Pearl Shangkuan, a Calvin professor of music, grew up in a large Chinese family that lived in Manila, the Philippines. She remembers how the gong would ring in the evening, and her father, a prominent businessman, would call his children to dinner: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.” She was number nine. When the Calvin’s Women’s Chorale, which Shangkuan directs, boards its tour bus, roll call involves each student calling out her assigned number.
Shangkuan has conducted the Women’s Chorale since 1998, drilling members in vocal technique, instilling them with discipline, molding them into a group and summoning forth their artistry. She stresses punctuality in rehearsals and decorum always.
“She doesn’t waste a second in rehearsal,” said education professor Debra Buursma, a member of the Alumni Choir, which Shangkuan also directs.
It’s not about rules for their own sake, Shangkuan said. She disciplines the chorale to be fully prepared to be used by God at any moment. “We work toward achieving a level of technical excellence so the message comes across without any distractions,” she said.
One such moment occurred during the chorale’s spring tour of California, where the group performed in high schools and churches. When they sang at Tto Gam Sa Home Mission Church in Los Angeles, a Korean businessman was in the audience. He had been sending food to help the starving people of North Korea, but his government contact in that country had told him not to do so any longer. Burdened with this news, he went to hear the chorale. During the service, the chorale sang Arirang, a Korean folk song that speaks of suffering on a journey and a fear of abandonment. One phrase of the song says, “If you go away without me, your feet will become so tired and painful that you will be unable to walk the distance required.” Inspired by the song, the businessman reconnected with his contact and pledged to send double the amount of food to North Korea, and his offer was accepted.
The chorale was unaware of how its song had influenced these events until Calvin President Michael Le Roy shared the story with the musicians the following day. “In some ways it was surprising. We were thrilled that we had a part to play in this exciting development,” Shangkuan admitted. “In other ways, it was not as surprising because we were prepared to serve in whatever way God chooses.”
Over her 14-year career at Calvin, she has often heard people’s testimonials and received their e-mails, letters and cards about how the choirs’ music has touched them. “I don’t take any of these experiences for granted,” she said of the choirs’ performances, “because they are such grace-filled moments.”
Her father and mother emigrated to the Philippines when she was young. As the editor of a major Chinese newspaper, her father had been critical of the lack of religious freedom in his native country. In the Philippines, he built a business empire. “He had great self-discipline, great conviction,” Shangkuan said. “What people didn’t see, though, was that every morning, he would spend two hours—one reading the Bible and the other spent on his knees—and then, at the end of the day, another spent on his knees.” Following ancient Chinese custom he taught his children not to bring dishonor on the family name. “And the next thing he would add is, ‘You also bear Christ’s name,’” Shangkuan said.
Her father’s discipline became hers: “So much of … what I do, so much of his values have been ingrained in me,” she said.
Shangkuan moved to the United States in 1981 to study at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. There she studied with Joseph Flummerfelt, the renowned chorusmaster of the New York Philharmonic. She graduated from Westminster in 1988 with a master’s in choral conducting and earned a doctorate of musical arts from Rutgers University 1998. (She taught at both institutions.) An adviser encouraged her to pursue the Calvin position because he had heard the Calvin Alumni Choir sing at a conference.
The Alumni Choir, which sings at alumni events, churches and on tour, requires a different conducting strategy from her student group, Shangkuan said. “I see it as a graduate-level seminar which meets one night a week and has to give public performances after just a few weeks of learning the repertoire.”
Shangkuan is a meticulous and creative conductor, said Buursma: “When we walk in, those two hours are filled, and we give a lot. Interestingly, when we walk out, we are filled.” As Shangkuan conducts them in music, Buursma said, she is also imbuing the choir with faith: “It’s not like she says, ‘OK, how am I going to make this Christian?’ … She starts with ‘What is God doing, and how does Christ show up?’”
The Alumni Choir has sung several times at the elite national conference of the American Choral Directors Association, but some of its most meaningful performances come at funerals, said Buursma, who has a special memory of the group’s 2000 tour of Asia. When the choir was in Malaysia, the Christian group that was backing them didn’t have the funds. At that point, a Muslim choir offered to sponsor the choir. “We sang with that choir, Christian songs,” Buursma said. Then the two groups ate a meal together, holding hands and singing songs around a table. And afterward, their new friends asked the Alumni Choir for autographs and bought their CDs. “The Spirit can traverse time and space and … use us in ways we didn’t know were possible,” Buursma said.
Shangkuan stresses the communal nature of choral singing, and she forges each of her choirs into a community. “It’s about ensemble. It’s about getting all of those individual gifts together and molding them into a work of art,” she said.
The Women’s Chorale long ago adopted the moniker Pearl’s Girls, and members wear T-shirts bearing that name. “Everyone cares for each other. Everyone loves each other,” said sophomore soprano Laura Sterenberg, the social coordinator for the group. “The students are always closer at the end of the year than they were at the beginning.”
Shangkuan trains the students to serve as ambassadors for the college. It’s a training that goes beyond setting the dress code for when the group travels abroad. (No short skirts, no short shorts, spaghetti straps, etc.) She also teaches them to sing songs from many cultures, in many different languages. “The body of Christ is a worldwide body,” she said. “And when we learn the different languages, it gives us a taste of the different cultures.”
Sterenberg’s experience with a different culture involved a song sung in English during the Women’s Chorale 2012 tour of South Africa. Their tour guide in the South Africa trip was an Afrikaner. One leg of the tour was a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela served part of his 27-year prison sentence for opposing apartheid. Their guide on the prison tour was a black African, a former inmate of the prison who knew Mandela. After the choir had seen the site, Shangkuan gathered them in a circle in the prison’s courtyard and led the group in singing “Amazing Grace.” Many of the girls had their eyes closed, but Sterenberg opened hers and saw that the Afrikaan guide had his arm around the African guide.
“We had the idea that it was a touristy thing, but Dr. Shangkuan definitely had a different idea,” she said.
When not conducting her choirs, Shangkuan is often teaching, around the country and internationally. “In a field like music, you can’t teach in the way you were taught 25 years ago,” she said. “I think your teaching has to constantly evolve so that you’re still getting through to them.”
She serves as the chorusmaster of the Grand Rapids Symphony, an endowed position. She is a sought-after guest conductor. She edits two choral series: one for earthsongs called “Mosaic: the Pearl Shangkuan Choral Series” and another (with co-editor John Witvliet) for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. She’s constantly re-inventing her groups’ repertoire: “She’s always stepping out in front of what has been done … ,” said Buursma.
Shangkuan chaired the music department from 2003–2005 and co-chaired the department from 2005–2006. She was honored as an “outstanding professional woman” with the YWCA’s Tribute Award in 2007. (See her interview on YouTube.)
“Working with Pearl is like being alongside a Tetris master. In our line of work there are always many pieces to a puzzle that are up on the air. Pearl always seams to know where the pieces are and where they fit,” said Calvin orchestra conductor John Varineau, a longtime associate conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony. “Her amazing analytical mind is whirring away and then, suddenly, all of the pieces fall in place and the artistic result is breathtaking. If you are a colleague of Pearl's, you have to really be on your toes to keep up.”
Current Calvin music co-chair Timothy Steele added, “It would be easy for excellence to be an end in itself, and I don’t see that in Pearl’s work or her effect on her students. What she is able to do is to work to achieve excellence through performance through diligence and hard work, taking the music very seriously, but also to build in her students a commitment to excellence in response to God.”
A commissioner at heart
Near and dear to Shangkuan’s heart is the commissioning of new choral pieces from American composers. She has commissioned works that have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. “It contributes to the literature out there. It puts the name of the college out there. It contributes to the growth of American choral composers,” she said.
One piece Shangkuan commissioned, “Gabriel,” is particularly special to her. A joyful, gospel-style tune by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory ’92, it is named for her 22-year-old son, who has Down syndrome. He likes to sing. “That’s my daily existence—listening to Gabriel sing off key,” she said, “but he sings with so much joy. I can’t ask him to not sing.” When her choirs sing “Gabriel,” audience members with developmentally disabled children often share with her how meaningful the piece is to them.
Shangkuan also has a daughter, Candice, a 2007 Calvin grad, with husband Okke Surjana. Her mother, aged 95 in Chinese reckoning, still lives in the Philippines. Four in her family are also conductors. “When we get together, we often sing,” she said. “Singing hymns is such a part of our childhood,” she said. Shangkuan is keenly conscious of how her work is an outgrowth of her personal life, her godly heritage.
She recalled a moment during the Women’s Chorale’s 2007 tour of Asia. While waiting in the gate area of the Beijing airport for a flight back to the States, the students and Shangkuan began to sing “Lift Thine Eyes,” a piece by Mendelssohn based on Psalm 121, which they had also sung at the Great Wall of China. “Directly in my sightline, I saw a man whose reaction went from surprise to shock to putting his face in his hands, and his shoulders started heaving,” Shangkuan said. After she boarded the flight, the man sought her out and told her about his daughter, a girl who had loved singing in her choir. She had died suddenly at the age of 15. “Since her death, he could not go to a choir concert because it would just tear him apart, and yet the grace of God reached out to him in a country so far away.”
For Shangkuan, this moment of grace also hit close to home: “Another very interesting part to that episode was that we were singing about our Christian faith in a country where it was for many years not legal to do so. For years my father was persona non grata because of his Christian faith and his writing. And how powerful to think that here was a businessman, and God reached out to him through these girls singing.”
Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.