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News and notes from the world of classical music.

Belting the best Beethoven, Bernstein in Grand Rapids

Jamie Paisley
Grand Rapids Symphony's choral director Pearl Shangkuan in rehearsal

The Grand Rapids Symphony is prepraring a concert by two L.B.s: Leonard Bernstein & Ludwig van Beethoven. Attend a rehearsal and hear the "Ode to Joy, Version 1.0"

This weekend, the Grand Rapids Symphony is joined by their choir to perform music Leonard Bernstein wrote called the Chichester Psalms. It’s a piece which features at the very end an exhausted choir singing a cappella while other instruments slowly come in… and everybody hopes they stay in tune. To me, I wondered if that’s the mark of Leonard Bernstein’s sadism.

"No, it's a mark of his genius." counters Pearl Shangkuan, Grand Rapids Symphony's choral director, fresh from rehearsal with the vocalists. "I mean, the more— I've conducted this work before, two of three times on my own, have prepared it. Each time I come back to it, I see the genius behind it. You know, to start off that majestically and then to end with that part, which is a prayer, you know? When people dwell together in unity, and I think, as I shared with the chorus tonight, it's a prayer for our times. Every day we wake up, we read the headline news, and we have to sing it as our prayer, yeah. And, you know, Bernstein was the one who said 'Our reply to violence is to make music more meaningfully, more devotedly."

"In rehearsal," I say "just a moment ago, you talked about how this was a joyous piece despite a bit of cacophony that happens in it."

"Yeah," says Shangkuan "you know, it's a joyous piece but we have to count like crazy on the inside, and we have to spit out the diction and it's, you know, seven-four [time signature] throughout with these little notes, especially the second movement. It's just treacherous for the men."

Diction is also an important part for the other vocal work on this weekend’s Grand Rapids Symphony concert: Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, a work which features the orchestra, the chorus, and guest pianist, Orli Shaham taking over Beethoven’s role at the keyboard.

"It almost seems like it's a chamber music work" says Shaham "and then sometimes it seems like this incredible, grand thing with the full orchestra, full chorus, and the piano in front, so he's, I think that's one of the things he's actually playing around with. And *that* he does quite successfully. There aren't very many places where there's concern for the balance."

Orli Shaham, soloist for this weekend’s Grand Rapids Symphony concert featuring the Beethoven Choral Fantasy. A work she has perform both as a choir member and many times as the piano soloist. So she is very aware of one particular melody that makes its appearance in the Choral Fantasy well before Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

"You know when you sometimes, you go into a museum and they have a incredible exhibit that is all the sketches for some great work of art, and you know the entire exhibit is several rooms in size, and each on is a different kind of sketch that the artist did, and in the end you get to see the final work? Well, the Choral Fantasy is kind of like one of those sketches. And it's one of the most developed of the sketches. It has so many of the elements that would eventually go into the 9th Symphony."

Pianist Orli Shaham joins guest conductor Michael Christie and the Grand Rapids Symphony with Chorus prepared by Pearl Shangkuan this Friday and Saturday at DeVos Performance Hall in downtown Grand Rapids. It’s a program of two LB’s: Ludwig van Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein. Tickets and more information at GRSymphony.org

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