Inside Track: New music director takes baton
Marcelo Lehninger’s love for conducting leads him to Grand Rapids Symphony
Marcelo Lehninger will take the podium as the new music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony for the first time Oct. 28 and 29.
He will conduct Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.
Lehninger replaces David Lockington, who stepped down at the end of the 2014-15 season after serving as GRS music director for 16 years to become the music director laureate for GRS.
Lehninger will conduct four GRS performances this year and already is preparing for the 2017-18 season.
“A lot of my job (this year) will be learning about the community and the audience and exploring what the audience likes,” he said.
But Lehninger has plenty of ideas he intends to bring to GRS during his tenure.
“One thing I will be bringing is South American and Brazilian music,” he said.
Lehninger was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His parents were professional musicians, and he and his sister quickly picked up their own instruments.
“My mom is a pianist, and my father is a violinist and a conductor,” Lehninger said. “My sister is a violinist. Even our parrot used to sing music. Our whole house was 24/7 music.
“We never really chose to be musicians, it was a natural path. If I’d chosen to be a lawyer, that would have been very exotic in my family.”
Lehninger studied both the piano and violin, but he said he was most attracted to conducting.
“My father used to play as concertmaster, which is the first violinist, of the San Paulo Symphony,” Lehninger said. “I went every weekend to San Paulo to watch rehearsals and concerts and joined my parents on tours. I became fascinated with the sound of the orchestra.
“I was also fascinated with the music director of the San Paulo Symphony. I wanted to do that.”
Lehninger said what attracted him to conducting was the environment.
“I really enjoy making music with a lot of people,” he said. “When you study an instrument, it’s very lonely. You practice alone, you travel alone and play recitals alone. With conducting, every day, you are with 80 people making music together. That is why I wanted to conduct.”
So, at 12 years old, Lehninger approached the conductor of the San Paulo Symphony, whom Lehninger said was “the most important conductor in Brazil,” and asked if he could begin studying under him. He was told to keep studying instruments and to come back when he was older.
Undeterred, Lehninger persisted to begin studying conducting until, at 14, the San Paulo music director pointed him in the direction of a student of his, and Lehninger began to study.
“It was a very young age to start conducting, especially today,” Lehninger said. “In the past, conductors were younger, but today, there is a path you go through to study conducting.”
By his early 20s, Lehninger was conducting professional orchestras.
He continued to study conducting as he worked. Lehninger received a master’s degree from the Conductors Institute at New York’s Bard College and moved to the United States.
He said he met his wife, who is American, while she was living in Brazil. The couple married, and Lehninger moved to Washington D.C.
During his time in D.C., Lehninger enrolled in the National Conducting Institute, which is affiliated with Kennedy Center and the National City Orchestra. Lehninger said it was “a training program for young conductors to become the music director of an American orchestra.”
The program taught him the administrative side of running an orchestra, including fundraising, programming and marketing.
He also had the opportunity to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra while he was in D.C., and he was hired as the music advisor for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, in Arlington, Virginia.
In 2010, he was offered a job in Brazil and a job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Lehninger said he already accepted the position in Brazil and was in the process of moving back when he got a call from his agent telling him the BSO wanted him to audition for the assistant conductor position.
“Everything was already on the way to Brazil, it was already crossing the ocean,” he said.
Lehninger auditioned and was offered the position with the BSO. He was able to spend one season in Brazil before starting his job with BSO.
Lehninger spent five years with BSO. After three years serving under music director James Levine, he was promoted to associate conductor. He said it is a rare experience for a conductor to remain with a symphony of BSO’s size for as long as he did.
Lehninger said he considers his time with BSO to be his career break.
“It was a very prestigious thing for me, and it was an important moment in my career,” he said. “It opened a lot of doors in the music industry.”
Lehninger also learned how to work in high-pressure situations due to Levine’s health issues.
“Given his fragile health, I ended up conducting unexpected concerts on short notice,” he said. “One time, it was the very hard program, which included a new premier work of a violin concerto.
“I received the call that I would be conducting all the rehearsals and concerts in Boston, as well as the Carnegie Hall tour concert only a few days before rehearsals started. It was very stressful because of the short notice, and it was a huge responsibility, but it was also an incredible opportunity.”
Lehninger said BSO provided him with many opportunities he would not have received elsewhere and prepared him for his next role as music director of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles. He held that role for four years before receiving an offer for the job in Grand Rapids.
Lehninger accepted the position with GRS after two visits to the city.
His first visit was February 2015, when he conducted the GRS in Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”
He was asked to return for a performance earlier this year to lead the symphony in Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.”
Shortly after that spring performance, he was offered the position of music director.
Lehninger said he is excited to join the GRS, because unlike other symphonies across the country, it continues to have a strong audience and financial support.
“There are so many orchestras that are going through troubled times, artistically and financially,” he said. “GRS is in a great moment, the successful endowment campaign, and it just signed a new five-year contract with its musicians. Overall, it’s a very positive and a great moment for the orchestra.”
That doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing, however. Lehninger said there is a lot of work to be done to ensure the orchestra’s health over the long term, especially in the area of audience development.
“A very important part of what we are doing right now is working on the artistic vision for the orchestra in the long term,” he said. “We are exploring many projects in the community and in the international music scene, such as recording and touring.
“Myself being young, I do have a mission to connect to a younger audience. I’m going to be spending a lot of time and energy trying to create programs that are more appealing and attractive to a younger crowd. Not only musically, but with the concert experience.
“What can we do that you will be interested in leaving your home on a Friday or Saturday night to come to a concert and enjoy good music and to also have a social portion of your night out? I am exploring those ideas right now, and it’s definitely something I feel passionate about.”