Marcelo Lehninger, Grand Rapids Symphony’s new music director, has conducted orchestras throughout the world, from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, not once but twice.
Two appearances over two seasons sealed the deal as well between the Brazilian-born conductor and the Grand Rapids Symphony.
One word comes to mind when Lehninger recalls his first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony – “flexibility.”
“That’s one thing I liked about the orchestra,” he said about his DeVos Performance Hall debut, leading the Grand Rapids Symphony in Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” in February 2015.
“When we did the Dvorak, we took some really nice liberties,” he recalled recently. “It’s not that you need to do it differently, but you need to explore in a way that it’s not going to be business as usual.”
“I remember taking those liberties and having the whole orchestra together and embracing that idea musically being together,” he said. “I thought that was wonderful.”
It’s a necessary part of the journey in picking a new music director.
“They’re paying attention to you because they want to test you,” he said. “That happens a lot during music director searches.”
The Grand Rapids Symphony’s three-and-a-half year search for a new music director ended with the appointment of Lehninger as the orchestra’s 14th music director in its 86-year history.
The Brazilian-born conductor was the unanimous choice of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 14 member Music Director Search Committee, made up of past board members and community members plus two current board members, staff liaisons and five musicians.
The committee reached their decision less than a month after Lehninger's triumphant return to lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome" in April.
“We’ve said that artistic excellence is the number one priority,” said search committee co-chair Mary Tuuk, when the search was launched. “We looked at other considerations such as commitment and engagement in the community.”
The Grand Rapids Symphony’s full Board of Directors unanimously endorsed the recommendation that Lehninger succeed music director laureate David Lockington, who stepped down from his former post in May 2015 after 16 years as music director.
Lehninger, 36, said he’s honored and humbled with the appointment to lead the 80-musician orchestra, which operates a 40-week season, including 10 pairs of concerts in its Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.
“It’s rare to feel the level of chemistry that I felt with the musicians from the start of our first rehearsal two years ago, and I look forward to working with them, the staff, and board, for many years to come,” he said. “My family and I can’t wait to become a part of this beautiful and dynamic community.”
Marcelo Lehninger, who currently lives in Sarasota, Florida, with his wife, Laura, a daughter, Sofia, and another child on the way, just concluded a four-year term as music director of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles, where he was awarded the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award for an Emerging Music Director in 2014 by the League of American Orchestra.
Lehninger spent five year years as assistant and then associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where, in his first season, he stepped in for an ailing James Levine on three days’ notice to conduct the premiere of a new violin concerto.
A couple of weeks later, he led the BSO on tour in a performance of that program in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Moments that can make or break a conductor’s career.
“It was a difficult and a stressful moment,” Lehninger recalled. “But a great opportunity.”
Hired in 2010 by BSO music director James Levine, Lehninger’s duties included preparing to step in for the maestro, just in case.
Lehninger quickly prepared for every program on the 2010-11 season that he was expected to “cover,” except for one concert, which happened to have the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2 that Lehninger conducted with the Grand Rapids Symphony and violinist Arnaud Sussmann in DeVos Performance Hall in April.
But that BSO concert, scheduled for March 2011, also included a new Violin Concerto by British composer Harrison Birtwistle with some tricky instructions. Lehninger decided he needed to talk with Levine about his intentions for the premiere. He asked the maestro for a meeting, but it was 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, 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.”
The BSO’s performance in Carnegie Hall was enough to impress New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini who said of Lehninger, “He was terrific, conducting all three works with impressive technique, musical insight and youthful energy.”
Hired for two seasons, with the possibility of renewing for a third season, Lehninger was asked to stay even longer in Boston with a promotion to associate conductor
“In the transition of getting a new music director, they wanted me to stay there and keep working with the orchestra,” he said. “The total was five years, which was wonderful.”
Two years ago, Lehninger successfully stepped in for Pierre Boulez to conduct the Chicago Symphony in a concert including Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements as well as Ravel’s “Une barque sur L’Ocean” and “Alborada del gracioso” from the larger work, “Miroirs.” He’s since filled in for Neeme Järvi with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.
Months before selecting him, the GRS was confident enough to engage Lehninger to return next season to lead the orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major in February 2017.
Lehninger, who enjoys spending time swimming at the beach and drinking really good microbrews, said he’s enjoyed his time with the orchestra and is looking forward to getting to know West Michigan.
“The high artistic level of the ensemble, the positive and professional environment among musicians and staff, and the wonderful and committed board and community members significantly impressed me,” he said. “I was happy how the concerts went and to perform for a very warm audience.”