The Grand Rapids Symphony is bound for the Big Apple next week.
It’s not quite April in Paris, but April in New York City is the next best thing. That’s because New York City is one of the world’s most important centers for classical music, and Carnegie Hall is its mecca.
But this week, you can hear the Grand Rapids Symphony perform its Carnegie Hall concert here in DeVos Performance Hall along with eminent Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire.
Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday in music including Ravel’s Bolero. Next week, the orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall for its second appearance, along with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which will make its debut in the 2,800-seat auditorium.
“It’s very important for the orchestra and the prestige of the Grand Rapids Symphony to go there with such an important soloist,” Lehninger said. “It’s a good moment to go back to Carnegie because it’s time to show the industry this orchestra and what it can do.”
Carnegie Hall is where the world’s best artists and top orchestras go to perform. Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini both conducted there. Violinist Jascha Heifetz, just 16 years old, made his American debut on its stage. Pianist Van Cliburn triumphantly performed there after winning the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.
Freire, who has performed in the 127- year-old hall four times previously, will join the Lehninger and the orchestra to perform music by their country’s most famous composer, Heitor-Villa Lobos.
“If we want to raise the profile of the orchestra in the industry, we have to go to New York,” said Lehninger, who previously conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra there in 2011. “I think we’re ready for the next step.”
But you can hear the entire program of Brazilian and Spanish-flavored music first in Grand Rapids at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students, for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Carnegie Hall Preview – Bolero Encore.
The programs in both Grand Rapids and New York City will end with Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears Your Heart) featuring the 140-voice Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus directed by Pearl Shangkuan.
“Chôros” is a style of Brazilian music similar to a serenade.
“It was street music, very popular in the 1920s and 30s,” Lehninger said. “Villa-Lobos took it to its next step.”
Nelson Freire, who has appeared in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, is a childhood friend and, later, a musical colleague of Lehninger’s mother, Sônia Goulart, a noted pianist and teacher in her own right.
In 2016, Freire and Lehninger toured Australia, giving concerts with all of Australia’s most important orchestras, including in Sydney and Melbourne.
“I grew up listening to him playing,” Lehninger said. “We have almost a father-son relationship. He became a wonderful friend and mentor and someone I love deeply.”
Twice, Freire has shared the stage in Carnegie Hall with Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich in duo piano performances. But the Brazilian pianist is less of a household name than Argerich, arguably the most famous Latin-American concert pianist of all time.
“He’s kind of a kept secret. Everyone in the industry knows and respects him, but he never reached the celebrity status because he never wanted to,” Lehninger said. “But he’s played with the most important orchestras and in the most important cities all over the world.”
In fact, Freire recently was engaged to appear at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo on April 28 as a replacement for the previously scheduled pianist Murray Perahia.
Until recently, Freire was less inclined to make recordings, which is how many artists become well known. Nonetheless, he’s one of just 72 pianists featured on the 200-CD box set, Great Pianists of the 20th Century, issued by Phillips in 1999.
“He’s that phenomenal,” Lehninger said.
Freire will be soloist on two pieces, Spanish composer Falla’s Noches en los Jardines de España and in Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce.
Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a piece for piano and orchestra that Lehninger describes as a “poem with piano.”
“It’s not for the kind of soloist you’d expect when you play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff,” he said. “The piano is another instrument in the orchestra.”
Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce is a series of vignettes of children on parade, wearing costumes, and playing instruments, led by the Children’s Carnival King, called “Momo.”
“Villa-Lobos loved children,” Lehninger said. “He never had children, but he composed many pieces for, or inspired by, children.”
Several years ago, Lehninger led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in a performance of Momoprecoce with Freire at the piano. It was the first time the BSO had ever performed the work that captures a child’s impressions of Brazil’s famous Carnival.
“It’s a unique program, which we chose as a good possibility to take to Carnegie Hall,” Lehninger said.