January 29, 2013 | Myrna Anderson

Conductor, performer and teacher John Varineau will conduct Calvin's orchestras.

John Varineau, a longtime conductor of both the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, is the new conductor of the Calvin Orchestra and the Grand Rapids Community Symphony. A part-time member of Calvin’s music faculty, Varineau is looking forward to conducting for a new demographic:

“I like the enthusiasm that youth brings to the discovery of music,” he said about college musicians.

Varineau learned that enthusiasm at his high school in Laramie Wyoming. “I’m just the product of a pretty miserable high school music program led by an extremely dedicated, talented and inspiring music teacher … . They had what you’d call a joy of music,” he said.

He also gained an enduring love of western landscapes. His grandfather was the “first forest ranger in that part of the woods.” His father was a math professor at the University of Wyoming, and his mother was a former Cheyenne Frontier Days Queen.

“I love the wide-open spaces,” he said, “and I love the mountains. It was an adjustment for me to live in a state where my view of the horizon was obstructed.”

Learning, performing, conducting

Varineau first came to Michigan in 1972 to attend Michigan State University, where a friend shared the gospel with him. “It was on the long, long walk from my science class to our dorm that I accepted Christ as my savior,” he said.

Varineau completed his bachelor’s degree in music back in his home state at the University of Wyoming, then earned his master’s at the Yale School of Music. He has performed as a clarinetist with the New Haven Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra of New England and the Grand Rapids Symphony and with various chamber groups, including the locally based Montage and ma non troppo.

He returned to Michigan in 1981 to serve as director of bands at Grand Rapids Baptist College (now Cornerstone University), a job he supplemented by playing at the Grand Rapids Symphony. “I was also hired on an irregular basis to play at the GR Symphony. Varineau became assistant conductor of the symphony in 1985 and conductor of the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony in 1987. He stepped up to associate director of the Grand Rapids Symphony (and resigned from Cornerstone position ) in 1989.

That same year, he began teaching clarinet and music appreciation on an adjunct basis at Calvin. And from 1999 to 2001, he served his first stint as Calvin’s orchestra conductor. He was followed in that job by Robert Nordling, who conducted the Calvin Orchestra from 2002 through this year.

Varineau is delighted to take up the baton at Calvin again, and the music department is delighted to welcome him: “Varineau brings with him a wealth of experience both as a performer and a teacher,” said music department chair Bert Polman, “and his modeling of excellent music-making will enrich the musical work we do with current students and alumni.”

With March performances already on the calendar, Varineau is looking over the orchestras’ repertoire: “It’s important that we teach, quote, 'the canon' of the repertoire but try to keep alive the art form by doing new music,” he said. “We need to play Beethoven and Mozart, of course. We need to play a little bit of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. We need to play Stravinsky. But we also need to play some John Adams."

Mentoring Christian musicians

Varineau is grateful for the chance to teach at a Christian institution. “This is an opportunity not only to live out my life as a Christian within the orchestral world but to foster a Christian mindset within a new generation of performers,” he said.

He hopes to make every composition a living expression of faith: “There’s the great image in Genesis, where God formed humankind out of the dust of the earth ... ,” Varineau said. “As performers we take the dust of composers’ notes, and we are forming that into something new.”

Varineau hopes to continue with his responsibilities with the Grand Rapids Symphony as well as other guest conducting and performing opportunities: “That’s not unusual in the music world,” he said. “Academic scientists teach, and they also research. In the music world, we teach, but we also perform.”

He’s eager to get started: “I love making music,” he said.

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