The careers of many great conductors were launched when they suddenly were called upon to lead a performance.
Arturo Toscanini, a 19-year-old cellist and assistant chorus master who had never picked up a baton, was plucked unexpectedly from the orchestra to conduct a performance of “Aida.”
Leonard Bernstein was a newly appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943 when the 25-year-old suddenly was thrust into making his New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall debut without a rehearsal in a concert that also was nationally broadcast.
Conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in concerts on Friday and Saturday, April 21-22, got a similar boost during his first season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“It was a difficult and a stressful moment,” Lehninger recalled. “But a great opportunity.”
Lehninger, who first appeared in DeVos Performance Hall in February 2015, returns this season as the eighth and final guest conductor who’s a possible candidate to become the next music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Hired in 2010 as assistant conductor by BSO music director James Levine, Lehninger took up the usual duties that included preparing to step in for the maestro, just in case.
The Brazilian-born conductor quickly prepared for every program on the 2010-11 season that he was expected to “cover,” except for one concert – which happened to include the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2 that Lehninger conducts with violinist Arnaud Sussmann and the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Performance Hall.
That BSO concert, scheduled for March 2011, included a new Violin Concerto by British composer Harrison Birtwistle with some tricky instructions. Lehninger decided he needed some guidance to understand Levine’s intentions for the piece. Lehninger asked for a meeting that Levine cancelled at the last minute.
“Everything’s probably okay,” Lehninger recalled thinking. “I’m going to be there at the first rehearsal with the score and see how he’s doing it, and take notes, and make sure I know how he’s going to do it.”
Three days before the first rehearsal, Lehninger was told Levine wasn’t feeling well.
“I not only had to start rehearsals on Tuesday, but conduct all the rehearsals and all the performances in Boston,” he said. “As well as in Carnegie Hall the week after.”
But the unexpected surprises weren’t over yet. At the first rehearsal, BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe arrived on stage and delivered the unexpected news that Levine was stepping down as music director after seven seasons, effective in September.
“It was such a strange moment in the entire organization,” Lehninger said. “That in a way brought us together.”
Developments that could not have been anticipated continued to happen. Hired for two seasons, with the possibility of renewing for a third season, Lehninger was asked to stay even longer.
“In the transition of getting a new music director, they wanted me to stay there and keep working with the orchestra,” he said.
Given the title of associate conductor, Lehninger would remain with the Boston Symphony Orchestra a little longer.
“The total was five years, which was wonderful,” he said. “It really was great.”