HSO founder, CEO to retire this summer after 33 years

After 33 years, Kay Walvoord is stepping away from the orchestra she helped to form.

The Holland Symphony Orchestra has begun its search for a new leader as Walvoord retires from her role as president and CEO of the orchestra with the goal of filling the position by spring with Walvoord staying on through the summer to aid in the transition. 

Walvoord has brought the orchestra from a small group, performing free concerts for the fun of it to the semi-professional, small regional orchestra it is now. 

HSO musicians rehearse for the holiday concert at Dimnent Chapel. (J.R. Valderas)


Among Walvoord’s proudest accomplishments are her efforts to broaden HSO’s appeal among community members who did not grow up with classical music — historically a Eurocentric tradition. The initiative to infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion includes an effort to perform music from composers around the world, having scores written so that the orchestra can accompany a diverse group of soloists from its community as part of the Music Unites Us concert in August, and adjusting the orchestra’s governing board to include more racial and ethnic minorities.

In 1988, Walvoord started the Holland Area Youth Orchestra. Two years later, she was among a core group of musicians who started the Holland Chamber Orchestra, which evolved into the Holland Symphony Orchestra.

Walvoord credits Cal Langejans, a music educator who led choirs in the Holland area for 60 years before his retirement in 2016, with providing the impetus for forming the Holland Symphony Orchestra.

“Cal wanted orchestral accompaniment for the Holland Chorale’s Christmas concerts,” Walvoord says. “After three or four years of being in a pick-up orchestra, several of us decided playing together was too much fun to do it only for Cal, and only at Christmas.”

First president

Walvoord served first as president of the board and, in 2000-2001, became the first executive director of the community orchestra. Since then, she has multiplied the number of fine arts offerings in Holland for musicians and audiences.

That same year, the orchestra hired Morihiko Nakahara as conductor. Now the music director of the South Carolina Philharmonic, Walvoord recalls Nakahara as “such a breath of fresh air.”

It was also the year the HSO started its popular annual Petal Pops Tulip Time concerts.

“That’s when HSO really started to take off,” Walvoord says.
The Holland Symphony Orchestra performs its Pops at the Pier event every year in a celebration of summer fun.
The orchestra’s current music director and conductor Johannes Müller Stosch came on board in 2007. The Holland Symphony Orchestra has top notch players who agree to play with a smaller orchestra because of their respect for Müller Stosch, Walvoord says.

“Kay Walvoord remains an incredible force for advocacy of classical symphonic music in the Holland community,” Müller Stosch says. “She has been a strong supporter and real partner in striving for artistic growth of Holland Symphony. She is lovingly called the ‘Mother Superior’ of HSO. Kay is directly responsible for this exciting and incredibly fulfilling journey the orchestra has undertaken in the past years.”

Kennedy Center

HSO is among 15 West Michigan arts and culture organizations chosen to participate in a two-year “capacity-building” series of webinars and consultations led by Michael M. Kaiser, who was president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington from 2001 to 2014. 

“Kay is one the most remarkable arts leaders in the United States,” says Kaiser. “She has created a remarkable orchestra, ensured its growth even during difficult times, and established a family of supporters who will see the organization through this transition. It has been a great pleasure and honor to work with her on the plan for the Holland Symphony Orchestra.”

In the spring of 2020, HSO dove into a diversity, equity, inclusion and access committee to institute this priority of broadening the orchestra’s reach, diversifying its board and broadening its musical horizons.

“The nation was still in the throes of the pandemic and it was not really a good time to start anything,” Walvoord says. “But it was apparent that HSO had to do something to unify people in this community and broaden our classical music’s Eurocentric history in favor of welcoming a broader section of humanity.”

Inclusivity is important, but so is authenticity, Walvoord says. The orchestra had tried to attract a diverse audience with its free summer concert series, but it was “basically the same audiences.” That is, until they brought in a Mariachi band.
Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar is returning to perform with HSO. (HSO)

Mariachi magic

“We have worked and worked and worked over the years to be more inclusive,” Walvoord says. “That doesn’t just mean European white classical music enthusiasts. … The problem is you need arrangements. There isn’t a catalog you can go to and say I want an arrangement for mariachi and orchestra.”

The leader of the mariachi group of that first concert was also an arranger and he agreed to create the arrangements that could be played by both the mariachi band and the orchestral instruments.

The scene at Kollen Park for that first concert is one Walvoord cherishes. 

“It started with Americans sitting properly with hands folded. Pretty soon they were clapping their hands and tapping their feet. The Hispanic audience was getting up and dancing and singing,” Walvoord says. “It was the first time we’ve really fulfilled the broader mission of reaching a more ethnically diverse community.”

That one concert led to the Music Unites Us concert last year.

“After the (mariachi) concert a lady came up to us and said ‘Next year will you do a concert for my people?’ She was Vietnamese. And we thought, "What other groups are there in Holland we are not reaching?’”

The HSO sought out musicians from diverse backgrounds who could play music unique to their histories, accompanied by the orchestra. HSO found composer Greg Scheer who created arrangements for four of the groups on the concert: a Ukrainian accordionist, a Vietnamese singer, brothers and vocalists from Mexico, a Ugandan folk singer and instrumentalist. The fifth was a blind violinist.

This summer, the orchestra will work with a folk group from Brazil.

“We’ve got to keep the Music Unites Us project going, because it was too good a thing,” Walvoord says. “That will be for the next person to figure out.”

For the youngest readers, the Holland Symphony Orchestra, the Herrick District Library and the Big Read partnered to create the first Mini Read Tour. 

Walvoord has also championed the orchestra’s collaboration with Herrick District Library and this year’s Mini-Read and the Link-Up program from Carnegie Hall — a year-long curriculum given to the schools for free for all area fourth grade students.

“I take really seriously that mandate to reach the entire community,” Walvoord says.

Walvoord, 81, wants to join her husband, Dr. Doug Walvoord, in retirement.

“Age does catch up with you, and endurance does catch up with you,” Walvoord says. “I still love what I do and I don’t really want to retire, but I want to do it at a time when I feel I am somewhat successful at what I do.”

Still, she has one more job to do for the orchestra. 
The Holland Symphony Orchestra

More change

Müller Stosch will conduct his last HSO concert in April 2027. He, too, is retiring. Walvoord will co-chair the search committee for his replacement starting this summer.  She anticipates as many as 250 to 300 candidates for the conductor/music director position.

“You would not put that task on a new President & CEO who just started a job a month prior,” Walvoord says.

In the 26-27 season, the candidates will be narrowed down to three who will each perform with the symphony in a live audition at the symphony’s October, November, and March performances. For that to happen, the candidates have to be tapped and their programs chosen, scheduled, and promoted by the beginning of the 26-27 season.

“Candidates will be here for a week, and they’ll go through rehearsals, meet with the board, have lots of lunches and dinners, conduct their concert, and they’ll fly away,” Walvoord says. “My biggest hope is that the Holland Symphony continues to grow and build on new ideas for the community.”
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Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.