Brazilian conductor Marcelo Lehninger named Grand Rapids Symphony’s new Music Director

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI, June 2, 2016 – The Grand Rapids Symphony has named conductor Marcelo Lehninger as its next music director.

The Brazilian-born conductor, who has led the Grand Rapids Symphony twice in the past two seasons, becomes the 14th music director in the 86-year history of the orchestra.

Lehninger was the unanimous choice of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music Director Search Committee following his electrifying performance of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony No. 9 in February 2015 and an explosive performance of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” this past April.

“In each case, it was an expression of magic and passion that reached new heights,” said Mary Tuuk, co-chair of the 14-member Search Committee, of Lehninger’s appearances in DeVos Performance Hall.

“Afterward, he talked about how, in his mind, every single experience on stage had to be special and passionate for everyone, as if they had never experienced it before,” she added.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s board of directors, which two weeks ago adopted a 5-year Strategic Plan to guide the organization into the future, voted unanimously this morning to offer Lehninger a 5-year contract as music director. The appointment through the 2020-21 season is effective July 1.

“The whole board looks forward to working with Marcelo in the next five years,” said Kate Pew Wolters, chairperson of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors. “In particular, I'm eager to see his influence on the direction the GRS takes in the implementation of our strategic plan recently completed.”

As music director, Lehninger will be in charge of all artistic matters for the Grand Rapids Symphony, which operates its 40-week season on a budget of $9 million.

Planning concerts, choosing repertoire, selecting guest artists, and auditioning musicians to fill vacancies within the orchestra are among the duties expected of its artistic leader. Today's music director also is expected to play a role in audience development, outreach, fundraising, and collaboration beyond the concert hall.

Serving the community is an important part of its mission, according Helen DeVos, honorary chair of the Music Director Search Committee.

“Rich and I have supported the Grand Rapids Symphony for many years, and know that the quality of its performances and its commitment to youth play a vital role in the growth of our city and the professional enrichment of our community,” Helen DeVos said.

Beginning with the 2017-18 season, the 36-year-old conductor will lead a majority of concerts on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series and will make podium appearances on other symphony series as well.

Lehninger, who just completed a four-year tenure as music director of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles, said he’s excited to begin work with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“This city is very lucky to have such a fantastic orchestra, led by a dynamic staff and dedicated board,” he said. “My family and I can’t wait to become a part of this beautiful community.”

Marcelo Lehninger – pronounced “Mar-SEL-o, LEN-in-ger” (with a hard “g) – was one of only two guest conductors invited back to Grand Rapids for a second, regularly scheduled appearance over the course of the three-year search launched in September 2012. Two others were asked back for special, encore performances this past season.

GRS horn player Paul Austin, one of five musicians on the Music Director Search Committee, said his fellow musicians “are very pleased” with the selection of Lehninger as the Grand Rapids Symphony’s music director.

“While there were many fine candidates who brought excitement to the podium during their time with us, Mr. Lehninger quickly created a special bond with the musicians, which resulted in unforgettable concerts,” Austin said. “We look forward to more opportunities to build upon that bond beginning next season.”

In fact, the Grand Rapids Symphony and its audiences were so pleased with Lehninger’s debut in DeVos Performance Hall, he was engaged months ago, even before his second appearance, to return next season to lead the orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major on Feb. 3-4, 2017.

Though the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2016-17 season was planned by departing music advisor Larry Rachleff and announced in March, Lehninger may make additional appearances here next season.

After his first performance with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Lehninger said he was eager to return.

“I found a friendly environment among the musicians, a high level of music playing and, most importantly, passion in their playing,” he said. “The orchestra was very responsive to my gestures and musical ideas, and I felt chemistry and camaraderie on stage.”

Members of the Search Committee were struck by Lehninger’s desire to find the right artistic fit for himself as well as the right environment for his growing family, which plans to relocate to Grand Rapids.

“He carries himself with a wonderful sense of honor and graciousness,” said Larry Robson, co-chair of the Search Committee. “From day one, I was struck by Marcelo’s absolute sense of honor and dignity and grace and commitment to his family.”

A native of Brazil, whose parents, violinist Erich Lehninger and pianist Sonia Goulart, are prominent, professional musicians, Marcelo Lehninger grew up in a home filled with music.

A graduate of the Conductors Institute at Bard College in New York and an alumnus of the National Conducting Institute, Lehninger served as Kurt Masur’s assistant with the Orchestre National de France during a residency in Vienna and was selected as assistant and cover conductor for Mariss Jansons during the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s 2014 tour of Europe.

Lehninger has guest conducted throughout the world, leading the orchestras of Chicago, Houston and Seattle plus the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. in the United States as well as orchestras in Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland.

In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award for an Emerging Music Director by the League of American Orchestras.

Hired as assistant conductor by former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine, Lehninger held the post for three seasons and then was named associate conductor of the BSO for two more, an unusually long tenure with a major orchestra.

“I learned a lot about the many aspects of making an orchestra run from fundraising and marketing to education and community engagement,” he said. “The principles are the same regardless of the orchestra, and I hope to bring that knowledge with me wherever I conduct.”

Married with one daughter and another child on the way, Lehninger is a proponent of music by South American composers. In April he conducted Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” one of the best-known works by the Brazilian composer and one that Lehninger conducted in Boston for the BSO’s first-ever performance of the work.

“Villa-Lobos is one of the most important Brazilian composers, but orchestras in the U.S. do not perform his works often,” said Lehninger, who is a dual citizen of Brazil and Germany. “I feel that as a Brazilian, it is one of my missions to resuscitate some of his music and show to the world the great musician and composer he was.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s search for its 14th music director began with the announcement in September 2012 of former music director David Lockington’s intention to step down from his post in May 2015.

Beginning with the 2013-14 season, the Grand Rapids Symphony welcomed 14 guest conductors over the next three seasons to DeVos Hall to lead the orchestra, all of whom were potential candidates to become the next leader of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“We are delighted that our search process has led us to Marcelo Lehninger," said Peter Kjome, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony. “Marcelo is an exceptional and dynamic artist who will build on a long tradition of excellence as the Symphony and our superb musicians serve our community through the orchestra’s concerts and educational programs. I am deeply grateful for the outstanding work of our Search Committee.”

Lehninger succeeds Lockington, who was named music director laureate – the first in the history of the Grand Rapids Symphony – when he concluded his tenure as music director after 16 seasons.

Lehninger, who currently lives in Sarasota, Florida, with his family, said he’s looking forward to getting to know West Michigan.

“I loved visiting Grand Rapids and experiencing this lively community,” he said.


About the Grand Rapids Symphony

Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series are presented, featuring a wide range of music and performance styles. More than 400 performances are given each year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses. GRS sponsors the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival and provides the orchestra for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet.

To learn more about the Grand Rapids Symphony, please visit the Grand Rapids Symphony’s website or follow us on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Facebook page.

This activity is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.