Violinist Sarah Chang made her debut with the New York Philharmonic when she was nine. Since that time, she’s performed and recorded with every major orchestra.
So yeah, Chang is kind of a big deal and the fact that she is performing in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s opening concert of the 2017-2018 season is a testament to the vision of Marcelo Lehninger.
Lehninger joined the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) last year as music director and this season is the first under his direction. Lehninger said he’s been tasked with a handful of big goals, among them, raising the Grand Rapids Symphony’s visibility.
To do that, Lehninger has lined up some of the top soloists of the day, including Chang, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, and Venezuelan pianist Gabriella Montero, and planned a Carnegie Hall performance for the GRS and GRS choir in April.
For the opening performances on Sept. 15 and 16, Lehninger will conduct Ravel’s “Bolero” and Chang will perform “Suite from West Side Story” for violin and orchestra, an arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s well-known musical, created especially for her by Hollywood film arranger and composer David Newman.
Jeremy Crosmer’s “Ozark Traveler” will also premiere that evening. Assistant principal cellist of the Grand Rapids Symphony for the past five years, as well as an occasional country fiddler, Crosmer recently joined the cello section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
“To have Sarah playing in the first concert of the season, it’s really a statement,” Lehninger said. “She is one of the most important violinists today. She’s an incredible violinist. What you can expect from her is to be inspired and entertained.”
Lehninger said the selection of “Suite from West Side Story” was made very carefully. He said he not only wanted Chang to perform with the GRS, but he wanted a piece that was unique to her.
He decided to tie in Chang’s performance with a tribute of sorts to Leonard Bernstein, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.
“I knew Hollywood composer David Newman did an arrangement of West Side story by Bernstein for violin and orchestra and he did it for Sarah. I thought it would be great to celebrate his anniversary and bring a piece that was arranged for her. It makes it unique and exciting.”
Lehninger is also excited about GRS’s April 13 & 14 performance, “Nights in the Garden of Spain,” featuring Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire.
Lehninger explained not only does he get to work with Freire, a long time family friend, the pair will also head to Carnegie Hall one week later for a concert on April 20.
“The pianist who is coming is a friend of mine. He is actually a friend of my family and I’ve known him since I was born. He’s another superstar soloist in the musical world and a really fantastic artist.
“Every time we play together we have the intimacy. The fact we are friends for so long, that reflects on stage.”
Lehninger explained how the Carnegie Hall performance with Freire came about.
“One thing they wanted when they hired me was to work on orchestra visibility in the music industry,” Lehninger said. “They wanted me to come up with a big project, it could be a recording or a tour, to tell the industry outside of Grand Rapids about GRS.
“After thinking about the many possibilities, we decided to go back to Carnegie Hall. The last time the orchestra went was 14 years ago.”
Lehninger noted almost everything has changed since that time in terms of the members of the orchestra, its conductor and other individuals working with the symphony.
Lehninger said the performance with Freire was a natural fit for Carnegie Hall.
“I wanted to come up with a program that would be unique to GRS, to me and with a very important soloist,” he said about what he was looking for in selecting the performance. He also had the very challenging goal of performing at Carnegie Hall just one week after the Grand Rapids concert.
“Everyone thought it would be a miracle to pull it off,” he said. “And guess what, the miracle happened. We got the Friday night in New York the week after we perform here.”
Lehninger is also particularly excited for November’s performance of “Verdi Requiem.” He said it is a piece he feels very comfortable conducting, and since it will be his first time working with the GRS choir, he wanted a piece he felt comfortable with as well as passionate about.
Being new to GRS, Lehninger said it was important to him this season to build a trust with the audience and musicians; therefore, he selected an array of pieces he thinks the audience will connect with. “I think it’s a nice combination to develop a good relationship and trust with the audience and good musical relationship with the orchestra.”
Lehninger said what he is most proud of about the 2017-2018 season is to bring world-class performers to Grand Rapids and present them to the community.
“We have the opportunity to listen to world-class soloists that play with the major orchestras in the world coming here and performing with us. I’m really happy we are able to attract soloists on that caliber to play with us.”
Lehninger noted he worked closely with Roger Nelson, former GRS VP and chief operations officer, who passed away earlier this year, in developing the 2017 – 2018 season.
“Roger was wonderful to work with and he is being really missed by everyone,” he said. “We put a lot of work into designing this season and trying to reflect what can I bring to the table in terms of repertoire.”
To find out more about the 2017 – 2018 season visit Grand Rapids Symphony.