entire body rises and falls like a single-celled organism. … They queue themselves from each other — all the way across the stage. They sing through the music. … The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

“That’s what I wanted here. It’s not about being the best musician in the world. It’s about wanting to be part of the best orchestra in the world.”

That meant that everyone in the Muskegon-based symphony needed to prepare as if he or she were preparing to perform at the Berlin Philharmonic. Speck said it wasn’t about musical ability, but rather about preparation and “playing to the pinnacle of your ability.” The change was too much for a few musicians, who quit on the spot. A half-dozen others quit over the next year, as it became obvious they could not devote the time to prepare at the higher standard.

Speck said it’s important with any organization:

  • To set proper standards. It wasn’t the right goal for the Muskegon group to aspire to be like the Grand Rapids Symphony. Instead, it needed to aim higher.
  • To be flexible. Organizations shouldn’t bow to tradition, but rather seek innovations when they make sense.
  • To accept attrition as part of success. Positive thinkers will get organizations far, and along the way, some naysayers or other people might move on. It’s no one’s fault, but people who hold back an organization, for whatever reason, need to go.

“Letting the naysayers go allowed positive change to occur,” Speck said. “The small amount of attrition was offset because our reputation grew — the result of playing at a higher level.”

The lure of Frauenthal

These days a West Michigan Symphony concert features 65 to 85 musicians, depending on the music selected. All are auditioned and paid per service. Virtually all are full-time musicians performing with more than one orchestra. Six musicians, including Concert Master Jennifer Walvoord, also perform with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Many of the musicians live in Michigan, but an oboe player commutes from Los Angeles and a clarinetist travels from Mississippi for the symphony’s 20 performances per year. Many musicians are willing to make long commutes to perform with symphonies with a reputation for high musicianship, Speck said.

The lure for many, including Speck, is the opportunity to perform in Muskegon’s legendary Frauenthal Theatre, widely regarded as the best concert hall within a 200-mile radius of Chicago or Detroit.

The organization’s name was changed from Westshore Symphony to West Michigan Symphony in 2009 to reflect its wider reach for musicians and audiences.

“Cross-pollination is extraordinarily healthy for creativity,” said Speck, who believes the symphony is now playing better than at any time in its 70-year history. “Musicians need a variety of stimuli to avoid monotony and stay fresh.”

Speck himself simultaneously serves as music director for the symphony in Mobile, Ala. — a city as boisterous as Muskegon is reserved, he said. He also serves as music director for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.

Not hamstrung by tradition

Most symphony concerts feature classical music presented in pretty much the same way it was a century ago, but Speck says his goal is to honor tradition without being handcuffed by it.

Once each winter, the symphony sheds its black ties and formals for “Beethoven in Blue Jeans,” a classical concert with a contemporary vibe. Recent guest performers include the avant-garde ensemble Eighth Blackbird and 10-year-old concert pianist Marc Yu.

Speck contends that a love of classical music lies dormant in most people: After all, Beethoven was the Beatles of his day, and Mozart was the Michael Jackson. Speck co-authored the book “Classical Music for Dummies” with the goal of dispelling the myth that this time-honored music is meant for affluent, Eurocentric, white-haired audiences.

Speck and West Shore Symphony President Carla Hill aim to attract new and younger audiences with multimedia concerts promoted from nontraditional platforms. The most ambitious formats were the 2009 multimedia production “American Made,” an ode to manufacturing, and the 2011 multimedia show “Sustainability: A West Michigan Journey,” which showed a century of use and misuse of resources along Lake Michigan.

Concert notes that tell the story behind the score are now online with audio links for the younger set, who are unlikely to read a printed program.

Speck says Hill is the hands-down biggest factor in West Michigan Symphony’s success. She had experience promoting symphonies in Columbus and Omaha before coming to Muskegon six years ago.

“I don’t say no to Scott’s artistic vision very often,” Hill said, “but there are times I have to say that we’ll try it later.”

Proactive despite recession

West Michigan Symphony is a nonprofit organization with a budget of about $1 million.

It’s not rolling in dough, yet it manages to play leadership roles on several fronts: partnering with other symphonies to commission new orchestral works, mentoring a youth symphony, and augmenting music education in Muskegon-area K-12 schools with recorder lessons and concerts.

“Carla is audacious, despite it all,” said Speck, explaining that a symphony’s financials usually reflect instability in a region’s population and economic health.

Symphony attendance dipped when the recession started five years ago, but it’s steadily climbing thanks to innovative programming and lowering prices for some of Frauenthal’s 1,724 seats, Hill said.

Tickets to a November concert with low pre-sales were offered free to card-carrying college students who picked them up before the day of the event. The promotion boosted attendance by more than 200, including some first-time symphony-goers, Hill said.

Hill said that if she could have one wish, it would be to schedule around February, when snowbirds have flown south and great music isn’t enough to coax people away from the hearth.

“Younger people are here in February, but their buying habits are different,” Hill said. “They’re spontaneous about entertainment. We have to be out there Twittering, blogging and Facebook posting to reach that consumer. They’re not going to subscribe for the season.”

Maintaining high standards of performance and being willing to test-drive unconventional tactics to build an audience are key to weathering economic woes, Speck and Hill agreed.

It’s important for the spirit of a community that orchestras play through tough times, Speck said.

“It’s when people are struggling that they especially need what we offer,” Speck said. “Music is uplifting. It lifts the burden and helps people see things in new ways.”

On that score, Speck and Hill say, “West Michigan gets it.” They describe the greater Muskegon area as “fertile ground” where people come — or come back — to make a difference. And many do.

“In so many ways we’re like Chicago,” Speck said, “but with better beaches.”

 

 

Sidebar: Arts funding packs big bang behind a buck

Scott SpeckFor every dollar the state spends to support nonprofit arts and cultural activities, those organizations spend $51 in programming, salaries, travel and rent.

That’s according to “Creative State Michigan,” a report issued in late January by ArtServe Michigan, a Wixom-based arts advocacy group.

The report was based on a survey of 210 nonprofit arts and cultural groups that received state support in 2009. That year, the 15,560 people employed in the sector earned $152 million.

The study, which was generated from an 11-state database, shows that arts funding has significant economic impact.

“A strong arts sector is an economic asset that stimulates business activity and attracts companies that want to offer their employees and clients a creative climate in an attractive community,” said Carla Hill, president of West Michigan Symphony.

“Not only do arts organizations purchase goods and services that help local merchants thrive,” Hill added, “arts audiences also spend money.”

According to the Arts and Economic Prosperity Calculator, the formula Art Serve Michigan used in its report, West Michigan Symphony audiences spend an additional $24 on event-related spending. That spending generates more than $450,000 of economic activity in West Michigan, Hill said.

Michigan had lacked a mechanism to measure the vitality of its arts and culture sector – and data seemed increasingly important as the recession took hold and the state’s economy shrunk, said Jennifer Goulet, president of ArtServe.

With funding from foundations, in 2010 an association of nonprofit Michigan arts and culture groups joined the Cultural Data Project, a multi-state project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to track the economic impact of the arts.

The 210 participants from 45 counties in the inaugural report represent about a tenth of the state’s estimated 2,000 nonprofit arts and culture groups.

State arts grants for the entire sector were just under $10 million in 2009. Those groups spent almost $463 million.

Read 4178 times Last modified on Friday, 24 August 2012 16:52

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