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Music director settles down

David Lockington has led the Grand Rapids Symphony
for a decade, and the former career traveler plans to stay.

By Jackie Zimmermann
Photography Courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony

David Lockington’s career made him a musical nomad, moving from coast to coast pursuing conducting jobs and musical directorships all over the country.

However, since arriving in Grand Rapids in January 1999, Lockington has spent the past 10 years — the longest tenure he has ever had with an orchestra — encouraging educational opportunities, embracing diversity and creating unique musical experiences as the music director for the Grand Rapids Symphony. Although he still travels, his connection with the city and the symphony has encouraged the Yale graduate to call Grand Rapids his home.

“I love it here,” he said, adding that he has “felt privileged to be at the helm of this really wonderful organization.”

Lockington was drawn to the city by the high quality of the symphony and the city’s support of the arts.

“It was also a wonderful environment for my family to move to,” he said. “We’ve lived in a few different neighborhoods and really enjoyed all of them.”

Lockington and his family have lived in Ottawa Hills and East Grand Rapids, and his appreciation of the neighborhoods played a role in enticing the conductor to remain in the city.

“Physically, I love the way it looks,” Lockington said. “I love the twisting and turning roads; it reminds me a bit of England.”

Lockington was born in Dartford, Kent, in 1956 and attended the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate. At 16 he joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He remained with the organization for four years, spending the last two as the principal cellist. After graduating, he came to the United States on scholarship in 1978 to attend Yale University, where he received his master’s degree in cello performance.

Since then, Lockington’s career as a conductor and music director has sent him all over the country, bouncing him from coast to coast and everywhere in between — including music directorships in Cheyenne, Wyo., and in Ohio, an associate conducting post in Baltimore, and occupying both positions in Denver.

At one point, Lockington acted as the music director for both the Long Island Philharmonic and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, living in New Mexico but commuting between the two states. Last year he accepted the position of music director for the Modesto Symphony Orchestra in California, so he once again finds himself balancing commitments to two symphonies.

Although the Modesto Symphony Orchestra has a smaller budget than the Grand Rapids Symphony, a new performing arts center there has sparked interest in the arts, and Lockington will travel to California approximately once a month to tend to his responsibilities there.

Although he permanently resides in Grand Rapids, Lockington’s obligations to the symphonies and his commitments as a guest conductor for a variety of organizations around the country keep his nomadic spirit alive.

“The combination of Modesto and guest conducting and Grand Rapids fleshes out a busy schedule for the rest of the season,” he said. That schedule exemplifies Lockington’s love for music — a passion that has been with him from a young age. As a boy, Lockington’s father, a fellow cellist, inspired him to pursue a musical career.

“He was passionate about it, and I think I picked up on that passion, that connection,” he said.
He grew up playing in the Welling Youth Orchestra, an orchestra created and conducted by his father, and experiencing the musical talents of his grandfather, uncle and aunt. After conducting his first concert at the age of 18, Lockington was hooked.

“I was so struck by how difficult it was that I thought, ‘This is a challenge that would be worth finding out about,’” he said. “I really liked that idea of being a catalyst to create a world in which the musician is excited, and the audience comes together around the making of music.”


Stability and consistency help create a connection between a symphony and the community, and Lockington and the orchestra’s musicians have encouraged this relationship with a variety of community outreach and educational programs. Educational opportunities include a side-by-side concert series that allows high school students to perform with symphony members at their school, and an Artists in Residence partnership that allows symphony members to work with elementary school kids from kindergarten through sixth grade.

The symphony also works to enhance diversity in Grand Rapids’ musical community.

“One of the things the symphony has been doing for a number of years is reaching out to the African-American community,” Lockington said. “One of the things I am most proud of is the chorus we’ve created; it’s kind of a gospel chorus. It’s got some of our symphony members in it, but it’s a mixed chorus of community people that want to come together and celebrate performing with the orchestra.”

The Grand Rapids Community Gospel Chorus consists of more than 100 voices and performs at the “Symphony With Soul” concert, an annual event created by Lockington in 2002 to help connect cultures through music.

Lockington’s commitment to encouraging a connection with the community catapulted the symphony into a variety of special events that keeps the symphony “on people’s radar.” It’s important to come up with ideas that are sometimes traditional but that extend the traditional element by adding something new, he said, because it creates an event that has familiarity but is also pioneering.

Events such as 2006’s “The Music of Led Zeppelin: A Rock Symphony” and 2008’s “ABBA — The Hits,” both performed during the Chase Picnic Pops concert series, alter traditional perceptions of what one may hear at the symphony.

“These are sort of ‘profile events’ for the symphony, which can draw a lot of attention and draw new people in that perhaps wouldn’t normally be attracted to coming to the symphony,” Lockington said.

Along with incorporating pop music into the classical repertoire and collaborating with the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, the symphony has earned national attention for its Grammy nomination in 2007 for “Invention and Alchemy,” a DVD and CD collaboration with harpist Deborah Henson-Conant.
But Lockington considers the symphony’s 75th anniversary trip in May 2005 to Carnegie Hall his greatest achievement.

“I think from a fundraising, community awareness and artistic point of view, that was really just a great highlight of my life, and of the symphony,” he said.

In the future, as the Michigan Street “Medical Mile” continues to evolve, Lockington hopes to see the arts contribute to the city’s development.

“I am very excited about the development of downtown, because it’s critical … to the growth of the city to have a vibrant downtown,” he said. “These things are driving the city right now, and I think the complement of the arts to all of the other growth that is going on is really vital.”

Lockington hinted that his nomadic habits may be a characteristic of the past.

He said: “As long as we are doing projects that are stimulating for the musicians and rewarding, edifying and emotionally satisfying for the audience, then I am looking forward to staying here for a number of years.” GR

Jackie Zimmerman is a student at Ohio University and a summer intern for Gemini Publications.

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