West Michigan Symphony offers Unpretentious Sophistication at the Lakeshore

West Michigan Symphony
West Michigan Symphony

The West Michigan Symphony (WMS) 2017-18 Season opened to a full house at the historic Frauenthal Theatre in downtown Muskegon Friday night. The brilliant Cuban pianist and composer Aldo López-Gavilán joined in as guest artist, displaying once again the level of artistry found in this professional regional orchestra located on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Now entering its 78th season, the West Michigan Symphony has steadfastly endured in a city that at any given time in history ranges from boasting a thriving legacy of once having more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world; to an important manufacturing and shipping center on the Great Lakes; to struggling with post-industrial transitions common in the Midwest; to many phases in between.

Perhaps that is exactly why Muskegon remains humble about its sophisticated, world-class arts culture, even now with the city’s current trajectory of renewal and renaissance. Arguably nurtured initially by the wealthy lumber barons of years’ past, it seems a deep appreciation for the arts permeated the community and became embedded in the DNA, remaining through the years of boom and bust and born again. This consistent connection to quality artistic expression is recognized as clearly human-centered and not bound to societal and economic structures. Simple, unpretentious, accessible to all.

West Michigan Symphony kicked off 2017-2018 season this weekend.
West Michigan Symphony kicked off 2017-2018 season this weekend.

The West Michigan Symphony embodies the notion that great music speaks for itself, and the only thing they ask of the audience, according to their “Music is for Everyone” series, is to simply be affected by the music. To do that, they know the responsibility on their end is to offer the finest quality performances so that those who may be attending their first symphony performance as well as those with lifelong knowledge and expertise in the area should feel equally welcome, and find they are affected by the music in their own unique way.

“We firmly believe that our music is for all. You don’t need to have a degree in music—or a certain background—in order to enjoy it,” said Scott Speck, music director, via the WMS magazine welcome letter. “But along the way, if we can share something interesting and expand your understanding of the works we play, you may find your enjoyment of the music also grows.”

At the concerts, you’ll find Speck is personable and easygoing, turning to the audience regularly to introduce the works in a conversational way. His joy and passion for the music is contagious. The conversation feels welcoming and friendly, yet you come to realize he’s effortlessly brought you in to a greater historical understanding and emotional connection with the music you are about to experience.

Speck fits well into the unpretentious sophistication of the WMS, he has everyone so drawn into the music and embodies such an honest, humble demeanor that one might not even think to step back and notice what an accomplished talent is in their midst. Speck, music director of WMS since 2002, is also music director of the Mobile Symphony, music director for the Joffrey Ballet and artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Society.

He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, and received his master’s degree with highest honors from the University of Southern California. He is fluent in English, German, and French, has a diploma in Italian, speaks Spanish and has a reading knowledge of Russian. He is co-author of two best-selling books on classical music, the recently released second edition of “Classical Music for Dummies,” and “Opera for Dummies,” and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, he is as down-to-earth and approachable as the guy next door.

As you would imagine, this atmosphere draws musicians from near and far. When not performing with WMS, many of them are working with orchestras throughout West Michigan and beyond, including Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Midland, Battle Creek, Holland, Traverse City and several from out of state.

The energy of this combination of talent and passion filled the performance hall on Friday evening, as everybody on stage and everybody in the audience shared the experience and were affected together, each in their own way. A standing, sustained ovation brought the guest artist back out for an encore.

“Anytime you can hear live music, you should,” said Kay Olthoff, Interim Executive Director, encouraging guests to open up to the full experience. “Allow yourself to be totally consumed by it.”

Down the road from The Frauenthal is The Block, a restored performance space also managed by the WMS, in the old Russell Block building. This smaller, intimate space allows WMS to offer innovative performances by a range of professional and local musicians. Often, guest artists play with the full symphony orchestra on Friday and then appear at The Block the following Saturday for a scaled-down solo or small ensemble show—yet another way to bring the music and artist close and accessible.

The Sept. 30 performance features López-Gavilán joined by his brother Ilmar Gavilán for a jazz concert featuring original works as well as pieces by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Churchill, and Billy Strayhorn.

The 2017-18 season includes classic favorites as well as new and refreshing works. Everything from Gershwin, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky to tango with soprano Camille Zamora and a Celtic Christmas with Cathie Ryan. For the full season information, dates, and ticket prices for the West Michigan Symphony and The Block, visit the WMS website.

*Photos courtesy of West Michigan Symphony

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