After attending several performances by the Grand Rapids Symphony this year and being captured by the inspired performance of the Symphony’s recent rendition of Mozart’s Requiem, I had to find out more about who was behind bringing this stunning masterpiece to life, besides Amadeus himself, of course.
The Grand Rapids Symphony stands apart in a city brimming with artistic expression as an extraordinary art form. Voted the best performing arts organization in Grand Rapids, our world class symphonic conductors are magicians who perform a unique alchemy combining the grandeur of classical composition with a range of orchestral voices to celebrate a genre of music that has captivated audiences for hundreds of years.
These amazing conductors are not only defining pillars of artistic expression and accomplishment in the Grand Rapids community, but the work they perform are masterpieces which enrich our lives, and infuse Grand Rapids with depth, texture, and nuance. With decades of experience, unique perspectives, thoughtful interpretation, virtuosic musicians, and boundless passion, there is no substitute for seeing our Grand Rapids Symphony perform live.
Marcelo Lehninger, Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony
Maestro Lehninger’s talent is undeniable. Having trained in Europe, Brazil, New York, and conducted Symphonies from Boston to Los Angeles, Brazil to Europe, leading some the most well-respected orchestras in the United States, including the Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Houston, Detroit, Seattle, Princeton, Hartford, Vancouver, Tucson Philharmonics (to name a few), Lehninger’s depth and breadth of experience is awe inspiring.
When asked how he approaches interpreting musical composition and conveying a piece’s intended emotion to the audience, Lehninger related a funny story about Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes:
“On one occasion, a piano student / fan talked to Novaes after a concert. ‘Ms.
Novaes, when you play Beethoven you incarnate him, your Chopin is so poetic, your Debussy is full of incredible colors… how do you accomplish this?’ She replied, ‘Honey, everything is written in the score!’
Learning a piece of music is a very intense intellectual process. You need to study the score inside out, know different styles, etc. But the beauty of the process of learning music is that from your brain, music goes through your heart and touches the soul.”
When expanding on music as an art form, Lehninger explained how music is a subjective intellectual and emotional journey.
“Hidden messages, and colors evoke powerful emotions to form a harmonious synergy when 80 or 90 musicians perform together. Orchestra members, each contributing their unique musicality, unite to create a whole that surpasses the abilities of any individual.”
Through this process, Maestro Lehninger believes that classical music is an “an incredible way to get in touch with our inner selves.”
Lehninger highly recommends attending the season opener Sept. 15 and 16, with one of the most important pianists of the new generation: Daniil Trifonov, who will perform Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. In March, a superstar soloist will play in partnership with The Gilmore Festival: Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Bob Bernhardt, Principal Pops Conductor
After nine seasons as the Principal Pops conductor of the GR Symphony, having worked with stars of Broadway like Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Kelli O’Hara, acts that include the Beach Boys, the B-52s, and Wynona, and entertainers spanning multiple genres from Ben Folds, Jason Alexander and Ann Hampton Callaway; 15 seasons conducting Edmonton’s “Symphony Under the Sky” festival, a regular conductor with Boston Pops since his debut in 1992 at the invitation of John Williams, 19 seasons with his own company in Chattanooga, along with many guest conducting engagements with the Nashville Opera, Bernhardt is in a word: a force.
Bernhardt said that a symphony with its vast array of instruments– a string section, along with winds, brass and percussion, breathing life into the composer’s vision – is what most obviously makes a symphony unique. “Relating to all families of instruments is among challenges all conductors face,” he said.
Known for his infectious enthusiasm and humor, Bernhardt shared a hilarious travel issue that happened nearly 40 years ago: “I was flying on a certain airline (IT that shall not be named) and my one checked bag was lost. Not misplaced, but lost, which is to say, never found. This was so early in my career that I had yet to learn to NEVER put your music in your checked bag…but I did. Around a year later, on a lark, I went to the unclaimed luggage re-sale place in Scottsboro, Alabama, where many unclaimed items from lost luggage are sold. It was there that I had the hilarious and interesting experience of buying back a couple of my own scores, which were on sale in the shop.”
When asked what upcoming events in Grand Rapids he is most excited in taking part, Maestro Berhardt said:
“This is not exactly the same as choosing your favorite child…but as John Williams is my friend, mentor and hero, I’m so looking forward to our Star Wars concerts, one of the pair of which is on “May the Fourth,” which will include music from all nine films, Obi-Wan, Solo and Rogue One. So. Much. Fun.
Duo Shen, Assistant Conductor
In his second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Duo Shen’s passion for conducting has taken him from China to the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra, to the University of Maryland Orchestra, University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra, to Symphony Orchestras in Bulgaria, while also performing chamber music and solo music concerts throughout China and the US. A lifelong musician since the age of five, Shen holds a Professional Studies diploma from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Violin from the University of Maryland.
Shen describes the symphony, at its core, to be a captivating narrative not unlike a film. Like a story unfolding, it takes listeners on a journey, evoking a wide range of emotions.
“Through music, one can imagine so many different colors, so many different stories. A great example would be a film score. When listening to an orchestra perform the music from Star Wars, for instance, we can very easily visualize the specific scenes where the music is associated,” Shen said. “When listening to an orchestral piece that has not yet been made into a film, the audience themselves become the painters and directors, capturing stories and paintings limited only by the imagination. Like any story, the symphony’s framework consisting of multiple movements, allows for the exploration of diverse moods and themes”.
Shen is extremely excited to lead the orchestra in “Elf in Concert” this December. The humor of Will Ferrel and the virtuosity of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s musicians under Maestro Shen’s leadership make this experience one worth celebrating this winter.
Pearl Shangkuan, Chorus Director
“Music broadens our minds and hearts” is the foundational aspect of Pearl Shangkuan’s work credo.
Now in her twentieth season as chorus director, having led performances and workshops on six continents, and active among national leadership of choral conductors, Pearl Shangkuan’s musical journey has been shaped by luminaries such as: Mehta, Muti, Abbado, Giulini, which continue to inform her work as chorus director at the Grand Rapids Symphony.
For Shangkuan, interpreting musical compositions and conveying a composer’s intended emotion “starts and continues with careful, in-depth study – its history, performance practice of the era, how the work is constructed,” she said. “Finding moments that particularly resonate on artistic, emotional, and personal levels. Even with less familiar music, we find ways to learn, appreciate, connect, and empathize.”
Shangkuan said that in one year’s time, her students at Calvin University counted how many different languages they sang in one year – it was 12!
“Unlike a painting or sculpture, we get to re-create the art each time we perform. There’s something unique about the human voice that touches the human spirit that, when coupled with text, can be especially stirring. I’ve conducted many choral concerts where I can literally feel, and sometimes hear, the audience behind me weeping.”
Shangkuan is most excited to conduct “Requiem for the Living” by renowned composer Dan Forrest this season with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Shangkuan has conducted this poignant work in the past– in France and at Carnegie – and says the elements of the piece create a tapestry of feelings that resonates with audiences everywhere.
Duane Davis, Community Choral Conductor
Davis’ journey into the world of symphonic music began more than 60 years ago. He has worn many musical hats: music educator, choral director, jazz educator, musical theatre musical director, adjudicator, while serving 31 years as chorus master for Opera Grand Rapids, teaching at Western Michigan University, and at Grand Rapids Community College. Davis is the recipient of voluminous awards including the Grand Rapids Symphony Legacy Award; the Maynard Klein Award for Choral Excellence; Kent State University Distinguished Alumni Award Cleveland Jazz Legend recipient.
“Art can be as broad or narrow as one wishes to consider,” said Davis. “However, I believe music, dance, visual art, theater, literature, architecture…should all be considered ‘The Arts.’ True art can provoke an aesthetic response, but more than that, the response does not necessarily have to be beautiful. I believe the forementioned areas of art have the power to stir thought and share many of the same element (i.e. form, dynamics, space, tempo, e.g.).
“It has always been quite interesting to hear music that is 50 to more than 300 years old, performed by different ensembles. The music can be orchestral, opera or jazz standard. There are some who will perform the music with every note and rhythm executed perfectly and yet it does not have the same life as when others perform the music in such a way that it makes an audience feel they are hearing the music for the first time”.
When contemplating memorable experiences that shaped and influenced him, Davis described having conducted at Carnegie Hall for the first time.
“It was not the performance itself, but what preceded the performance,” he said, and then regarded the paintings on the wall. “As I was in my dressing room putting on my tux, I looked around the room at all of the great conductors who stood where I was about to stand. The first being Tchaikovsky in 1891, Bernstein (over 400 hundred times), Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and others. Their portraits were around the room facing me. Rather than being intimidated, I was encouraged as I imagined them cheering me on. I also thought of the number of African American artist such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price and others who paved the way. I have since conducted
other works (i.e. Bernstein, Chichester Psalms, and the Faure and Duruflé Requiems) at
Carnegie as well as conducting my vocal jazz ensemble in that ‘sacred’ place.”
Davis is most looking forward to the annual Symphony with Soul concert (February 10, 2024) with guest artist Leela James.
“This concert continues to bring to our community artists of great renown,” he said. “They have included: Richard Smallwood, Jubilant Sykes, Regina Carter, Take 6, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lizz Wright, Dianne Reeves, Marvin Sapp, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Vanessa Williams, Marcus Roberts, Lalah Hathaway, Black Violin, Terence Blanchard, Leslie Odom, Jr., Ne-Yo and others. Who couldn’t be excited by that?”