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Interview: Pearl Shangkuan's 20th Season as Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus

(Photo Credit: Ruth VandenBos-Plaisier)

What can GRSMA say about Pearl Shangkuan? For starters, she has consistently prepared the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus for twenty seasons, which has led to many memorable musical moments. GRSMA was fortunate to sit down with Pearl to ask about her background, her favorite places in west Michigan, and who she would invite to dinner!


GRSMA: What are your first memories of classical music?


Pearl Shangkuan: I was about eight years old singing in our church children’s choir in a Christmas service. After the kids were dismissed following our songs, I snuck back into the sanctuary balcony to hear the adult choir sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s "Messiah." At such a young age, I was blown away by the music, though I didn’t have the understanding and vocabulary to express its impact. It planted the seed of great choral music, and in the context of worship. That such great music can be heard in concert halls and can also serve the purposes of corporate worship. A couple of years later, I auditioned to join a community children’s choir that sang music by Dufay, Palestrina, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Brahms, etc. As a kid, I had no idea of the immense gift of being given a glimpse of such treasures which have remained etched in my mind and heart to this day. This children’s choir did concert tours, something that forever changed me in broadening my perspective of a much larger world (literally and figuratively) and in learning travel skills. My late father would also take us to classical concerts and afterwards we would have to answer questions about the concerts. I used to think, “I’m just a kid attending a concert! Why is there always a test afterwards?” But he firmly believed that we use every opportunity to expand and process our knowledge. In my family, the kids were required to take piano lessons and sing in the church choir. These were non-negotiable. Little did I know then how much these would shape me in all aspects of my life and become my life work.


GRSMA: Since moving to GR, what changes have you observed in our city?


PS: There are more restaurants and with more variety of cuisine. It’s also great to live in a city that’s steadfast in its commitment to being a good environment for families. I must say that my frequent travels for guest engagements, on top of my work in Grand Rapids, have made it less possible for me to enjoy the new places in town.


GRSMA: Whenever you show off our city to out of town guests, what are the places on your list that they must see and experience?


PS: Meijer Gardens. My family became members during the pandemic, as it was a safer outdoor activity, and we continue to regularly visit to enjoy its beauty. I especially love the Japanese Garden for its tranquility. I take guests to the Amway Grand Hotel to show them the historic side and their beautiful decorations during the Christmas season. Our guests also love the GRS Holiday Pops concerts. During the summer, we’d take guests to the beach.


GRSMA: Your work with the GRS chorus is so impressive, and we always look forward to sharing the stage with your group. Do you have a secret for getting the best from singers?


PS: I always joke that my singers “have no choice.” One of my mantras in rehearsal is “nitpicking is a sign of love.” So I nitpick away relentlessly (and joyfully!) which they have a very high tolerance for. The singers accepted into the symphony chorus already sing and read music very well. Many have had years of vocal study and extensive choral experience. The work on my end is to mold all the individual singers into one unified sound block. To be absolutely precise in every aspect of the music making - the quality of tone, the notes and rhythm, clear diction, etc. To be fully responsive and flexible as they sing for different conductors that they rehearse with only during the week of the concert. To be in the moment of each rehearsal and concert. My credo for this chorus is that, while it’s made up of all volunteers, it’s the “chorus in residence” of a professional orchestra and thus expected to perform at a professional level to match the orchestra. The chorus members have a quest for excellence that matches my own, and we feed off each other’s energy and passion. They are an incredibly dedicated group of choral musicians that feel honored to share the stage with the orchestra.


GRSMA: If you could host a party and invite famous musicians, living or dead, who would they be, and what topics of conversation would you either encourage or avoid?


PS: Hildegard von Bingen, J. S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Clara Schumann, and Igor Stravinsky. I’d be so starstruck I likely wouldn’t be able to say one word, let alone converse with some intelligence! Probably how they coped and produced their works in the environment of their times. On several occasions, I had the wonderful opportunity of working and visiting with the late American composer Stephen Paulus. He was a very down-to-earth kind of guy and had such a funny sense of humor that I felt I could relate to him very easily.


GRSMA: We cannot imagine that you have any spare time, but do you have any hobbies or activities that you enjoy for relaxation?


PS: I’m an avid reader and can’t live without books! I have to hold “real” books too and love the smell of new books. A library is a happy place for me. Shopping for good sales is another way to decompress. My Aussie koalas are the happy recipients of the results of my retail therapy.


GRSMA: For any new GRS concert goers, are there places that you would recommend for them to tag on to for the evening’s experience, either before or after the performance?


PS: We have some lovely restaurants in the DeVos Hall area that I know concert patrons and friends regularly enjoy as part of their evening experience.


GRSMA: What are the most memorable moments that you have experienced as a conductor, either in concert or rehearsal?


PS: My first time conducting at Carnegie Hall, which was the Mozart "Requiem." The awe of conducting in the iconic hall. It never gets old even with subsequent engagements. Hanging out in the maestro dressing room and feeling the palpable energy of the musical giants (Toscanini, Bernstein) who have used that room. Conducting at the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (which members of our symphony chorus also participated as part of a choral festival in Italy), I remember being hit by this surreal sense of wonder while conducting. Conducting international festival concerts with chorus and orchestra at the Cathedral of St. Francis in Assisi in Italy (where Saint Francis is buried), Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, France (a medieval cathedral untouched by the bombings in WWII), Winchester (ancient capital) Cathedral in England, the latter two as part of a composer-conductor residency with my favorite partner-in-crime, beloved American composer Dan Forrest. Conducting the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) National Treble Honor Choir, a coveted invitation – a sound block of 300 strong treble voices in front of thousands of choral conductors from around the country and other countries.


GRSMA: Do you have a favorite GRS concert experience, and do you have a favorite section of the orchestra?


PS: Monteverdi's "1610 Vespers" at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in 2010 with David Lockington, an amazing work and momentous occasion in the celebration of its 400th anniversary. Carnegie Hall in 2018 with Marcelo Lehninger where the chorus sang the Villa Lobos "Choros No. 10." Marcelo took the Villa Lobos to such an exciting height and tempo while we were spitting out Portuguese diction! I remember gasping when I saw his upbeat and didn’t exhale until the work ended, both from excitement and fear for the chorus!


I respectfully decline to answer the question about the favorite section of the orchestra. In all seriousness, I’m always inspired watching the orchestra at work and deeply appreciate the very kind affirmation that individual orchestra members share with me of the work of the chorus.


GRSMA: Are there any ideas that you have in mind for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s  approaching 100th anniversary season?


PS: It’s been a while since we last did “A German Requiem” by Brahms. It’s one of my absolute favorite choral masterworks. Right up there with the Bach B Minor Mass which I’ve prepared three times for the GRS. In my time with the GRS, we’ve not done “Elijah” by Mendelssohn, one of the great oratorios. I think these two works will bring out the many choral enthusiasts in the city and surrounding areas. For a spectacle, another go at Mahler's 8th Symphony!


GRSMA: Is there anything else that you wish to share?


PS: It’s been a great honor and joy to serve as the chorus director of the GRS. I can’t believe this is my 20th season. Time flies when one is having fun!


(Note from GRSMA: Our next performance with the symphony chorus will be April 12 and 13, 2024. "A Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus Celebration" will include "Schicksalslied" (Song of Destiny) by Johannes Brahms and "Requiem for the Living" by Dan Forrest.

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