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Ten Questions for Duo Shen, Assistant Conductor/Grand Rapids Symphony

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GRSMA was pleased to speak with conductor Duo Shen to assist in getting to know the newest member of the Grand Rapids Symphony's artistic team. We hope that our followers will enjoy the answers to our questions about his background, how he is adjusting to living in West Michigan, and his plan to inspire the next generation of classical musicians.


GRSMA: Tell us about your musical career and the path that brought you to your current role as Assistant Conductor of the GRS.


Duo Shen: I started to play the violin when I was 5 years old. And my mom told me, if we were going to do this, we were going to see it through. She would take buses with me every weekend for my private violin lessons. When I went to middle school, I joined the school’s orchestra. With the youth orchestra, I got to travel to Europe twice: once during middle school and once in high school. I was very blessed to have a supportive family, especially when I was invited by my undergraduate violin professor Xiang Gao to attend the University of Delaware. During my college training in the US, my parents continued to be extremely supportive and, 14 years later, not only did I finish all of my degrees and diplomas, but I now get to live the dream of serving the Grand Rapids Symphony and its community as the GRS Assistant Conductor. I am still working on believing that all of this is real.   


GRSMA: Where did you grow up, and what are your first memories of classical music?


Duo Shen: I was born in Beijing to a family of teachers and academia. Both my parents like music, especially my mom. She has many collections of cassettes, which probably is such a foreign object to all my GR Youth Symphony kids now. So, I grew up listening to cassettes of Mr. Perlman’s Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Mr. Kennedy’s Vivaldi Four Seasons, etc. I remember not only trying to play along with the tapes but also conducting the music nonstop, to the point that the tape became half broken. My violin teacher Mrs. Zhang had to tell me that I needed to stop playing along with the recording, because she didn’t want me to create bad habits by trying to play pieces that were too hard for me at that time.


GRSMA: Before you came to Grand Rapids, you were living in Cleveland. Tell us about your time in Ohio.


Duo Shen: I had a great time studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I felt incredibly blessed that I was able to meet and learn from some world-class conductors and musicians there. When I first started my study there, with The Cleveland Orchestra just a few blocks away, I got to listen to their concerts almost every week (while sometimes I snuck in to listen to their rehearsals too!). It really was like a dream. As I had heard so many conducting teachers tell me about their experiences as a student listening to great orchestras rehearse and perform, I finally got to experience that for myself. And my teachers were not lying. It was absolutely amazing. 


GRSMA: You moved to Grand Rapids a few months ago. How do you find living in West Michigan so far?


Duo Shen: I love my apartment! It is right downtown and, although I am from one of the largest cities in China, I have never lived downtown. During my 14 years in the states, I also have never experienced downtown living. Being able to walk everywhere without needing any sort of transportation is quite new to me. And I love Grand Rapids! Someone told me that this is a “big little town” and I love this description. Grand Rapids gives me a little town feeling because it seems as if everybody knows everybody. A smile to someone on the street will get a smile in response. Also, Grand Rapids has so much energy: the arts scene, restaurants, people, just like a big city. This is the perfect combination! I have already heard some stories about the winter here and, as someone who lived through three winters in Cleveland, I actually look forward to the snow! 


GRSMA: Part of your duties as GRS Assistant Conductor is leading the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony. What are your thoughts on inspiring the next generation of classical musicians?


Duo Shen: It has always been part of my passion to share my experiences with others. Because I have learned and gained so much from my own youth symphony days, I wanted to create the same environment for my GR Youth Symphony kids. I think that music is a conduit to many things in life. Having the enjoyable habit of playing and listening to music can make life so much more colorful. That is all I want to offer to my youth symphony members. I know that some of them are going to become musicians, but many of them will go on to have other careers. I hope we can inspire all of them to continue to have music in their lives.


GRSMA: We hear that you have a love for cooking. If you could host a dinner party and invite famous musicians, living or dead, who would they be and, more importantly, what would you serve?


Duo Shen: Great question! There are many musicians I would love to meet, including conductors Klaus Mäkelä and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I have witnessed their work with some of the best orchestras. I believe one has to be a very interesting person in order to make interesting music. Although everyone is special in their own way, I want to know how these conductors share their interests with the world. But actually, to tell you the truth, I would rather have a few friends come over and have a lovely dinner. I feel much more comfortable among friends! I would serve Chinese food, of course: mapo tofu, mushroom with chicken (which is different from the one at Panda Express, but equally good), fried shredded potato, braised shrimp, and lamb with carrot rice. 


GRSMA: We look forward to working with you for the 2022-23 GRS season. Are there any concerts that you especially look forward to conducting?


Duo Shen: Every time I get a chance to work with GRS is a blessing. I look forward to every single concert that we have. This is not just being nice. This is true! Being able to work with such a high-level orchestra with a wonderful supportive atmosphere is just a dream for any young conductor, in order to learn and grow. And I felt so blessed to be able to work with the GRS Musicians on a regular basis. I especially looked forward to my Chamber Series subscription debut this season at St Cecilia Music Center last month, when we performed music composed by Mozart, Copland, Barber, and Gabriela Lena Frank.


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


Duo Shen: I love to read. The first thing I did when I settled here in Grand Rapids was to apply for my library card, so I can fill my kindles full of books. Of course, a lot of them have been returned already without my reading them, but it’s always nice to have something to read. I also love watching movies and listening to different podcasts. I also love daydreaming about going backpacking or living in a van for a week. I would love to do this for real one day!


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


Duo Shen: This continues to change and evolve, which is what is amazing about being a conductor. Every time I stand on the podium I am creating a memorable moment, because making music with 80 musicians is always memorable. Most recently I had my second rehearsal with the GR Youth Symphony, and we were working on the second movement of Sibelius Symphony No. 1. At the end of the rehearsal, I asked for one of the students to conduct so that I could go into the hall to listen. I was so moved by their playing! I felt so incredibly blessed to be able to work with them.


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


Duo Shen: Grand Rapids is a very special place. I am very fortunate to be able to join the GRS family. But I will let the music speak for me. Come to our concerts! Nothing can replace live music. I learned this especially after the silent period of the pandemic. Feeling the vibrations in the hall and seeing the musicians moving and playing on stage are just so unique to the live concerts. I hope to see many friends at our concerts, and please come by afterwards and say hi, too!

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