Recap: Marcelo Lehninger leads Grand Rapids Symphony in magnificent performance of 'Ein Heldenleben'

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

In symphony orchestra concerts, it’s usually the soloists and conductors who get the lion’s share of the glory.

The virtuoso soloists are the aerialists, working without a net, flying high above the ground. The conductors are the ringmasters running the show and guiding the audience through the performance.

But this week, with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, all the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony were putting their heads into the mouth of the lion.

A Hero’s Life is everything and then some.

The stage was packed with musical heroes. A total of 102 instrumentalists, the biggest orchestra of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2017-18 season, filled the stage from end to end.

The Grand Rapids Symphony played magnificently under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, conducting a work by Strauss for the first time in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday, March 23. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24.

Ein Heldenleben was the sixth and final tone poem Strauss composed over 10 years in the 1880s and 1890s. A Hero’s Life was his final word on the subject of producing a lengthy, one-movement instrumental work that tells a story in music. He threw everything including the kitchen sink into it.

By everything, Strauss composed a semi-autobiographical piece about a hero who overcomes adversity and triumphs over his enemies. If it isn’t clear that Strauss was telling his own story, he quotes from nine of his previous compositions.

A performance is a big undertaking with eight horns, five trumpets, four oboes and a pair of tubas to perform. A total of 60 stringed instruments were on stage.

It’s also a big deal to perform. Ein Heldenleben is an enormously complex work with intricate and intriguing solos from nearly every principal player. Violins, at one point, have to turn their low G string down to G flat. Orchestral musicians spend lifetime learning and relearning excerpts to take auditions.

It takes a big, talented band of musicians just to get through it, let alone play it well. Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony in one of his finest performances to date since his appointment as music director less than two years ago.

The opening section, “The Hero,” with all its swashbuckling glory, sent chills up your spine with Lehninger wielding his baton as Grail Knight might wield a lance, yet sculpting in sound a three-dimensional portrait of the hero.

The woodwinds were nimble but determined, cackling fiercely, as “The Hero’s Adversaries.”

A middle section is a portrayal of Strauss’ wife who sang professionally as a soprano. She was a complex woman, and though they had a successful marriage, it was a complicated relationship. Strauss, the master orchestrator, depicts Pauline in all her glory in the movement titled “The Hero’s Companion.”

Crawford, the master violinist, gave a captivating performance as the flirtatious, occasionally perverse, lady. It’s a solo that could keep a violinist from a good night’s sleep, but Crawford played it as if it were as easy as pie.

Off-stage trumpets played a brilliant fanfare to usher in the section titled “The Hero at Battle,” capped off by the thrilling horn theme from Don Juan.

Strauss in all his glory comes to the fore in the fifth section, “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” full of bits and pieces from his earlier tone poems and other works. It’s music that, when originally composed, wasn’t intended to go together, so good conducting matters. Lehninger skillfully wove the disparate threads into a remarkable coat of many colors.

The finale, “The Hero’s Retirement,” came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, wonderful rage giving way to sensuous sounds, brought home by a nostalgic duet between Crawford on violin and Richard Britsch on horn. The two instruments, in their natural setting, hardly balance, but Crawford and Britsch made it seem effortless.

Friday’s audience gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation that went on for several minutes.

Principal flutist Christopher Kantner was the other hero of the night as soloist in Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G Major. It’s the barnburner of all flute concertos. Every flute player who intends to have a professional career learns it.

It’s beautiful music, well composed, never mind that Mozart was in his early 20s when he wrote it. Kantner, meanwhile, was in his 20s when he joined the Grand Rapids Symphony as principal flutist in 1976.

A couple generations of concert goers in West Michigan have heard his solo work, but we’ll never get enough. Kantner’s flourishes were relaxed; his cadenzas were melt-in-your-mouth delights. A remarkable performance both angelic and masculine at the same time.

The concert opened with more Mozart, only this was music by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, a 20th century Brazilian composer who really was named “Mozart,” though he went by M. Camargo Guarnieri in life.

Guarnieri’s Abertura Festiva or Festive Overture might have been music that Bela Bartok would have composed had he moved to Brazil and spent his adult years there. It keeps its Latin American flavor but it’s well crafted.

It was an exhilarating opener. Lehninger’s performance was clean and propulsive, and the audience delighted in it.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 2:00 PM
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