We usually don’t think of music when it comes to social justice issues, but social transformation often begins with the arts. It’s where we connect as a community, and we learn about the lived experiences of strangers whose perspectives initially seem foreign from our own. The Holland Symphony Orchestra takes its mission of serving its entire community to heart. This group of 80 musicians and another 50 volunteers collaborate in many ways to use the power of music to build a more equitable community.
This small but committed orchestra increased access to the music of 19th-century Black composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, first by sharing a forgotten work with its Holland audience, and then making the arrangement available for free to orchestras around the world to perform.
For its 2022 Pops on the Pier concert, HSO created a musical program that celebrated the influence of Black culture on music. HSO partnered with I Am Academy and provided the enrichment program’s students with front-row seats and time to visit with guest performer Byron Stripling and the symphony musicians.
In 2022, HSO brought in award-winning Latinx cellist Adalus Low-Manzini for a concert and as part of a collaboration with Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) to help middle and high school students learn to tell their unique stories as they prepare to apply for college and scholarships. Low-Manzini spoke to the students about her experience of leaving her family in Venezuela at 17 to pursue her musical education in the U.S. Because of the political turmoil in the South American country, she hadn’t seen her family in six years.
Each year, HSO hosts a free community concert in Kollen Park that is supported by the city of Holland and surrounding communities because of its success in bringing a cross section of residents together in a cultural experience. In 2020, the concert featured a collaboration with a Grammy-nominated Mariachi band, Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar.
When the band returned the following year, HSO partnered with the Ottawa County Public Health Department to invite the area’s migrant farmworkers to the concert, where they were honored by former HSO board member and Ottawa County Judge Juanita Bocanegra, who grew up working the fields. HSO also partnered with LAUP, which invited the Consul of Mexico in Detroit to attend the concert.
This August, in response to a concert goer who requested a version of the Mariachi concert to celebrate her Vietnamese heritage, HSO created the Music Unites Us program. It featured local artists/groups who shared music from their cultural backgrounds: Ukrainian accordionist Nina Tritenichenko, Vietnamese singer Cuong Luong, Mexican band Grupo Super Nova, Ugandan musician Samuel Nalangira, and violinist Julia LaGrand, who is blind. HSO listened when LaGrand explained that the disability community has its own culture and should be highlighted in the program as well.
This transformative concert was months in the making. HSO hired composer Greg Scheer to work with each artist to create a composition that the orchestra played to accompany each artist/group. HSO invested in creating a short documentary about the musical traditions of each artist that was shared on social media as a part of an educational campaign. The orchestra partnered with LAUP, I Am Academy, West Michigan Asian American Association, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and Disability Network Lakeshore to lift up the work of the five artists/groups and invite communities the nonprofits serve to attend the concert, as well as do outreach at the concert.
This process was educational both for members of HSO and for our community. After the concert, audience members came up to each of the performers to learn more about them. They also thanked HSO for undertaking this concert, explaining that following the isolation of the pandemic and during these polarizing political times, this was an important way to bring the community together. They also said they wanted more of these experiences, and HSO is in the early stages of responding to that request.
Holland Mayor Nathan Bock, who welcomed the concert goers, shared that the concert moved forward his vision of finding ways for everyone to feel welcomed and feel valued in the community.
HSO musician David Lee agrees that creating music builds a stronger community. He says the Music Unites Us concert ranks among his “most treasured musical experiences.”
Through a partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, HSO brings the Link Up program to fourth graders, where they learn to play a recorder. The program culminates with the students taking part in a concert with the HSO symphony. Students come away from this experience excited about making music and inspired to join their school band or the orchestra in middle school. At the high school level, HSO’s support of music education ramps up by providing extracurricular music opportunities through its youth orchestras, clinics, and competitions.
Tara Weymon Leonard, vice president of global enterprise planning for MillerKnoll and a board member of both HSO and I Am Academy, is one of many beneficiaries of the orchestra’s educational outreach.
‘Music has made such a profound impact in my life, beginning at an early age when my parents nurtured and supported my love of music,” Tara says. “Playing in my school orchestra programs and the Holland Symphony Youth Orchestra not only built my musical confidence but also had a broader impact on my education, ultimately helping to shape the way I think as an engineer and a businessperson.
“I know firsthand the power of music, and that is why I was honored and excited to join the Holland Symphony board. I believe in the HSO mission and see the positive impact we’re making here in Holland, bringing people together with music. I am proud to spend my time and resources being part of something that is building up our community and pouring into our children.”
HSO is also collaborating with Herrick District Library on several literacy initiatives, including bringing the stories of “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Story of Ferdinand” to life with music as part of free performances at the library geared to young children. And for the first time this year, HSO took part in the Big Read, bringing an engaging musical element to the Little Read for a series of mini-concerts attended by more than 500 students.
As part of its mission of building community through music, HSO is an incredible resource to local governments, schools, libraries, and, most importantly, the families who are raising our next generation of citizens. HSO musicians and volunteers understand that the work they are doing today is building a more equitable future for our community. “The beauty and artistry of the music was only matched by the tangible proof of a community that was not just celebrating diversity – it was living it, with all the stakeholders benefiting,” he says. “It also helped that those performances were some of the best-attended, with audience reactions that any performer would aspire to achieve.
“All of this has inspired me in my day job helping to run a nonprofit immigration law office, where we aim to provide better pathways for immigrants and refugees and newcomers to find a way to make our community their home. An inclusive, multicultural, and welcoming community is also a strong community. I am humbled to be working a 9-to-5 to see that happen, and deeply grateful for a local arts organization that is taking on the responsibility to set the stage for a stronger community.”
HSO shows its commitment to youth in the community in a variety of ways. Research has shown the importance of bringing a musical experience to children at an early age. Listening to music and playing instruments stimulates the brain cells, improving functions like memory and abstract reasoning, which are essential for math and science. But too often, a lack of resources can be a barrier to this critical educational experience.