Recap: Guest conductor leads Grand Rapids Symphony in climatic experience with "Pines of Rome"

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

Utter the words, “20th century music,” and watch as faces of many unabashed lovers of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms turn to stone.

Though classical music took some unusual turns into unknown waters in the last century, that wasn’t the case in all situations. So all we are saying is give 20th century music a chance.

That’s what the Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience did on Friday night.

DeVos Performance Hall erupted several times into enthusiastic cheers for music written within the lifetimes of at least some in the audience.

Music by Bela Bartok, the fervent Hungarian folklorist, and by Ottorino Respighi, the unapologetic Italian colorist, graced the ninth concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series that repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23.

It wasn’t the final concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2015-16 season. But under the baton of Marcelo Lehninger, the climactic, shattering experience of Respighi’s epic tone poem, “The Pines of Rome,” felt as if it could have been.

Rather, it’s the eighth and final appearance by a guest conductor vying to become the next music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Lehninger, who made his explosive debut here in February 2015, is one of three guests who were invited back for a second appearance in DeVos Hall. He’s also one of two – the other is conductor Rune Bergmann – already booked to return next season. Draw your own conclusions.

The former associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is a gifted conductor. Lehninger commands the podium, he draws out minor details as well as he shapes the major themes, and he gives every appearance of knowing precisely what everyone in the ensemble is doing at any given moment.

Equally important, the Grand Rapids Symphony responds well to him. The ebb and flow, the give and take, feels both fresh and spontaneous as well as firmly in hand.

Arnaud Sussmann, among the finest violinists to appear with the Grand Rapids Symphony in recent years, was mesmerizing as soloist in Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in the concert sponsored by Warner Norcross & Judd.

The folk music-flavored work points the way toward Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra yet to come. It’s very hard to play, and not only for the soloist.

A 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant winner, Sussmann mastered Bartok’s cerebral, musical musings, balancing them with aggressive blasts of passion, playing with a vigorous, earthy sound in the outer movements, and with beautiful, dulcet tones in between.

The intensity and focus of his first-movement cadenza was captivating. That it made you feel as if you needed a nap afterward was a good thing.

Lehninger, who conducted the work in 2011 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, substituting late in the game for an ailing James Levine, led a clearly defined performance with cleanly etched accompaniment. A work that could be mystifying in lesser hands held together very neatly in Friday’s performance.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is one of the Brazilian composer’s best-known works, never mind that it’s scored for the unusual combination of soprano voice and eight cellos.

Joining the Grand Rapids Symphony was soprano Jessica Rivera, a singer with a powerful voice, which was especially delicious in the work’s softest passage.

Its Latino flavor is inescapable. The reverence for Bach’s counterpoint is ample. I can’t help but think that if Bach had been able to enjoy a Brazilian holiday with warm weather, good food and bit of the local rum, he might have produced a very similar work.

The Brazilian-born conductor has an affinity, as well as insight, into the music of his homeland.

The most unusual piece on the program was a contemporary orchestration of two of Claude Debussy’s 24 Preludes for Piano, “Les collinas d’Anacapri” and “La puerta del vino,” by British composer Colin Matthews.

Purists will scoff, and they’re entitled. Debussy could have orchestrated them himself but didn’t. The orchestral palate isn’t especially Debussian, but it’s the work of an admirer.

What it brought to the table was the opportunity for Lehninger to introduce the Grand Rapids Symphony to a work it’s doubtful any of them have performed before.

The work that needed no introduction was Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome,” a big, full-bodied, brass heavy work that’s a crowd pleaser, not to mention the most prominent work in the orchestra literature featuring lead, electric nightingale, heard in the third of its four sections.

Respighi is all about color, and Lehninger led a performance in Technicolor worthy of Charlton Heston riding a chariot into a Roman Coliseum. Offstage brass, especially a sterling solo by trumpeter Charley Lea, provided the surround sound experience.

Perhaps the chariot will return bearing a new music director. Stay tuned and find out.

The Classical Series concert repeats at 8 p.m. tonight. “Upbeat,” a pre-concert conversation, is at 7 p.m. Tickets begin at $18 adults, $5 students.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM
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