Breaking barriers: West Michigan Symphony is proving classical music can be for everyone

The West Michigan Symphony performs at the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon. Photography by Keely Payne for the West Michigan Symphony.

Look out the windows of the West Michigan Symphony’s office in downtown Muskegon’s historic Russell Block building, and there is an almost endless stream of activity: workers constructing a six-story commercial and residential complex across the street, caffeine-seeking folk making their way to Drip Drop Drink, a crowd sipping Unruly Brewing beers in an outside courtyard. It is an incredibly eclectic landscape, a place filled with the people who call Muskegon home: students and artists and business owners and community activists, just to name a few.

In many ways, this outside world almost perfectly mirrors the 79-year-old West Michigan Symphony (WMS): like Muskegon’s downtown, the orchestra is a blend of newness and history, of creativity and innovation and the constant hum of change. At a time when classical music can be seen as entertainment for the elite, WMS is tearing down those barriers to say: this music is for everyone. Perhaps, then, it could be said that it is the Muskegon of orchestras: a place where unpretentiousness and world-class talent seamlessly coexist, a place equally accessible to those who want to dress to the nines for a night on the town and those who want to don a pair of jeans after work and immerse themselves in live music. Together, people from all walks of life can watch musicians from Muskegon and Chicago to Louisville and Los Angeles bring the orchestra’s audience on an emotional rollercoaster as musical pieces from around the globe tell stories of love and war, of aging and loss—of, perhaps most of all, what it means to be human.

This Friday, Sept. 28, the West Michigan Symphony will do just that as it celebrates its season debut at the Frauenthal Center. And while the concert in and of itself is a story to be told (it’s kicking off with a festive program that includes Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide,” Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier Suite,” Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival,” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Roman Festivals”), the premiere, and entire season, is part of a larger narrative. It is a story of a city’s artistic growth, of the arts connecting with—and empowering—a diverse audience, of a cultural institution that, for nearly eight decades, has been a beacon of creativity in Muskegon.

“I have seen a creative community really grow in the last 15 years, and especially in the last three years,” said West Michigan Symphony Music Director Scott Speck, an acclaimed conductor who has led performances throughout the world and has called Muskegon’s Amazon Apartments home since 2004. “The view I saw out of the window of the West Michigan Symphony office mirrored the state of growth in Muskegon. First, I saw the shell of a mall that had died, and then I remembered seeing after they demolished it a pile of rubble that was there for a year. That was cleared away. Then I saw the street grid put in and, gradually, these beautiful streets and beautiful buildings.”

West Michigan Symphony Music Director Scott Speck. Photography by Keely Payne for the West Michigan Symphony.

“I feel in the past several years Muskegon has been becoming the best version of itself, and that really fills me with joy,” continued Speck, who graduated from Yale University, landed a Fulbright scholarship to study music in Berlin, and currently also serves as the artistic director for the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and the music director for the Mobile Symphony Orchestra in Alabama. “I see people really committed to downtown and to the arts.”

As Muskegon’s downtown continues to boom, the orchestra is playing a pivotal role in growing the area’s cultural landscape—a world that, in addition to the symphony, is populated by names like the Muskegon Museum of Art, the Lakeshore Museum Center, the Muskegon Heritage Museum, and Red Lotus Center for the Arts.

“We’re starting to see more collaboration among the different arts organizations in the community; there’s a lot of potential there,” said West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow, who headed orchestras in Traverse City, Michigan and Tacoma, Washington before accepting his position in Muskegon late last year. He officially began as executive director in January.

“The thing about the arts is the more you can encourage people to go to lots of different arts, the more people will go to the arts,” Buelow continued. “The more people go to the Museum of Art, the more arts people there are in Muskegon who will go to the symphony.”

Therefore, while the orchestra wants to engage its audiences with live classical music, it also wants to be part of something even bigger: a city in which more and more people are both participating in, and being patrons of, the local cultural institutions.

“I think the symphony is an anchor for the arts,” said Speck. “We are one of the biggest arts organizations in Muskegon. We’re a very stable magnet, both for presentation of the fine arts at the highest level and for the creation of art. We have a composer-in-residence who’s created five pieces of art we’ve presented.”

The West Michigan Symphony provides numerous educational programs for students throughout Muskegon, and the region. Photography by Keely Payne for the West Michigan Symphony.

Additionally, the symphony’s music director emphasized, the orchestra is constantly adding ways to engage with the community and make classical music more accessible to everyone from elementary school students living in Muskegon’s core neighborhoods to adults who never thought they’d step foot in an orchestral space.

To connect with a younger audience and provide arts programming that has often been cut in schools throughout the region, Keely Payne, the symphony’s art director and marketing manager, said the orchestra offers a variety of educational programs, including free music instruction at more than 50 elementary schools in Allegan, Muskegon, Newaygo, Kent, Ottawa, and Oceana counties—including 21 schools in Muskegon County alone. And just this fall, the symphony is kicking off an initiative entitled “Aesthetic Education,” for which they’re partnering with the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District to better connect elementary students with cultural experiences in their city.

“It’s a way of getting children out of the classroom and into the museum or to a symphony concert to interact with a work of art, and instead of telling them how to think about the work of art, it’s about how the work of art affects you,” Buelow said. “What do you think and what you do you feel? We want to teach children to have their own arts experience.”

West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow. Photography by Keely Payne for the West Michigan Symphony.

To further make classical music accessible to a diverse audience, Buelow points to The Block, the orchestra’s intimate venue where, as its website explains, small ensembles of musicians can push the musical boundaries. There, audiences can find everything from “timpanists who perform on cardboard boxes to klezmer-meets-Bollywood with a splash of bluegrass to jazz and Broadway influenced cabaret performances.” The Block kicked off its 2018-19 season on Aug. 23, and it will offer 11 more concerts through June. Additionally, on Friday. Oct. 19, The Block will present a free performance, “Sub-merge: Raising Water Awareness through Science, Music, and Dance,” a one-hour piece that will represent the history of water usage in the Great Lakes over the past 12,000 years.

“The Block is just mind-bogglingly cool,” Speck said. “It’s this wonderful buzzing beehive.”

Acclaimed jazz musician Dee Daniels sings at The Block. Photo via The Block.

A theme that runs through the orchestra’s musical and educational programming is one of joy—an exuberance for the music that immediately translates to its audience members, whether they’re five-year-olds working with musicians in a classroom, or 95-year-olds attending a concert at which Speck makes sure he spends time speaking with the crowd about the music they’re about to hear. Beyond that, those leading the orchestra want the music to not only be accessible, but the entire experience enjoyable for both those who are longtime classical music devotees and those who have rarely, if ever, listened to classical music.

“I feel that in the 20th century especially, the music world was completely responsible for the alienation of the general public,” said Speck, who in 1997 co-authored “Classical Music for Dummies,” a book entirely dedicated to connecting the general public with classical music and which has become one of the most popular books on classical music ever written. “People felt shut out of concert halls; there were these strange rules—how are people supposed to know when they should clap? At a Beethoven symphony, you could clap like crazy during a movement of a symphony. It had a raucous, free-for-all feeling that a rock concert has now.”

“We created so many barriers to people’s enjoyment of classical music,” Speck continued. “Why on most classical music stations of the 20th century, why are the announcers over-enunciating their words so much? A notable exception to this is the Blue Lake Public Radio; they have such an infectious joy for the music that comes across.”

It is this genuine passion for the music and the desire to connect with the public—to show everyone that classical music is not defined by so-silent-you-can-hear-a-pin-drop audiences and fancy attire—that helps to attract creative and innovative musicians to the orchestra, and what, in part, keeps them there, even when they’ve moved thousands of miles away.

Members of the West Michigan Symphony. Photography by Keely Payne for the West Michigan Symphony.

“What has happened over the last 15 years or so is that while we still have many members who live in West Michigan, we’ve also become a magnet for the greatest musicians in the region,” Speck said. “We have musicians coming from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago. Our principal clarinetist has since moved to Florida, and he commutes from Florida to Muskegon. People commute from Louisville, Los Angeles, Florida to continue to play in the symphony.”

Much of that has to do with Speck’s leadership, as well as with an entire West Michigan Symphony that is not only dedicated and talented, but desirous of a public that is in love with the arts, with music, with creativity. That goes to the symphony not because they can get dressed up (though that’s more than welcome, too), but because the music takes them away from their day-to-day and into an explosion of melodies and harmonies and rhythms.

“The only thing I’d ask people to do is to give it a try,” Speck said of the orchestra. “The vast majority of people will be blown away by the experience of a combined sound of 100 people in a glorious, acoustical space like the Frauenthal Theater and want to experience more.”

“I can’t tell you the number of times people come up to us and say, ‘This is the most moving experience of my life,’” Speck said.

The West Michigan Symphony’s 79th season will begin this Friday, Sept. 28 at 7:30pm at the Frauenthal Center. Prior to Friday’s concert, the West Michigan Symphony will hold a free “Lunch ‘n Learn” event on Wednesday, Sept. 26, during which the public is invited to an hour of conversation with Music Director Scott Speck. The Lunch ‘n Learn event will be held at The Block (360 W. Western Ave.) at 11:45am. For more information, please go here. To learn more about the Friday evening concert, please click here, and to purchase tickets, please go here. For information about The Block’s concerts and tickets, click here.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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