West Michigan Symphony Orchestra

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The West Michigan Symphony (WMS) is a widely recognized professional orchestra and leader in West Michigan's cultural community. The West Michigan Symphony (formerly the West Shore Symphony Orchestra) is a professional orchestra made up of 60 core professional musicians, performing at the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts in Muskegon, Michigan. The current Music Director/Conductor is Scott Speck. The Orchestra performs 8 concerts annually (5 Masterworks and 3 Pops) many with guest artists, playing a variety of music.


Mr. A. M. Courtright, a Muskegon Heights teacher, and Mr. Palmer Quackenbush are credited with early pioneering efforts to provide Muskegon with a symphony orchestra. In November 1939 a musical group of 50 members presented its first concert with Mr. Quackenbush conducting and Mr. Courtright assisting. The group incorporated the following year and elected its first board of directors. Conductors have included Tauno Hannikainen, Hugo Kolberg, Wayne Dunlap, Lyman Starr, John Wheeler, Philip Greenberg, Murray Gross, and current Music Director Scott Speck who has held the position since 2002.

Performances were initially held in area schools and in the late 1970s moved to the historic Frauenthal Theater. Built in 1929, the 1724 seat Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts underwent a $7.5 million renovation that restored it to its original Spanish Renaissance splendor while also creating a spacious modern lobby linking it with the adjacent 180 seat Beardsley Theatre. The Frauenthal Theater is praised by artists and audiences alike for its extraordinary beauty, excellent acoustics and broad sight lines. With the prime location of its performance hall in the Frauenthal at the intersection of downtown Muskegon's Western Avenue and Third Street, WMS is proud to be a key player in this period of Renaissance that will bring a renewed vitality and life to the center of the city.

Today WMS is composed of professional musicians of the highest caliber playing extremely challenging repertoire and presenting some of the world's most talented guest artists. WMS performs eight subscription concerts (five classical and three pops) per season.

May 15, 2013, WMS moved its offices into new headquarters on the second floor of the Russell Block Building at 360 W. Western Avenue, ushering in a new era of music making. The Block, an 1800 square-feet space adjacent to the offices, is an intimate concert and education space and a rental facility for weddings and special events. With flexible seating for up to 150, it features a lounge and dressing room area, small balcony, windows facing Muskegon Lake, and an outdoor deck made of recycled materials with green spaces. The Block allows WMS to increase its presence in downtown Muskegon by expanding its ticket operations on the first floor and presenting smaller concerts @The Block, welcoming artists in genres from classical, to cabaret, to alternative.

Music Direction[edit]

West Michigan Symphony has had nine conductors. They have included Palmer Quackenbush (1939-1949), Tauno Hannikainen (1949-1951), Hugo Kolberg (1951-1956), Wayne L. Dunlap (1956-1959), Lyman A. Starr, Sr. (1959-1961), John L. Wheeler (1961-1977), Philip Greenberg (1977-1981), Murray Gross (1982-2001) and current Music Director Scott Speck who has held the position since 2002.

Scott Speck
In addition to his role as music director of the regional orchestra for the eight-program season, Speck develops the symphony's musical initiatives and the artistic quality of the entire organization.

Speck also serves as Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director of the Mobile Symphony in (AL) and the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Additionally, he has served in key leadership roles with the Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Ballet, the Washington Ballet (DC) and the Honolulu Symphony, and as Principal Guest Conductor of the China Film Philharmonic in Beijing.

Among the many world-renowned places Speck has conducted include the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Royal Opera House in London, and Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. He is also the co-author of three best-selling books in the popular For Dummies series, including classical music, opera and ballet.

Governance and Management[edit]

Fewer than six weeks after the first concert was held on November 28, 1939, representatives from Grand Haven and Muskegon began to develop by-laws and to form a permanent Board of Directors for the Symphony. The Board from the start functioned ably and effectively, providing financial support for the concerts and in the beginning managing the Symphony's day-to-day affairs.

The first mention of finding someone to manage the Orchestra appeared in the minutes for the August 23, 1944 meeting of the Board, when Harriet Damm, Chair, announced that Robert Sanborn "was willing to try to be orchestra manager." His job description, probably as a volunteer, was to check attendance at rehearsals and concerts, distribute and collect the scores and music racks, and have the piano tuned.

In 1984 Susan Schwartz became Manager. Ms. Schwartz was followed by Barbara Klingman, 1985 to 1986, and Janet Smith, 1987-1996. Gretchen Cheney-Rhoades was hired as Executive in the spring of 1996.

In March 2004 Brenda Nienhouse of Grand Haven was given the position with the title of President and CEO. She was one of 41 candidates selected during a nationwide search that started in the summer of 2003, when Ms. Cheney-Rhoades resigned.

Carla Hill, current President and CEO, joined the Symphony in September 2005. Hill came to the Symphony after serving as Marketing and Public Relations Director for The Columbus Symphony Orchestra (OH) and the Omaha Symphony Orchestra (NE).

The Block[edit]

The Block, located next to the symphony's office at 360 W. Western Ave. in Muskegon, is West Michigan Symphony's smaller, alternative performance space. The Block is a simple, accessible, inspirational space where honest music can happen—not to you, but with you. A place where music pushes the boundaries of tradition and expectation and encourages investigation. Concerts at The Block will include an intriguing, cross-pollinated mix of music that can be intimate or explosive, but always entertaining. 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 is also a rental space for special events. The Block is a historic and affordable gathering space that has been completely redesigned with contemporary flair. The room has soaring beamed ceilings, a balcony, restored maple floors, exposed brick walls, a spacious full-service bar, large windows and views of Muskegon Lake. The Block is ideal for any small- to mid-sized event for use by businesses, the community, performers, educators, students and artists. The Block accommodates groups from 10 to 125 in a variety of seating configurations

Located in downtown Muskegon, The Block is within walking distance of hotels, restaurants, shopping, bars, festivals, sporting events, museums, places of worship and marinas to accommodate a multi-day event and entertain guests. Parking is free and can accommodate everything from horse-drawn carriages to commercial busses.


West Michigan Symphony (WMS) believes that a foundation in music education can give kids the tools they need to better navigate through life. West Michigan Symphony is dedicated to providing local youth with programs that will help them develop an appreciation for music that they will carry with them their entire lives. The programs currently offered are:

West Michigan Symphony Children's Choir (WMSCC) is an audition-only choir for kids' ages 7–11, under the direction of Music Director Beth Slimko. Rehearsing weekly at The Block, WMSCC is a music performance and education program for youth that emphasizes the development of musical skills and understanding. The choir traditionally performs at Symphony concerts and in a stand-alone concert in the spring.

Link Up: Since 2004 the West Michigan Symphony has partnered with area elementary schools to introduce kids to music via the Carnegie Hall Link Up recorder program. Students learn to read music, play the recorder and meet WMS professional musicians. In the spring students play their recorders in a live performance at the Frauenthal Theater with WMS musicians. To date, over 40,000 students from over 50 elementary schools in West Michigan counties have participated. Local foundations, corporations, and individuals generously support Link Up to keep it free to students and schools.

Developed by WMS as a companion to Link Up, the Music Mentor Program provides students with classroom visits from a professional WMS musician. The music mentors work with students in the Link Up program, encouraging them to continue to practice and appreciate the music they are learning.

Debut Strings introduces beginning and intermediate students to large ensemble performance through challenging and diverse repertoire. Students in Debut Strings have at least one year of playing experience and strong note reading skills. Debut Strings rehearses once a week throughout the fall and spring and performs two concerts annually at The Block in downtown Muskegon.

Click Clack Moosic: Created by WMS, this program is based on the books by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. Children attend a musical storytelling event where they meet WMS musicians and learn new music skills through fun and interactive skits. In this series of three Saturday morning performances, children listen to a narration of one of the Click Clack Moo series of books while West Michigan Symphony musicians perform music composed specifically for the Click Clack stories. Instrument Petting Zoo

The WMS Instrument Petting Zoo is a hands-on musical instrument education experience. Instruments from each of the four families (strings, woodwind, brass and percussion) are introduced, and children are able to handle and play them during this 45-minute program. This hands-on program is an exciting way to show children they have the potential to play an instrument well before middle school band programs begin.