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Review: Grand Rapids Symphony Returns To Carnegie In Fine Form Under the Baton of Marcelo Lehninger

Grand Rapids Symphony

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 23, 2018

The Grand Rapids Symphony, one of Michigan’s more prominent performing arts organizations, has spent the last several years increasing its visibility around the country. They made their Carnegie Hall debut in 2005, and unlike many more famous orchestras, have been recording albums of new music in recent years. An award winning, emerging conductor originally from Brazil, now in his second year as Grand Rapids’ music director, Marcelo Lehninger led a well-shaped program centered on the musical influence stemming from the Iberian Peninsula in the early twentieth century — a French work evoking Spanish music, a Spanish work, and two Brazilian works.

Lehninger opened the evening with Maurice Ravel’s popular Bolero. He began it surreptitiously, the incessant bolero rhythm sneaking in so softly as to be imperceptible, as if approaching from a distance. The maestro employs extreme economy of gesture, carefully plotting the long, gradual crescendo that is Ravel’s orchestral showpiece. Lehninger knows how to stay out of the way of the ensemble’s rhythmic drive, careful that the volume doesn’t become prematurely loud. The procession of solo (and group) turns at the melody rode comfortably atop the pulsing, infectious accompaniment as Ravel’s scoring becomes thicker and more insistent.

I wished, however, that the piece had grown to a more clangorous climax. Bolero provides an opportunity for many of the orchestra’s players to display their individual wares, and all of the solo statements of the indelible melody were distinguished, especially Joseph Lulloff’s lyrical tenor saxophone.

Pianist Nelson Freire with the Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall

Pianist Nelson Freire with the Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall; photo: Terry Johnston.

Brazilian concert pianist Nelson Freire is considered by many one of the greatest pianists around, but is perhaps not as well-known in the United States as he should be. This evening’s appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony (his first at Carnegie Hall in ten years) made me curious to check out his many fine recordings. Hailing from Rio de Janeiro, he displays a special affinity for the first piece he played on tonight’s program, the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Momoprecoce, a “fantasy for piano and orchestra” depicting Rio’s famous Carnival through the eyes of children. One can hear in Villa-Lobos’s compositional voice his study of African and indigenous-American musical influences, as well as an urbane jazziness. Villa-Lobos’s music reminds me of Gershwin, and the form of this piece strikes me as similar to An American in Paris — an episodic tone poem depicting an experience.

Dating from Villa-Lobos’s stay in Paris in the 1920’s, Momoprecoce is an elaboration of an earlier suite of solo piano pieces called Carnaval das crianças brasileiras, eight movements depicting the activities of children amidst Rio’s Carnival, with titles like “The harmonica of a precocious costumed child,” and “Tumult of the children’s procession.” Villa-Lobos’s light-hearted orchestral fantasy (those titles now jettisoned) delightfully careers from the rollicking to the wistful, anchored by a bouncy piano part tossed off with deceptive insouciance by Mr. Freire, alternating with colorful — if, in lesser hands, perilously busy — orchestral interludes led judiciously by the cool Lehninger.

The mood shifted after intermission, as Freire returned for a perfectly contrasting concerto-like piece by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. Nights in the Gardens of Spain, like Momoprecoce, results from an initial impulse to write for solo piano, in this case, nocturnes. Falla’s resulting “symphonic impressions” are, like that of Villa-Lobos, music that owes something to Debussy and Ravel. (And/or they owe something to Falla.)

Freire brings a nostalgic romanticism to the colorful, yet understated, piano part. In the second movement, “A Distant Dance,” Falla has the pianist playing guitar-like figurations and various effects that Freire dispatches with brilliant ease. At one with the piano, his musical purity transcends technical business; his hands, like the great Romantics, rarely articulate melody and accompaniment together. The Grand Rapids plays dense orchestration with skillful technique, but while the brass and woodwind sections boast some character and cohesion, the string section — the violins especially — lack a visceral personality.

Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus in concert at Carnegie Hall

Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus in concert at Carnegie Hall; photo: Terry Johnston.

For the program’s conclusion, we returned to Brazil, and Villa-Lobos, and welcomed the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus for the Chôros No. 10 “Rasga o coração” from 1926. Two distinct parts: a rhapsodic, instrumental introduction based on the birdsong of the blue-black grosbeak, followed by a rather bombastic Carl Orff-meets-Hans Zimmer setting of a poem by Catulo da Paixão Cearense, based on a popular melody called “Yará,” written by Anacleto de Medeiros. The chorus, under the direction of Pearl Shangkuan, sang with great spirit and panache, their brief appearance further justified in the encore, a sweeping account of Gabriel Fauré’s grand, melancholy Pavane in F-Sharp Minor for orchestra and chorus. Carnegie Hall was filled ably by Grand Rapids’s forces and the audience stood and cheered them supportively.


Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in concert at Carnegie Hall on April 20, 2018. Marcelo Lehninger, conductor; Nelson Freire, piano.

RAVEL Boléro

VILLA-LOBOS Momoprecoce

FALLA Noches en los jardines de España

VILLA-LOBOS Chôros No. 10


FAURE Pavane in F-Sharp Minor for orchestra and chorus

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Cover: Marcelo Lehninger conducting the Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall; photo: Terry Johnston.


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