From Rio With Love — Grand Rapids Symphony Returns To Carnegie With Music Director Marcelo Lehninger
By Joanne Sydney Lessner, Contributing Writer, April 12, 2018
The Grand Rapids Symphony takes the stage at Carnegie Hall on Friday, April 20 for the second time in the orchestra’s 88-year history. Having celebrated its 75th anniversary there in 2005, the orchestra returns with the 140-member Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in tow, under the baton of recently appointed Brazilian conductor Marcelo Lehninger. The program features Lehninger’s fellow countryman, pianist Nelson Freire, in Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” and “Momoprecoce” by Heitor Villa-Lobos, with Villa-Lobos’s “Chôros No.10, Rasga o Coração” and Ravel’s enduringly popular “Boléro” completing the program.
Founded in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is an integral part of cultural life in its home city, a vibrant community that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to supporting the arts. The orchestra recently completed a three-year, $40 million endowment campaign and signed a five-year contract with the musicians. Lehninger, now in his second season as music director, appreciates being able to build on that kind of stability.
“We’ve hired seven new musicians since I’ve been here. I’ve been able to shape the sound of the orchestra a little by the new hirings,” says Lehninger. “So far I have a wonderful chemistry with the musicians, and that really translates to the concerts. The artistic level is so fantastic—it gives me great musical pleasure. It’s a good place to be as a conductor. They are hungry for new things.”
For Lehninger, born and raised in Rio, bringing Brazilian music and culture into the concert hall is a personal mission. “Being now for fifteen years in the U.S., I think about Brazil with a lot of emotion and a little bit of a homesick feeling. So when I am playing or conducting Brazilian music, it just transports me back to Brazil. When we decided to bring the orchestra to Carnegie Hall, we wanted to bring something that is unique that no other orchestra will be playing during this season. All the pieces on the program have some French influence. It’s a very impressionistic program, in addition to the exciting Brazilian rhythms and all that.”
Sharing the stage at Carnegie with Freire holds special meaning for Lehninger. “Nelson is one of the most well-known and respected pianists in classical music. In Brazil, he’s like a football star. He is also a very close friend. He was my mom’s childhood friend and has known me since I was born. He’s an incredible inspirational figure, a father-like figure in my life, and a person I love dearly. The first time I ever went to Carnegie Hall, Nelson was playing a recital with Martha Argerich and I was in the audience. I’ll never forget it, and now I’ll be on the stage with him.”
Among Lehninger’s priorities is increased outreach to the Hispanic community in Grand Rapids. He gives weekly interviews in Spanish at a local radio station, and last summer, the orchestra gave an outdoor concert featuring the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, considered the best mariachi band in the world. The local Mexican community came out in droves.
“It was packed!” enthuses Lehninger. “They were so happy we were doing something for them, and that sent a very important message that we are here for everyone in the community. It’s your orchestra, and you belong in this place. In the current political situation, it’s a very powerful message.” Lehninger is also proud that their audiences include many young people, who come not only for the Pops concerts or Harry Potter-themed programs, but for mainstream repertoire like the Verdi Requiem.“It’s not happening everywhere in North America, but it is here, and it’s a really wonderful thing.”
Cover: Marcelo Lehninger conducting the Grand Rapids Symphony; courtesy of the Symphony.