Recap: Marcelo Lehninger era opens triumphantly with world premiere, world-class artist, wonderful music

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

The opening of the Marcelo Lehninger era began with a semi-standing ovation.

When the maestro strode out on stage for his first season-opening concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, the audience erupted with enthusiastic applause in DeVos Performance Hall.

The only thing that stopped it from becoming a full standing ovation was the Brazilian-born conductor himself, eager to greet the audience and get on with what he was hired to do – make music.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s first season created by Lehninger opened with a world premiere, a world-famous soloist, and a perennial audience favorite. It also happened to be a program with two major works featuring important saxophone soloists – possibly a first for the Grand Rapids Symphony – though more likely a happy coincidence for fans of the instrument.

On the other hand, the premiere of Jeremy Crosmer’s “Ozark Traveler,” the appearance of violinist Sarah Chang, and the performance or Ravel’s Bolero all was by design to begin the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2017-18 season with a splash. The program in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series repeats at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 16. A pre-concert conversation, “Inside the Music,” begins at 7 p.m.

GR Symphony's Ravel's Bolero plus Sarah Chang

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s 88th season opener was dubbed “Ravel’s ‘Bolero’” for the final piece on the program. But the special guest star of the evening was violinist Sarah Chang.

One of the most important violin soloists of the era, who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 8, Chang can play anywhere, anytime. But she happens to be a personal friend of Lehninger’s, which proved to be a lucky break for West Michigan.

Last time she was with the Grand Rapids Symphony, in November 2005, she performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto. This time, nearly 12 years later, she came with her own commissioned arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” for violin and orchestra.

The fun for the soloist violinist is, she gets to be Tony and Maria, and all the rest of the Sharks and the Jets. The fun for the audience is hearing so many familiar melodies distilled into one 18-minute package, arranged by Hollywood film composer David Newman, especially for Chang.

The Korean-American is a brilliant artist who’s polished and pulled together in more ways than one. Her fingers dance across the strings as she plays, and Chang dances around the stage as well, filling a large amount of space with her small frame, pouring out a tremendous amount of music from within.

Chang’s intensity is clearly evident, though it’s easy to miss due to the ease with which she plays. Much-loved melodies such as “Somewhere” were achingly beautiful in her capable hands. The orchestra contributed enthusiasm with the fiery “Mambo” and spirited “Tonight.” The furious coda was a satisfying meeting of minds between soloist, conductor and orchestra.

Seeing and hearing Chang play is a rare treat that, perhaps, won’t be as rare in the future.

The season-opening concert, which celebrated American music on the first half, opened with the traditional playing of the National Anthem followed by even more Americana.

The pantheon of great American composers of concert music includes Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Our own Jeremy Crosmer throws his hat into the ring as one of their successors, cleverly, by paying homage to all three.

A native of Arkansas, Crosmer composed “Ozark Traveler: A Celebration of Americana,” a cinematic soundscape that evokes the Ozark Mountain range near his childhood home. It’s Crosmer’s third piece for the full Grand Rapids Symphony and his fourth composition for the organization.

Crosmer’s love of the Ozark’s is evident in the picturesque way he portrays the landscape as real place, with raindrops falling on the flora and fauna and sounds echoing off the distant hillsides. Often you can close your eyes and feel assured that you’re seeing what he’s seeing.

His admiration for his colleagues in the Grand Rapids Symphony is evident as well. Most every principal player and every section gets a chance to shine in just 10 minutes of music. The audience offered its admiration in turn with a standing ovation.

The second half of the night was all about orchestral color. In fact, if you removed color and a crescendo from Ravel’s Bolero, there’s almost nothing left.

With principal percussionist Bill Vits supplying the all-important pulse on snare, Lehninger skillfully led a performance of minimal intervention but with just enough nuance to keep the well-known piece fresh. Meanwhile, nearly all of the principal players in the orchestra, one by one, happily announced their return from summer vacation by rolling up their sleeves and returning to work with enthusiasm and determination.

Last season, for his debut as music director, Lehninger conducted Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. For his first season-opening concert, Lehninger returned to Rachmaninoff’s opus and the Russian-born composer’s final work.

Though Rachmaninoff was something of a throwback to the 19th century, he was as a masterful orchestrator. Lehninger became the lion tamer, wielding his baton to draw a robust sound from the full orchestra, to coax a delicate interplay of melodies out of five woodwind voices – the usual four plus saxophone

Notable solos included Concertmaster and violinist James Crawford in the second movement. The passion and pose of the finale, somber and sentimental, yet uplifting as well, offered the promise of good things yet to come with Lehninger on the podium.

Rachmaninoff’ Symphonic Dances, with a few quotes from his earlier output, including his disastrous Symphony No. 1, in some respects sums up his life’s work. When he completed the piece, he wrote at the end, “I thank Thee, Lord.”

No doubt, many in the audience were feeling the same with the dawn of the Lehninger era with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 9:00 AM
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