Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus Director on Brahms' German Requiem

In her eleventh year as the chorus master of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Dr. Pearl Shangkuan is a sought-after conductor and clinician all across the United States and internationally. Dr. Shangkuan will lead the splendid Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in its upcoming presentation with the Grand Rapids Symphony orchestra, Brahms' German Requiem. Here, Dr. Shangkuan provides her expert insight into the deeply moving and iconic work. 

I first studied and sang Brahms’ "Ein Deutches Requiem" as an undergraduate music student under my mentor Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, chorus master of the New York Philharmonic. He was preparing the Westminster Symphonic Choir for performances conducted by Robert Shaw, pre-eminent American choral and orchestral conductor and for many years the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Quite the powerhouse combo! And the impression it made on a young music student - to this day, I still have the entire work memorized! My choral score even has Mr. Shaw’s autograph!

Since then, I’ve sung, conducted and prepared this masterwork several times. Each time I return to it, I am awed by its incredible artistry, craftsmanship and power in conveying its stirring texts. Brahms chose not to follow the traditional text of the Mass for the Dead, but instead selected different verses from the Bible. This work is often called the “Human Requiem” because we all experience loss in our lives, especially the sorrow of losing loved ones, and the universal quest for comfort and assurance at such times. 

Brahms' "German Reqiuem" requires a high level of vocal prowess with its fairly extreme ranges, some sung quietly which is not easy to do, to sheer stamina in long, powerful sections and quite a mouthful of German. As a chorus master, my job is to prepare the chorus not only to master this difficult work, but also to be flexible to follow the interpretation of a guest conductor, in this case Maestro Rune Bergmann, whom we’ll meet for the first time on Monday the week of performance. Above all, with one mind and spirit, I work with all the performers on stage to convey the depth and meaning of this work to the audience. I leave the chorus rehearsals invigorated by the sheer beauty and power of this work, and by the hard working camaraderie of the chorus members. 

Once serving as a panelist at a choral music conference, I was asked what works I’d want with me if stranded on an island. The choral nerd in me immediately said, “Bach B minor mass and Brahms’ German Requiem!”

Posted by Sam Napolitan at 6:00 AM

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