Grand Rapids Symphony’s former chorus director knew Michelle DeYoung had a very special voice.
The mezzo soprano had enrolled in Calvin College as a freshman in 1988, not entirely sure of what she wanted to do with her life.
Anton Armstrong, who taught music at Calvin College in addition to serving as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, told her she had a special voice worthy of a professional career.
“He said I think you should consider a career in singing,” she said on FOX 17’s “Morning Mix” on Wednesday. “I hadn’t even thought of it.”
Armstrong, who would go on to become director of the famous St. Olaf Choir, was right. Today, DeYoung is a three-time Grammy Award-winning singer whose career has taken her to the stages of Bayreuth, La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where her career began.
This weekend, DeYoung joins Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and the Grand Rapids Symphony to perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on April 12-13 in DeVos Performance Hall.
Lehninger will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony’s biggest ensemble of the season with more than 250 musicians on stage including 100 instrumentalists, joined by the women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the Grand Rapids Symphony Junior Chorus, and Mandala, a select ensemble from the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which lasts about 100 minutes, will be the only piece on the program.
“It’s one of the longest symphonies ever written,” Lehninger said. “But it’s so colorful, and there’s so many things happening, you’re never tired of it.”
Michelle DeYoung will make her first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 14 years to sing the musical work that earned her the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album together with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.
The mezzo soprano was born in Grand Rapids into a musical family, the last of four girls, while her father was studying at Calvin Theological Seminary to become a minister. Growing up in Colorado and in California, DeYoung followed in the footsteps of her three older sisters, all of whom sang in church and played piano and other musical instruments.
“It never really occurred to me to do any of this professionally,” DeYoung said. “I really saw myself getting married and having six kids.”
But in her sophomore year, her choir director told her she had an extraordinary voice, worthy of a professional career, so she left Calvin College to study first at San Francisco State University and then at California State University at Northridge where her teacher told her that he wanted her to enter the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.
“I laughed because I hadn’t done any competitions yet,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘I want you to be prepared, because you’re going to win, and they’re going to ask you to be a young artist.’”
The 6-foot, 1-inch tall singer didn’t believe her teacher. But she entered the competition, won every level, and was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development Program.
“The first day I walked into the Met, I walked into the elevator, and someone said, ‘Oh, it’s Brunhilda,’” she recalled with a laugh.
That was before she had sung a note. Since then, she’s established herself as a major artist, praised by the London Times as “the Jessye Norman of our day” with an “increasingly voluptuous voice.”
Besides the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, DeYoung has sung with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and The Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall as well as with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Sao Paulo Symphony.
In opera, she has appeared in such roles as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde; Herodias in Salome; Amneris in Aida; and as Fricka, Sieglinde and Waltraute in Wagner’s The Ring Cycle in such international opera houses as La Scala, Bayreuth Festival, Berliner Staatsoper, Opera National de Paris and Tokyo Opera and in the United States with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Seattle Opera among others.
Her Grammy Awards include the 2001 Grammy for Best Opera Best Opera for Les Troyens with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Her past appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony include Hector Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and Opera Grand Rapids Chorus in October 2003. During the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season, she sang Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under David Lockington in January 2005.
In 2016, Mahler’s Third Symphony was voted one of the 10 greatest symphonies of all time in a poll of more than 100 professional conductors by BBC Music Magazine. That list was topped by Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 and his “Choral” Symphony No. 9 plus Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41.
It’s a popular piece, though it’s seldom performed because of its size and scope. The Grand Rapids Symphony’s last performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony was in February 2001, featuring mezzo soprano Marietta Simpson, the Women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, and the Boys from the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys.
Mahler, who was one of the greatest conductors of the late 19th century, was devoted to nature and enjoyed long walks in the countryside. In the summer of 1896, the young conductor Bruno Walter paid a visit to Mahler in the little Alpine village of Steinbach am Attersee, where Mahler had spent the summer completing his Third Symphony.
As Walter stood there admiring the beautiful mountain scenery, Mahler told him, “You needn’t stand staring at that. I’ve already composed it all.