Your WMS Musicians.

by CEO Andy Buelow

I had a delightful conversation with one of our musicians down in the Frau Lounge after last month’s season finale. This is a player who travels in from Chicago, maintaining an active performance schedule there as well as several other major markets throughout the U.S. She said, “I always wait until WMS’s concert schedule comes out before choosing my annual performance calendar. This is my favorite orchestra.”

While welcoming our audience at our finale, standing in front of the 85 musicians assembled to perform Holst’s The Planets, I used the different layers of earth’s atmosphere as an analogy to explain the different levels of musicians—core members, substitutes, and extras.

Our core members are those 64 players who have auditioned and been chosen for a specific permanent chair in the orchestra; these make up “the actual” West Michigan Symphony. Substitutes are chosen from a list of known freelancers to fill a temporary vacancy when apermanent player is unavailable. Extras are those hired to expand the ensemble, when the repertoire calls for it, beyond its normal size of 64.

Because we do not employ full-time, salaried players, the WMS is normally one of many activities by which a musician crafts a living; or we are a stepping stone for gifted younger players—or both. Eventually they may audition and win a full-time position elsewhere. When this occurs, they either continue to perform with us as a traveling musician, or relinquish their position and move on. This just happened, with Concertmaster John Heffernan. While we are sad to see him go, this is part and parcel of the of the model of a per-service orchestra like WMS.

Over the course of last season, we hired a remarkable 18 new core players via an audition process. This includes, among others, incoming Concertmaster Jesús Linárez, Assistant Principal Cello Cameron Slaugh, 2nd oboe Asako Furuoya, bass trombone Carter Woosley, and 2nd trumpet Ethan Adams. You’ll get to meet all of them when they start next fall. This continual evolution of the ensemble is also part of what gives WMS its unique sound and energy. A full-time, salaried orchestra is a closed system: the same musicians are playing together day in, day out, with the only change being the repertoire itself or a guest conductor. While the level of technical proficiency is extremely high, the performance itself can become sanitized and lifeless.

If I want perfection, I’ll stay home and listen to a CD. What I love about our concerts is the energy, the vibrancy—and yes, the occasional imperfection! The level of artistry is extremely high—they are all outstanding musicians. But WMS is an open system. It’s precisely because they don’t play together all the time, because they are come together from different life experiences, that gives WMS its special energy.

Michigan Arts & Culture Council
National Endowment for the Arts