Holland Symphony President Kay Walvoord strikes a high note

Visit Kay Walvoord in her home, or ride with her in the car, and you won’t hear one note of ambient music.

This may seem surprising for someone who, for more than 30 years on the Lakeshore, has been as closely linked to orchestras as rhythm is to beat. But Walvoord isn’t interested in music that hides in the background.

“I want music loud enough to feel like I’m in the middle of it,” she says. “If I can’t experience music like that, and give it my full attention, I’d rather just put on a podcast.”

Walvoord fell in love with music by being surrounded by it -- literally. A classically trained oboist, her place was in the woodwind section at the center of the symphony’s semicircle, just a few rows back from the conductor.  

HSO Music Director and Conductor Johannes Müller Stosch rehearses the orchestra for the holiday concert. (J.R. Valderas)
As a professional performing with the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, several Chicago-area orchestras, the West Michigan Symphony in Muskegon, and the Grand Rapids Symphony, Walvoord felt most at home nestled in a nucleus of sound.

Gradually Walvoord gave up oboe, yet she remained in the hub of the Holland Symphony Orchestra as its chief administrator, public champion and educator extraordinaire.

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 served first as president of the board and, in 2000-2001, the first executive director of the semi-professional community orchestra. She has multiplied the number of fine arts offerings in Holland for musicians and audiences.

Walvoord is also leading attempts 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, and adjusting the orchestra’s governing board to include more racial and ethnic minorities. 

The rise

Walvoord, who says she would like to join her husband, Dr. Doug Walvoord, in retirement in the next few years, says she never aspired to lead one of the Tulip City’s premiere arts and cultural organizations.

What has become her life’s work evolved out of a desire to “stop driving my children all over creation,” Walvoord says.

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

At an early age, all four of the Walvoord children began taking Suzuki violin lessons from Ellen Rizner, an HSO violinist. By the time Amanda, Derek, Martha and Jenny reached secondary school, their musicianship had advanced beyond that of most of their peers in the school-based instrumental music programs. 

Realizing her children needed more challenging musical literature, she drove them to Muskegon, Kalamazoo and the Interlochen Arts Academy.

Providing childhoods steeped in music seemed natural to Walvoord. She was raised in Muskegon -- always a great town for the arts -- where her mother, Alli Glidden, was a favorite singer. Kay grew up attending civic and church-based events where her mother was the featured soloist. 

The youth orchestras provided enriching opportunities, but Kay grew weary of driving their children to out-of-town rehearsals and performances. Starting the Holland Youth Orchestra was a way to reduce her time spent running the roads. But its greatest benefit was to provide a close-to-home opportunity for budding young Holland musicians to develop.

Today, the three Walvoord daughters are professional musicians. Amanda Dykhouse is concertmaster of the HSO and her mother’s right hand for managing everything from the music library to ticket sales. Martha Walvoord and Jenny Walvoord have been concertmasters of the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra. Martha is chair of the music department and a violin professor at University of Texas at Arlington. Jenny runs a violin studio and performs with the Cleveland Pops and other northeast Ohio orchestras. She and her husband, Kent State University piano professor Andrew Le, formerly a Hope College music professor, hold top leadership positions with the Chamber Music Festival of Saugatuck.

Son Derek is a Chicagoland real estate agent, but he used to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band where he played – no kidding – the viola.

Seven of Kay and Doug Walvoord’s eight grandchildren also play stringed instruments in performing groups ranging from elementary school to college. The one who doesn’t is Derek and Cynthia’s Abby, because she’s an infant. Local audiences can spot violinist Emily Dykhouse in the Hope College Symphony and bassist Sam Dykhouse in a University of Michigan pops orchestra.

A symphony is born

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 HSO.

“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.”

The Holland Chamber Orchestra was fun, but Walvoord stepped away for three years in the late 1990s because of time constraints. Doug’s urology practice was booming, leaving Kay to oversee most family and household responsibilities.''

HSO musicians rehearse for the holiday concert at Dimnent Chapel. (J.R. Valderas)
When the HSO symphony board president stepped down for family reasons, the result was a management void. Walvoord and Ronnie Nivela, who ran the
Manpower temporary staffing agency, were asked to join the board. 

The first meeting they attended was chaotic. There wasn’t even an agenda. That evening, Walvoord told the others that if conducting the business of the orchestra was as tumultuous as it appeared, she wanted no part of it. By the next meeting, the board president realized he didn’t have sufficient time to devote to the symphony and resigned, leaving Walvoord and Nivela reeling.

“Ronnie and I decided we either had to resign also, or step up,” Walvoord says. “Since I knew the music industry, Ronnie suggested that I take the president’s role. She knew how to organize, so she took the vice president role. Together, we worked to add structure and put things back together.”

Challenges of running a community orchestra

Orchestras are vital parts of the arts industry in any community, but in recent decades orchestras have struggled with declines in audience attendance that are unrelated to the artistry of the concerts.

Ticket sales typically generate only 25% to 30% of the cost of operating a small-budget orchestra, which the League of American Orchestras defines as one with an annual budget of less than $650,000. (HSO's is about half that.) State and community foundation grants, although greatly appreciated, generally aren’t substantial, Walvoord says. The bottom line: Most of HSO’s annual budget comes from private donations.

Kay Walvoord and Johannes Müller Stosch with the HSO staff. (J.R. Valderas)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the attendance decline, as typical symphony-goers tend to be older, the demographic most likely to become very ill from the virus. The first year after restrictions on public gatherings were lifted, people were eager to return to favorite in-person social activities, but breakthrough cases of COVID among the vaccinated gave people pause about attending public performances. And maybe people have just grown accustomed to “hunkering down” at home.

“There are several contributing factors,” Walvoord says, “but I think a big part of it is that we’re in competition with the couch.”

HSO worked hard to keep its audience during the pandemic. Four concerts were filmed and sent to ticket holders, but videotaping is expensive -- about $2,000 per concert. This year only two concerts were videotaped for the purpose of having live content on the symphony’s website. Concert programs and behind-the-music educational materials are posted online instead of printed.

With COVID hesitancy persisting, Walvoord admits being unsure how to budget for the 2022-2023 season. She decided to plan for a 15% reduction in ticket sales before advice came to arts organizations from Washington to brace for a 40 percent reduction in attendance which, hopefully, will diminish over the next five years. Walvoord says she heaved a sigh of relief when HSO season ticket holders only fell from 650 to 550 this year, meaning her projections for a more modest hit were on target.

“At times, irritations build with the job,” Walvoord conceded when asked if the business model is sustainable. “Then all I need to do is sit in on a rehearsal and listen. Music rejuvenates me. The music they produce is why we do what we do.”

A commitment to inclusivity

Enticing more people – and more types of people -- to hear the symphony has become Walvoord’s top priority.

Outreach has always a goal, of course. HSO schedules a free community concert at Kollen Park every summer that for the past two years has featured a Mariachi band from Los Angeles. HSO provides a free concert for fourth graders in area schools each March which punctuates a year-long music curriculum provided by Carnegie Hall. “The Orchestra Moves” concert on March 19 will feature a Hope College dance troupe. There will be a narrated nature walk through the Outdoor Discovery Center on the morning of Earth Day, April 22, to enhance appreciation of the symphony’s evening performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

Kay Walvoord leads an HSO staff meeting. (J.R. Valderas)

Walvoord says HSO was inspired to start a diversity, equity, inclusion, and access committee after George Floyd, a black man, was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. 

“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 we had to do something to unify people in the orchestra world and broaden our classical music’s Eurocentric history in favor of welcoming a broader section of humanity.”

Walvoord began by diversifying the racial and ethnic makeup of the HSO board.

Now four out of 22 members are people of color. She also strives to bring people with a diverse group of skill sets to the board, creating a complex alchemy that Walvoord says is essential to building public awareness of the symphony and solidifying its value.

HSO is among 15 West Michigan arts 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. The process has been wonderfully affirming so far, Walvoord says, with Kaiser remarking that HSO is performing a repertoire on par with many larger regional orchestras. The leadership series is funded by the DeVos Foundation. 

“I was pleasantly surprised by the commitment to inclusion,” says Tara Weymon Leonard, an African American woman who joined the HSO board almost two years ago. Leonard played violin in the Holland Area Youth Orchestra growing up but had lived in New York City for 20 years before moving her family to Holland just before the pandemic hit.

“Kay’s passion for the mission of the orchestra has brought positive results in the past, but she’s also a passionate visionary,” Leonard says. “She welcomes fresh ideas from new voices.  She creates a space where we all believe we can help shape the future of the symphony.”

While each concert program is designed to provide some fashion of diversity, HSO’s highest reach toward DEI goals will come in the summer of 2023 with its Music Unites Us concert. 

Five diverse members of the community will perform a four to five-minute piece of music from their culture with the orchestra. The soloists represent Uganda, Vietnam, Ukraine, and Mexico. The fifth – a blind violinist – represents the diverse physical abilities among us. 

Orchestral scores to accompany the soloists are being created by Greg Scheer, a Grand Rapids-based composer.

Walvoord says funders are drawn to innovative DEI initiatives, though she has not yet secured funding for Music Unites Us. 

“One way or another, it’s happening,” Walvoord says. “The composer has insisted on meeting with each of the five individually at least twice to make sure he doesn’t impose his concept, rooted in Western music, on the music they want to share with the community. The first round of those meetings has already occurred. Everybody is excited. It’s happening.”

Obstacles to overcome

HSO has lost money on every concert so far this year, but Walvoord is not worried about the organization’s viability because the symphony has a reserve fund. Walvoord purposely doesn’t figure a state grant into the budget, and it should cover the overruns. Overages have been higher during COVID because musicians get sick and her staff must find substitutes, who will be paid a stipend, plus mileage, for the performance and rehearsals.

The stipends HSO pays are lower than musicians earn with the Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Kalamazoo and St. Joseph symphonies. Walvoord says this will have to change for HSO to remain competitive. It was very difficult, she says, to staff a fall performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which requires four bassoonists, two harpists, and two timpani players. Several musicians turned down that gig because the HSO stipend was too low, Walvoord says.

In its early days, HSO did not pay musicians. That changed when Walvoord assumed a leadership role – and the money came from her own salary.
Stipends were paid first to pops concert musicians because it was harder to get musicians to play pops than to play the classical repertoire.  Many musicians find the pops musical literature itself to be less interesting, or at least less satisfying to play. 

So, she worked with an accountant (who Walvoord says thought she was crazy) to donate her salary to create an endowment bearing her name to help pay stipends to musicians. HSO pays about $120,000 in stipends annually to all HSO musicians.

“My husband made a good living for both of us,” Walvoord says. “Giving my salary back through the endowment was a gift I could give to the community to make Holland a better place to live.”

When guest musicians come to perform with the orchestra, Walvoord has been known to put them up at her house, saving HSO hotel fees.  Conductors Morihiko Nakahara and Johannes Muller Stosch -- both from other countries -- have become “like part of the family” because they stay with the Walvoords while in Holland. Nakahara even introduced Kay Walvoord as his “Michigan mother” during a concert in  South Carolina. Walvoord credits such close friendships as one reason for the conductors’ long tenure with HSO.

Measuring success

Money, Walvoord points out, is only one way to benchmark an orchestra’s success. High-quality and strategic programming, deepening connection to community, increasing inclusion, and commitment to a continuous cycle of growth are all essential for orchestras to thrive, she says.

As she considers retirement, a downside to Walvoord’s gift of donating back her part-time salary for full-time work has emerged. The board will have to pay much more to Walvoord’s successor than they’re currently paying her, and certainly no other director would be expected to funnel his or her salary back to pay musicians.

Walvoord’s daughter Amanda Dykhouse says she wants to continue as concertmaster – an honor she’s held for 25 years – and overseeing the music library and ticket sales when her mother retires. She says she would not, however, be interested in stepping into her mother’s role.

“Mom didn’t set out to be an arts administrator. She just has this strong sense of service and wants everybody to have a music education,” Dykhouse says. “But I think she has really enjoyed the administration thing, too.”  

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Read more articles by Kym Reinstadler.