This profile is part of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.
Former University Musical Society President Ken Fischer left some pretty enormous shoes to fill when he retired in 2017 – and Matthew VanBesien may be one of the few people in the world whose metaphorical feet were big enough for the job.
For VanBesien – who’d begun his career as an orchestra musician (playing french horn) – served as President of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and then the New York Philharmonic before making the move Ann Arbor; so to say he's accustomed to a high profile in the performing arts world would be a bit of an understatement.
But in an effort to get to know VanBesien more personally, I recently asked him some questions about his new life in Ann Arbor – which led to some surprising confessions involving workplace polka bands and the nostalgic pull of A&W Root Beer.
Q. You’ve been living here for two years now. What are your thoughts on Ann Arbor?
A. I already knew Ann Arbor well enough to know I would love it, and it continues to exceed my expectations in so many ways. There’s a magical balance between being in this wonderful, intimate community and, at the same time, feeling connected to the national and international landscape, not only through the university and the business sector, but through the entertainment scene as well – the performing and visual arts. … I knew I’d enjoy the work and the experience of living here, but I’m really loving it because of what I get to do, and the people for whom I get to do it.
Q. Was there anything you had to get used to, after moving away from New York City?
A. I think I had to get used to driving again, because we only had a car for one year in New York, so it had been easy to get used to not driving while living there. And I love the opportunity to live right on the Huron River and still just be fifteen minutes away downtown. So I’ve had to get used to the fact that it’s possible to go home between work and a performance. … It still surprises me, the wonderful convenience of it. People are constantly asking me, “Don’t you miss New York?” … But I don’t feel that way. We loved the opportunity we had to live in New York, but now we’re really embracing everything Ann Arbor has to offer.
Q. What do you love about your job?
A. Because (Ann Arbor) is not as densely populated as a big city, you get to really see up close the impact of the work on audiences. … It gives you a chance to be closer to the work and to those engaging in the work – people of all ages and backgrounds. And this gives you a sense of having your finger on the pulse a little bit more. In New York, everything was flying by at such a fast pace, and happening on such a grand scale, that even though you felt like the work was having an impact, you couldn’t be as sure. Here, you get to see it play out in spectacular and profound ways.
Q. As someone who started as a professional musician, do you ever find or look for opportunities to play your french horn again?
A. I have two great hopes in addition to my work life. One is to play tennis again regularly, and the other is to at least play the horn once in a while. … For a long time I’ve harbored a desire to have a staff polka band somewhere where I work, and the stars and planets may finally be aligning on that. There’s no accordion player on staff yet, but it’s a fun, adventurous group, so I see a potential polka band in our future.
Q. What are your thoughts on why tourism has become such a key part of Ann Arbor’s economy?
A. Over the years, the secret’s gotten out – and I say that in a serious way. I’m not being flip. Ann Arbor has a great vibe, with a disproportionately high number of things to offer given the size of its market. Tourism happens a lot of ways, and I’m excited to see the diversification of our tourism push. … You can come for a football game, a cultural event, like a UMS show or an Ann Arbor Symphony concert, or visit the Natural History Museum – and I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.
Q. What do you like to do when you get a bit of down time?
A. We love the home that we purchased and the environment that we’ve created there, and we love to cook and entertain, so we really enjoy sharing evenings with people, and have colleagues or friends over for dinner. … It emanates from what I would describe as a healthy passion for food and wine – you'll notice I didn’t say “healthy” food. … So while we love being out and about and traveling, we also really love spending quality time at home. … One of the things about entertaining is, it’s not just about welcoming people into your home. It’s also about conversation and hearing each others’ ideas, which now seems more important than ever.
Q. When you are having a night out in town, though, where might locals run into you?
A. One of the first restaurants I found here that I really, really liked was Spencer. I believe in what Steve (Hall) and Abby (Olitzky) are doing there, and appreciate what they’ve added to what was already a pretty vibrant food landscape. … And who doesn’t love all that Zingerman’s has to offer? Plus, we love Knight’s Steakhouse. It’s a real pleasure.
Q. Have any local events or traditions particularly captured your imagination?
A. Ann Arbor loves the festival mindset, and the kind of convening that entails. But for me, one of the best events happens every Saturday morning. The farmers market here is just one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. It’s just got a great vibe, with farmers and vendors from different places and backgrounds. … This time of year especially, it’s just an incredibly special thing to have. When I’m out of town, I’m always panicked that I might miss my Saturday morning trip to the market. … And I’ll tell you one thing I still haven’t done that I’ve been dying to do, which is visit the seemingly perfectly preserved A&W in Dexter. When I saw that for the first time, it brought me back to being an eight year old. … I’ve been trying to explain to my British wife the cultural significance of A&W root beer, but I haven’t yet been able to impress that upon her properly. [VanBiesen laughs.] Maybe there’s a reason for that.