As he prepared to conduct the Grand Rapids Symphony in a special performance for an audience of its biggest fans and supporters, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger noted that the dressing room provided him at Cascade Hills Country Club was known as the “Bride’s Room.”
It proved to fit the occasion.
“It feels a little like a wedding,” Lehninger said afterwards with a laugh.
It wasn’t quite a wedding, but it definitely was a reception for more than 120 people to welcome the Grand Rapids Symphony’s new Music Director to town.
“Olá – Marcelo & Music,” held Tuesday, October 11, celebrated the arrival of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s new artistic leader.
“I do consider this relationship, with these wonderful musicians, a marriage,” Lehninger told the audience. “And I really hope it’ll be a long marriage and a very happy one.”
The Brazilian-born conductor led the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by Mozart and Tchaikovsky as well as arrangements of popular Brazilian songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim. But the guest of honor was feted as well.
“I’m really happy to be here, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you personally, getting to know you better,” he said.
Marcelo Lehninger, 37, returns to Grand Rapids for his first public performances on Friday and Saturday, October 28-29, in DeVos Performance Hall.
The winner of the League of American Orchestra’s 2014 Helen M. Thompson Award for an Emerging Music Director returns for three more concerts in January, February and March 2017.
But he’s already on the job, planning for the 2017-18 season and beyond.
“I feel excited to be here, and I can’t wait to start working,” he said.
The former music director of the New West Symphony in Los Angeles as well as former associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the unanimous choice of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music Director Search Committee.
It was a choice some three-and-a-half years in the making. Lehninger first conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony in February 2015 and returned for a second look in April, leading the Grand Rapids Symphony in Ottorino Respighi's "The Pines of Rome."
“A very long and deliberate search committee process culminated in a tremendous milestone in the future of the Symphony,” said Mary Tuuk, co-chair of the Search Committee along with Larry Robson.
Lehninger quickly emerged as a favorite.
Months after his debut in DeVos Performance Hall, Lehninger guest conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for an outreach concert during the summer of 2015. Grand Rapids Symphony’s Search Committee, who traveled to Detroit for the program, was struck by how Lehninger remained after the concert to talk with any member of the audience who wanted to speak to him.
“He was gracious, he was respectful, and he showed his integrity and character in that exchange that played out over and over and over again in everything else we saw about him,” Tuuk recalled.
Kate Pew Wolters, chair of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors, recalled the first time Lehninger visited her home, he immediately walked over to the piano and began to play it.
“If I see a piano, I need to say hello,” Lehninger said with a smile.
“You had me at hello on that,” added Wolters.
In a Q&A led by Wolters, Lehninger said he wasn’t expected to become a musician, but it was a natural development that stemmed from his childhood.
“The whole family were musicians. My father is a violinist, my mom is a pianist, my sister is a violinist – the parrot in the house used to sing music,” he said with a laugh.
Lehninger studied both of his parents’ instruments, though he gave up violin first.
“I don’t have time to practice the instrument,” he said. “It really takes a lot of time and energy and dedication.”
Piano also fell by the wayside eventually.
“I like making music with people, and piano – especially piano – is really lonely because you practice alone and travel alone. Unless you play chamber music, you’re usually alone.”
“That was a big reason I became a conductor. I like people,” he added. “And I love the repertoire.”
Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Lehninger earned his master’s degree in conducting at the Conductor’s Institute at Bard College. In the United States, he’s lived in Washington, D.C. and Boston.
For the past year, he’s lived in Sarasota, Florida, with his wife, Laura Krech, and daughters Sofia, age 5, and Camila, who was born in July.
Lehninger said it's important for him to be a part of the community. His family plans to move to Grand Rapids next summer.
“My favorite place is wherever my wife and daughters are,” he explained. “That’s one reason why I want to move here. When I’m working with the orchestra, I don’t need to be away from them.”
Beginning with his debut performance, leading the orchestra in Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony No. 9 in February 2015, Lehninger was excited by the Grand Rapids Symphony.
“The minute I met the orchestra, it really felt right,” he said. “Sometimes you go to wonderful orchestras, and there’s no chemistry. That happens.”
Pointing toward the Grand Rapids Symphony, which he was about to conduct, Lehninger said he felt something special here from the start.
“My first date with them was great,” he said. “So I’m getting married today.”