Grand Rapids Maestro Gets Introduced To Chorus Via Verdi

Nov 15, 2017

Is it church music? Or is it an opera in disguise? This weekend, the Grand Rapids Symphony performs Verdi’s Requiem. WKAR’s Jamie Paisley sat down with the Symphony’s new music director, Marcelo Lehninger to talk about one of the maestro’s favorite pieces.


In Maestro Marcelo Lehninger’s home office, right by the door, there’s a bookshelf. And on just about the second or third shelf, there are five books which all have the same words on their spines: Verdi. Requiem.

"That big red one right there." says Lehninger, pointing to the right side of the bookshelf. "That's the new critical edition and there's some corrections in the old parts that it's very helpful to have that."

The Verdi Requiem is a favorite work, not just for Lehninger, but audiences worldwide, even those who may have encountered the Requiem’s Dies Irae in a countless number of movie trailers.

[Sample of Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem]

Jamie Paisley (JP): Is it, as they say, you know, opera but simply not staged?

Marcelo Lehninger (ML): I think so.  would call [it] a religious opera. It is pretty much opera and not only because he was such a great opera composer, I mean, that's what he was a master of. He really created with this Requiem something totally different than previous Requiems. Certainly very different from Mozart, which is kind of being afraid, not really talking to God. Here [in Verdi's Requiem], he actually sometimes looks up and says 'Hey! What are you thinking??' and then the answer is 'Rex Tremendae!' So it's really that kind of a dramatic approach to the mass which I think no other composer actually accomplished that. For that reason, I think it makes [it] really operatic.

[Sample of Rex Tremendae from Verdi's Requiem]

Jamie Paisley: Now, the chorus in the Verdi Requiem, it's a big part of the work which, you know, you'll going to be playing Friday and Saturday night at the DeVos Performance Hall. But you have somebody as talented as director, long-time director, Pearl Shangkuan leading the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, and her beloved Calvin College Capella, do you just let her do her thing and you’ll fine tune it as we approach the concerts, or do you communicate your intent with the Verdi beforehand?

Marcelo Lehninger (ML): I think it should be a collaboration. I have very particular things in that piece. Including how the choir should sing certain parts. But she's the pro. And she's the one working with that choir everyday. She knows them, she knows the possibilities so of course I'm going to rely on her as much as possible and just make a few suggestions. Of course, I'm going to have a rehearsal with the choir and piano before we have the rehearsal with the orchestra. Actually it's really special that my first encounter with the choir will be with that piece. I'm really excited about that.

[Sample of Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem]

Marcelo Lehninger (ML): By the way, this is one of my favorite pieces to conduct and that was instrumental when we were programming the season. 'Why you want to do that piece?' and I said 'Because I think that's the piece I love to conduct the most.' They said 'Sold! Let's do it.' and it's true. I love to conduct that piece.

[Sample of Ingemisco from Verdi's Requiem]

Maestro Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony and for the first time, the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in Verdi’s Requiem, this Friday and Saturday evening at DeVos Performance Hall in downtown Grand Rapids. Tickets and more information at GRSymphony.org