Grand Rapids Symphony in May 2005 traveled out of state for the first time in its history as a professional orchestra. When it did, it went straight to the top with an appearance in New York City’s Concert Hall.
Nearly 13 years later, the Grand Rapids Symphony under new Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will return to one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world in April 2018.
“All the important American orchestras and all the great international orchestras perform at Carnegie Hall,” Lehninger said. “Therefore, it’s a very prestigious event for us.”
It very well may be an important event for New York City as well.
That’s because Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who will be soloist with the Grand Rapids Symphony, is one of the legendary pianists of our time. Freire is one of only 72 musicians featured in a 200-CD box set, Great Pianists of the 20th Century, issued by Phillips in 1999.
“In the industry and among musicians, people know of him as one of the most important pianists of the 20th and 21st century,” Lehninger said.
Freire and Lehninger, fellow Brazilians, have collaborated many times, most recently on a tour of Australia last fall. Several years ago, Lehninger led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood with Freire as soloist in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce for piano and orchestra. It was the first time the BSO ever performed that work by Brazil’s most famous composer.
Freire will play that piece plus Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series on April 13-14. The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will join the performance on Debussy’s Nocturnes and Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 10 Rasga o Coração (“It Tears your Heart”).
One week later, the Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus, along with Freire and Lehninger, will perform all of it again on April 20 in Carnegie Hall.
“This event will grow the orchestra's reputation in the musical industry,” Lehninger said.
Like the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Brazilian-born conductor also has performed previously in the 2,800-seat hall that opened in 1891.
Six years ago, in his first season as assistant conductor, Lehninger led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, substituting for an ailing BSO Music Director James Levine. The concert in March 2011 featured violinist Christian Tetzlaff in three works for violin and orchestra, including Mozart’s Rondo in C Major, Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and a newly composed Violin Concerto by British composer Harrison Birtwistle that Tetzlaff, Lehninger and the BSO had just premiered in Boston a few weeks earlier.
“It was a really hard program,” Lehninger recalled with a smile.
New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, however, spoke highly of the performance by Lehninger, who was just 31 years old at the time.
“He was terrific, conducting all three works with impressive technique, musical insight and youthful energy,” Tommasini wrote in the New York Times.
More than 12 years ago, Grand Rapids Symphony’s debut in Carnegie Hall earned the praise of Bernard Holland of the New York Times.
That performance in May 2005 at the end of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 75th anniversary season was two years in the planning and fundraising, costing $350,000 in direct expenses. It resulted in a live CD recording of the performance, which featured violinist Dylana Jenson as soloist in the Karl Goldmark Violin Concerto in A minor and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, which incorporates Copland’s well-known “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
But it was worth the time and effort, according to Music Director Laureate David Lockington, who conducted the performance.
“Carnegie Hall gave us musical and institutional confidence and gave the community pride. It has helped us dream bigger," Lockington told MLive in 2015 on the 10th anniversary of the performance.
Musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony who were there also returned with fond memories.
Cellist Steven VanRavenswaay, who was in his 29th season with the orchestra in 2005, called the experience “truly breathtaking.”
"There is a sound there that you do not find anywhere else,” VanRavenswaay told MLive in 2015. “You hear things as a performer, parts in the orchestra, that you can't in most halls."
Lehninger agrees with all of the above.
“We will be able to explore the orchestra's sound possibilities and sound palette in one of the best acoustics in the United States in addition to the excitement and inspiration that our musicians will experience by playing in the most important musical house in America,” he said. “Carnegie Hall's stage is a sanctuary for any musician.”