Rubble to rebirth: As the West Michigan Symphony helps a downtown rebuild, its own audiences keep growing

West Michigan Symphony Music Director Scott Speck. Photo by Keely Payne/West Michigan Symphony

West Michigan Symphony Music Director Scott Speck remembers it well: the rubble that filled the downtown streets after the Muskegon Mall was torn down in 2003—and then the quiet. The emptiness.

“Our offices used to be in the Frauenthal building, and they looked over a pile of rocks and then nothingness,” Speck said, referring to the 23-acre plot in downtown Muskegon that went from being the indoor mall to eight blocks of unpaved roads. “It was demoralizing, but we kept plugging away. There were so many forces at work making good things happen. It took a long time, but, for those of us who have lived and worked in downtown Muskegon, it’s really gratifying to see restaurants and stores and apartment buildings and offices popping up in an area that was the empty shell of a failed mall.”

This is a story many in Muskegon know well: one of destruction and rebirth. Of perseverance and growth. Of, as Speck said, the downtown’s transformation from “a pile of rocks for two years” to a space that has attracted more than $200 million in investment over the past two decades.

It’s a story with many characters, and many chapters, but one of them is the role the symphony has played in rebuilding a downtown that some, in the wake of a hemorrhaging economy, had pegged for failure—but which is now in a seemingly constant state of evolution. 

“Especially with the symphony’s offices and The Block being right in the midst of the downtown revitalization, we envision the West Michigan Symphony, The Block, The Frauenthal and that whole area, being a hub of cultural activity,” said Speck, an acclaimed conductor who has led performances throughout the world and has called Muskegon’s Amazon Apartments home since 2004. “We at the West Michigan Symphony can be proud of being one of the driving forces behind the revitalization of downtown Muskegon.” [You can see Speck speak further about downtown in a TEDx Muskegon talk here.]

Cellist Sujari Britt will perform with the West Michigan Symphony at a March 13 concert. Photo courtesy of Sujari Britt

As the symphony kicks off its 80th season this Friday, Sept. 27, it does so with that revitalization as its backdrop—as well as with eight decades of having a front row seat to history. With its debut held in November 1939as the Great Depression was ending and just before the country would soon enter one of the deadliest conflicts in global history, World War II—the symphony has, for 80 years, played to a world immersed in wars and political strife and economic collapse. And, for those eight decades, it has strived to be a space of refuge for audiences facing these monumental events, a place for audiences to find inspiration in creativity, a world of stories from composers who have translated the joy and love and sadness and strife they themselves witnessed to the music orchestras would go on to play around the world.

“One thing this 80th anniversary means to me is that we are so lucky—and I am telling you I count my lucky stars every day for this—that we live in a community which highly values what the symphony has to offer,” Speck said. “This goes above and beyond what you find in many communities. Here, we’ve become such an indispensable part of people’s lives and are affecting them in such a deep and lasting way I haven’t seen elsewhere.”

“People will come up to me after a concert and say it’s been life-changing for them,” Speck continued.

West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow, who headed orchestras in Traverse City, Michigan and Tacoma, Washington before accepting his position in Muskegon in 2017, too emphasized the deep support the community provides to the symphony, and the vital role the arts are playing in a growing Muskegon.

“The arts are a huge part of the new identity that Muskegon is building for itself,” Buelow said. “It’s really exciting to be here right now as a newcomer. As I’m talking to you, I’m sitting in my our office, looking at this brand new multi-use building across from me. Down the street, there are condos taking shape every day. Museums are talking about future expansion.”

“When you think about Lake Michigan, there really isn’t an example of another community like Muskegon that has our kind of arts and cultural sector, and we should be capitalizing on that,” Buelow continued.

West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow beneath the symphony’s The Block, located inside the same building as the symphony’s office at 360 W. Western Ave. Photo courtesy of Andy Buelow

Part of a downtown cultural landscape that is populated by names like the Muskegon Museum of Art, the Lakeshore Museum Center, the Muskegon Heritage Museum, and the Red Lotus Center for the Arts, the West Michigan Symphony has, over the past 80 years, gone on to become an acclaimed group of 65-plus musicians from throughout the region, and even country, that are drawing a record number of subscribers—patrons who are purchasing season tickets. In a nation where there has been a 30 percent decline in the number of adults who attend classical concerts since the 1980s and where orchestras throughout the country have gone bankrupt and shuttered, the West Michigan Symphony’s story is different. It is one of success.

“We’re seeing an increase in attendance,” Buelow said. “We’ve been filling season tickets since February, and we have more subscribers now than we have had in years. We have more than 1,000 subscribers for this season.”

“We’re aware of the national trends,” Buelow continued. “For us, our belief is it’s not so much classical music that people are shying away from, it’s the formal staid concert experience. We’ve worked really hard to loosen things up.”

Loosening things up has translated to an orchestra that centers around patrons having fun, not being afraid to enjoy the music, and finding Speck and the other musicians accessible. Think: audience members that are welcome to wear tuxes or jeans, invited to clap when they’re so moved, and can focus on the music, as opposed to whether or not they’re sporting the “right” clothing or are fluent in what Buelow and Speck explain is archaic orchestra etiquette.

“Our director, Scott Speck, is extremely approachable; there’s never a concert where he doesn’t talk to the audience about the music they’re going to hear, and he’s gotten the orchestra out of tuxes as well,” Buelow said. “The concerts are elegant, but they’re certainly less formal than what you’ll hear in Chicago or Detroit. I think that’s really important in Muskegon.”

The symphony too has been able to draw new audiences with 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.”

All of this, Buelow and Speck emphasize, is rooted in the idea that cultural events, and specifically classical music concerts, should be open, and affordable, to everyone—whether you’re a student, single parent, janitor, CEO—or anything in between.

It’s a cultural shift—making symphonies open and accessible to all—that’s resonating with both orchestra members and audiences, at least locally. That’s not to say it’s an easy shift, and it’s certainly one that Muskegon’s symphony leaders want to evolve and further focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (orchestras are among the country’s least racially diverse institutions, and African-American musicians made up just 1.8 percent of the nation’s orchestra players in 2014, according to an industry study).

Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland and the author of the 2015 book “Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America,” explained that from the 17th through 19th centuries, the primary patrons of the arts were kings and aristocrats—and the idea that cultural events, like orchestra concerts, are for the wealthy is one that has persisted.

But, in Muskegon, that’s changing—and Speck, Buelow and others behind the symphony want to ensure that growing connection to the orchestra continues.

“I’m thrilled to have found an orchestra in which, from the top to bottom of the organization, there’s complete and total buy-in and agreement to the idea that classical music is for everyone,” Speck said.

“The great classical composers, from ancient times to the present, write and have written their music with the hope it will touch the hearts of as many people as possible from as many backgrounds as possible,” he continued. “My job is to get this music, this magical, life-changing stuff, in front of as many people as possible. The best way to do that is to eliminate barriers: barriers like such questions as, ‘When should I clap?’ People should feel comfortable to clap when they feel so moved. Or a question like, ‘What should I wear?’ Music is meant to go straight to your soul, and no one should care what you’re wearing.”

And this season will do just that: Friday’s kick-off will be “a concert for our people who don’t know they like classical music,” Buelow said. The evening will feature four blockbusters: Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and “Sleeping Beauty Suite.”

“It’s such an embarrassment of riches,” Speck said of both the first concert and the entire season.

Internationally acclaimed pianist Charlie Albright will perform with the West Michigan Symphony on Friday, Nov. 8. Photo courtesy of the West Michigan Symphony

The season continues on Friday, Nov. 8 with a “Beethoven & Blue Jeans” concert, which will feature guest artist Charlie Albright, a pianist hailed as “one of the most gifted musicians of his generation” by the Washington Post. The event, which will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday and will encourage the audience to come in comfortable attire, will feature classical music’s most famous work: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Albright will perform the Piano Concerto No. 3. 

The Beethoven & Blue Jeans concert will be rooted in that same theme of making concerts joyful and accessible, Albright said.

“One thing I always love is keeping classical music fun, easy, accessible, and low-key—the opposite of snooty,” said Albright, an internationally award-winning pianist, composer and improviser who has played with orchestras around the globe. “Classical music gets a bad rap as being full of itself, but this concert and the one I’ll be doing at The Block the next day will be fun and enjoyable. That’s the point of music. People in classical music don’t like to use the word ‘entertainment,’ but that’s what it is.”

The Beethoven & Blue Jeans concert, as well as Albright’s performance at The Block and the entire season, will be enjoyable for everyone from die-hard classical music fans to those who may be attending their first concert, Buelow noted.

“When people are exposed to this, they’re like, ‘holy crap, this is awesome,’” Albright said. “Music can be fun.”

It’s that idea of exposing people to music that is one of the biggest driving forces behind the symphony’s plans for the future, with Buelow and Speck focused on tearing down barriers between residents and the orchestra—including creating a space, both on stage and in the audience, that is inviting to people of all backgrounds.

“We’re working on inviting diverse audiences into the symphony and the Frauenthal,” Buelow said. “That’s something the downtown is working on in general, making it welcoming to people of color and people of different ethnic backgrounds. We don’t have a lot of people of color playing in the orchestra, but we’re working on changing that and we are making sure there’s diversity in terms of our guest artists. We’re very excited about Sujari Britt and Byron Stripling coming in.”

A 17-year-old cello sensation featured in NBC The Grio’s “100 History Makers in the Making,” Britt will perform with the West Michigan Symphony on Friday, March 13. Alongside the orchestra, she will perform Symphony no. 1 by William Grant Still, who’s often referred to as the “Dean of African American composers.” Symphony no. 1 is widely regarded as one of the great American symphonies of all time.

An internationally renowned jazz musician who has played as the lead trumpeter and soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra, Stripling will perform alongside the West Michigan Symphony for its April 17 “Mardi Gras in Muskegon” concert. The event will feature a night of New Orleans jazz, including music from Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.

Buelow is thrilled to have a diverse lineup, but he’s also advocating for a big shift when it comes to African American musicians, and other musicians of color, being empowered and supported to the point where they are represented on classical music stages.

There’s a myriad reasons for the country’s classical music landscape being so racially homogeneous, including a lack of access to music education throughout the country and in communities of color, Buelow noted. With that in mind, Buelow and his team are being very intentional when it comes to supporting and increasing music education in West Michigan—including with the orchestra’s Link Up program. Since 2003, the West Michigan Symphony has partnered with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute to provide the Link Up program, a national initiative that pairs orchestras across the country with schools in their local communities.

Students from throughout Muskegon and West Michigan perform with the West Michigan Symphony as part of the Link Up program. Photo by Keely Payne for the West Michigan Symphony.

Students in third through fifth grades learn how to play the recorder and read music as part of the program, which too ends up building self-esteem, introducing children to the area’s cultural organizations and institutions, and connecting the dots between music and the rest of a student’s academics, from math to history.

“The most important thing we can do is to make sure that we are providing opportunities for young people to access music,” Buelow said. “The programs we have in place right now are more far-reaching than any other orchestra I’ve ever worked with, but my staff and I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of the need that’s out there.”

“As we grow our resources and ability to address those needs, we’ll grow those programs,” Buelow continued. “I’d love to get to the point where every child in Muskegon County has access to music and to the arts.”

The West Michigan Symphony’s 80th season will begin this Friday, Sept. 27 at 7:30pm at the Frauenthal Center (425 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon). Prior to Friday’s concert, the West Michigan Symphony will hold a free “Lunch ‘n Learn” event on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 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 12pm; doors will open 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 the entire season lineup, please 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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