ONE-ON-ONE WITH MARCELO LEHNINGER
By Eric Tanner - GRS Violin
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with our new Music Director, Marcelo Lehninger, to explore in more depth his perspectives on programming, artistic excellence and growth, and ideas to increase engagement with our community and beyond. This is how our discussion unfolded:
ET: After 400 years, there’s just so much fantastic music in the symphonic repertoire. Beyond the obvious research into what’s already been performed recently, how do you possibly go about picking and choosing what to program?
ML: Actually, this is something I really enjoy. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. I often do it while I travel. Sometimes I burn a CD of possible pieces, and listen to them together as a program. When you put something on paper, sometimes it looks really great, but other times when you're sitting there listening, it doesn't really work. Some programs I work out in my head, but then you meet with management and you learn about the community and it doesn't really fit. What would be good for the community, what is lacking, what pieces do they love, what sells; there are so many pieces to the puzzle. What's the budget, the placement of pieces in the season? You want to start the season with something fun, positive and celebratory. Subscriptions are an important aspect of the puzzle. I always try to put an element in a program that is sellable. I always think of these three goals when programming: Musical, Our Budget, and How Sellable.
Now, there’s a difference between thinking about one program and the season as a whole. My philosophy for a whole season, for an orchestra that does ten classical subscription concerts: You need to cover chronologically as much ground as possible. Classical, Romantic, Modern, Late Contemporary. After that, what else can you program that covers those three criteria: Musical, Budget and Sellable?
I'm happy we have the Great Era series because we can explore more Classical gems such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. That repertoire is what makes a good orchestra great. For the artistic development of the orchestra, we need that element. I'm putting that repertoire on our Classical season as well wherever I can.
Then there's the symphony chorus - how best to utilize it. After meeting with Pearl (Shangkuan), it’s clear we need to make sure that if the choir is learning something new, they need time to prepare, and then the other programs on the season should be something they know. I like a good combination of new music (local composers, etc.), standard repertoire (such as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven) and big works (like Strauss).
ET: How do you go about identifying and championing contemporary music and new composers, and how important is it to introduce our audiences to new or unfamiliar repertoire? Have you done that before?
ML: Any orchestra should think about not just contemporary music in general, but also local composers - American composers. We need to keep that going; otherwise, there's no future for composers. It's important knowing your audience. For example, I can come up with a piece that I like, that I've done somewhere else, but it might be a disaster here because Boston and New York are very different from here. I don't think we need to do only tonal and melodic contemporary pieces: we should be adventurous. But we have to find a way to fit it into the season in a way that it works. We have to find a balance between people who do care about modern music and people who don't care. I'm a big fan of modern music. Usually what I do at the beginning of my tenure is to find out who the local composers are. The community knows them, they're connected to other sources and organizations, and you bring a sense that you care about the community. I don't want to just bring in a composer from Germany because I met him. In terms of style, I'm pretty open. Of course, you have audience members saying "New music is fine as long as it has a tune I can recognize." If we have a commission, then I tell the composer the rest of the program, share ideas and see if there's anything that will inspire them. I don't dictate how the composer should write, but give suggestions and work with them to find the right fit for the community. One thing I can bring to the table is South American music. Villa-Lobos is not contemporary, but new for our audience here. I think our community here would love that.
ET: What ideas do you have for building an orchestra’s sound and developing its discipline so musicians can keep improving even in weeks you’re not conducting?
ML: Creating the sound for the orchestra is very interesting. Some conductors, especially in the past generation, had a philosophy of creating a unique sound. It worked for a lot of conductors, but I'm not sure how effective it would be today. Orchestras did develop a very unique string sound in Philadelphia, the brass sound of Chicago, the old-school European sound in Boston.
ET: That was the era of recording LPs – maybe that was a reason for promoting individual sounds!
ML: Conductors used to spend much more time with the orchestra than they do today. Here of course I'll spend a lot of time with the orchestra: 8 major concerts next year. But in an orchestra with 20-30 programs, the music director used to conduct 1/3 to 1/2 of the season, but that's not the case anymore.
Let's first talk about musical discipline, articulation, bowing placement: It comes with time, getting to know each other. When I conduct your orchestra, I'm listening, absorbing information, figuring out places we can improve. And of course, you're also getting to know me, how I feel about specific details, different periods. When we do all the repertoire, I'll explore things so that you know what I want. Over the years it's just very organic. For example, when I first got to Boston, their brass sound was organ-like, a legato, long sound. Levine liked that sound, but was also working with the hall. They didn't need too much attack, and they could do that sound. Every single conductor that went there, that was what the orchestra presented to them by default. When Levine left, the orchestra started playing differently. They didn't care about that quality, because Levine wasn't there insisting on that organ-like legato. They could do it, if a conductor asked for it, but it wasn't their default sound. When I did Pictures (at an Exhibition) with them, the 1st Trumpet asked if I wanted the "Levine" sound. It comes with time. We need to play some composers many times to make sure that it is the default sound.
It’s also working on details in a way that has an effect on how we're going to play that piece. For example, dynamics: the fear of playing pianissimo. Let's play pianissimo without being afraid. Insisting on that dynamic, for example, over two years, it will eventually stick. Also, I like to be clear to show what I want so there's no question about it, but sometimes I like to be unclear, or point to instruments with the main line. When there's a different conductor with a different technique, I don't want the orchestra to be stressed out because they're only used to my conducting stick technique. I don't want them to be too dependent on that one technique.
ET: Would you like to see GRS musicians involved in chamber music activities to help extend GRS’ presence in the community?
ML: There are many positive things about having chamber music and chamber groups with the musicians from the orchestra. Never deviating from the intention of having the orchestra as a whole, but it’s still a great asset. You could even sell packages, playing small concerts in communities, doing fundraising events, in places you can't bring an orchestra. Also, every musician I know loves playing chamber music. Plus, there’s the ability to listen to each other, and play with your colleagues in an intimate setting: just nothing but positive things with playing chamber music. Audiences need to get more used to it too. There are so many cities where chamber music has almost disappeared from the map. If we can do it from our side, that’s great, but of course it's partly an issue of management and money.
ET: We used to have the Heritage Hill Chamber Music series here a long time ago.
ML: I do feel passionate about it. We need to see how realistic it is from an organizational point of view.
ET: We have many musicians who don't get those opportunities very often, but if they did, that would help elevate their musicianship in the orchestra too.
ML: Yes, chamber music, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven: it all can make the orchestra better.