Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony, Symphony Chorus, is primed and ready for its return to Carnegie Hall

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Nearly 13 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony traveled to New York City to make its Carnegie Hall debut, a major milestone in the history of the orchestra.

Next week, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony plus the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus back to the Big Apple to make its debut on the international stage, another epic event in the 88-year history of the orchestra.

Based on Friday’s exhilarating performance, the Grand Rapids Symphony is ready.

The Grand Rapids Symphony previewed its Carnegie Hall concert on Friday, April 13, a program of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel that repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets remain available.

With eminent pianist Nelson Freire, Lehninger led an exciting and colorful performance of Spanish and Brazilian-flavored music, all of it dating from the first half of the 20th century.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger, now in his second season in Grand Rapids, and the Brazilian Freire, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest pianists, are uniquely positioned to perform the repertoire of Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer.

That the Grand Rapids Symphony’s appearance in New York City on April 20 is a milestone for the world of classical music is easily demonstrated. Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração” (It Tears your Heart), which features the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, has been performed only a handful of times in Carnegie Hall. Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce, featuring Freire at the piano, has been heard only once before in the 127-year-old hall. That was by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959.

The 73-year old Freire isn’t as well-known as, say, Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. Yet the two of them have appeared in Carnegie Hall in duo piano recitals, not once but twice together. Freire chose to tour and record less than his famous colleague. Industry insiders, however, clamor to hear Freire when they can.

It doesn’t take long to see why. Other pianists dazzle audiences with how they dominate the piano. Freire, on the other hand, charms audiences with loving caresses and delightful musical repartee. Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain calls for the former. Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce demands the latter.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain is an exquisite piece of music that captures the sights and sounds and the flora and fauna of southern Spain. When you hear it, you practically can smell the flowers.

The full effect of Freire’s poetic artistry was on display. He’s an elegant pianist, and when you have technical mastery, you have no need of bravura tricks. His performance was fervent and animated yet masterfully controlled. Freire can be tricky to follow, yet Lehninger was with him every step of the way.

Momoprecoce was inspired by Villa-Lobos’ memories of childhood during the famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a playful, exuberant piece full of childlike wonder. It was conceived to be a work for solo piano, but the composer decided to orchestrate it into a fantasy for piano and orchestra.

It’s an extraordinary piece of music demanding great virtuosity from the soloist. At times the finger work is startling to watch. That virtuosity, however, isn’t always readily apparent to the audience because the piece treats the pianist as part of the orchestra rather than pitting it against the orchestra.  The percussive piano playing might sound mechanical in the hands of a lesser musician, but Freire’s performance was full vigor and vitality, yet it also ebbed and flowed with musical sonority.

Lehninger led an energetic performance that was impressive without becoming oppressive. Even with the presence of extensive percussion, Lehninger kept the orchestra on an even keel that made a powerful impact without becoming harsh or ugly.

Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 10 is a unique work. A “chôros” isn’t a work for chorus. The word translates as “weeping” or “cry.” The music is a popular form of music of the 1920s similar to a serenade. Villa-Lobos made it so much more than street music.

The propulsive piece is brassy and rhythmic. You can hear breezes and birds of the rainforest. You might also say it’s tribal and earthy. Certainly,  it’s a handful for the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which is called upon to recite and chant as well as sing the text of a poem “Rasga o Coração,” which translates as “tears the heart” or “rends the heart.”

It’s not a long piece, but it’s a taxing piece. Lehninger led a dynamic performance full of aggressive solos from many of the principal players plus the singers of the Symphony Chorus singing their hearts out through a feisty and fiery finale.

The concert opened with Ravel’s Bolero, a piece that the Grand Rapids Symphony performed on its season-opening concert in September. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’s also tougher to play than meets the eye.

Lehninger’s reading was particularly transparent, with a softer, understated accompaniment, giving the many solos room to breathe and bloom. It shows off the orchestra very well. Next week’s audience, even if they’ve heard it before, will be impressed nonetheless.

Thirteen years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s goal was to go to Carnegie Hall, play a great concert, and show itself to be worthy of the hall that’s arguably the most important in North America.

The goal this time is to demonstrate the Grand Rapids Symphony can make a meaningful contribution to classical music’s efforts to broaden its international base and expand its horizons.

You might describe the first Carnegie Hall appearance as a tryout. This time, the Grand Rapids Symphony is really getting into the game.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 3:00 PM
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