Peter Perez has been a magnet for uncommon musical experiences his entire life. From conducting his youth festival orchestra as a youngster to requesting that his upstairs neighbor, Placido Domingo, “please rehearse louder,” such experiences have led him to his new role as the Grand Rapids Symphony CEO. Perez has a background mainly in manufacturing, from president of Steinway & Sons to the deputy assistant secretary for Manufacturing in the US Department of Commerce, but he’s always made time for the symphony. Having served the organization in various capacities, including board chairperson and co-chair of the 2015 LiveArts event, Perez looks forward to his next chapter with the Symphony.
When did your love of music begin?
I grew up around a culture of the arts. I was born and raised in Elkhart, Ind., the headquarters of the instrument manufacturers C.G. Conn, The Selmer Company, Armstrong Flute and more. As a child, I was exposed to music in a process that is still familiar today, where kids are introduced to instruments around the fifth grade. Mine was viola. Everytime I see the violas at the symphony I say, “Go violas!”
With your background in manufacturing, what are the similarities you’ve found between the manufacturing and symphonic worlds?
You know, manufacturing is a lousy word. People view it as something that grandpa did. But it’s not that way at all today. It involves robotics; you have to have a degree; and it’s a high-paying job. It’s a great profession to be in, but it’s saddled with the perception that it’s outdated. Similarly, the symphony has a connotation of “Hmm, I’m not sure that I want to go to a symphony concert. You kind of have to dress up for that, don’t you?” Well, that’s wrong too. What I hope is that we continue to be an organization that’s indispensable for this community.
How do you envision the orchestra’s role alongside the city’s growth?
We are in such a wonderful place with Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt. Associate Conductor John Varineau has been involved in the Symphony for more than 30 years. Chorus Director Pearl Shangkuan is among the best at what she does in the country, along with Youth Chorus Conductor Sean Ivory. And, of course, we have David Lockington as Music Director Laureate, who will be returning to the podium next season. We really are blessed to have this group of fine musical leaders. They are the ones that determine the artistic things that we do and my job is to facilitate it.
The Symphony serves around 200,000 people per year. That’s an impressive number, but there’s always room for more. As CEO, what are your priorities to help grow the GRS audience?
We want to make sure the foundational events — our classical, pops and signature concerts — continue to be exciting for the community and encourage all ages to participate. It’s important to have a continuum of programs that engage people at all ages and backgrounds. Those programs include Student Passport, which offers $5 tickets to students, and Free for Families, where for as little as $18 a parent can come to a concert and bring two children. With Symphony Scorecard, people who qualify for aid from the State of Michigan can attend concerts for free. These programs are our effort to make sure that the entire community who has interest in symphonic music can participate.
What about events outside of the concert hall?
We’re really excited about the Music for Health program, which pairs up our musicians with music therapists at Spectrum Health to introduce music to health care settings. We recently launched an initiative where our musicians composed music to be paired with photography of Michigan nature. These are now featured on a relaxation channel at five Spectrum Health hospitals. Patients can tune in, relax and go to another place for a few hours. Also, we’re launching a program in June for the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. All of this, I hope, helps people view the GRS in a different way.
It sounds like the symphony has a lot of exciting things on the horizon, including a trip to Carnegie Hall. What else are you looking forward to?
Certainly the implementation of our five-year strategic plan that Michael Kaiser, former Kennedy Center director, helped us develop. We also dream of touring. We’re putting our toe in the water at our August 5th concert with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, a leading mariachi group in Mexico. The conductor will also be from Mexico, and maybe our conductor will be in Mexico sometime soon! These small, initial steps are in addition to exciting, one-off events that are opportunistic. We’re excited to be creative and explore new opportunities.