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Part II

By Eric Tanner - GRS Violin


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.  Part I of this conversation was printed in our January newsletter. Here is the conclusion of our conversation.


ET: Our next Strategic Plan calls for elevating our artistic excellence.  Where would you like to see the GRS in five years, and what strategies are you thinking of to get there?  And secondly, what does artistic growth mean to you, especially relating to things like improving musical excellence, orchestra size and winning board commitment for your vision?


ML: So, since those questions are related, I'll try to cover both in one answer. When you think about the excellence of an orchestra, there are three main points: 1) Artistic Level - how we play musically. 2) Reputation of the orchestra within the industry, nationwide. 3) And the importance of that institution in the community. Why? #1 is very self-explanatory. For #2, you want to make sure that people recognize the city of Grand Rapids as a really important place that has a really good orchestra. When you talk with the board about all the projects you want to do, you can show your visibility nationwide and use it as leverage. When you deal with artist managers, and you call a manager and say you want to do a gala with Yo Yo Ma, they are picky about which orchestras he’ll perform with. GRS has a good reputation already, but I think it needs to be even stronger. It needs to improve more - the visibility of the orchestra within our industry - so that when I call managers, they don't say no before even consulting with the artist. And for #3 - why do people invest so much money in the Boston Symphony, when other orchestras are struggling with fundraising? The BSO is so important for the community - it's an institution people want to be affiliated with and invest in. It's important that you can show the community how invaluable you are, so that the community realizes you need to exist and grow. Donors will know that they are investing in something important and meaningful. So, I think of these things as three pillars.

Excellence comes with what programs you are doing, how well you are doing, what soloists you're bringing, what projects you're participating in. Just look at Live Arts – it was so important to the community. That kind of thing needs to happen more even if the financial return is not always there. For instance, the same is true with touring. You're going to lose money, but you still need to tour.


ET: Sometimes, it’s recognizing when there are more important reasons for doing a project than just financial return.


ML: Exactly. So how can you, in a passionate way, convey that to the board members? The Music Director needs to have the ability to get people excited. For instance, I'm presenting ideas for big projects at a board meeting tomorrow that don't have a financial return. I want to talk to them about things they don't understand yet, and explain why it's important. Recording, for instance. Keeping relationships going with donors. Getting the board involved in a passionate way with everything the orchestra is doing: new pieces, chamber programs, tours.


ET: Any longer term goals with respect to orchestra size, such as the string compliment in particular?


ML: The musicians’ contract was just settled, so it’s too soon to talk about anything specific.  What I can say is that I do understand the financial impact and difficulties that just having a bigger string size represents. You need to keep artistic integrity with fiscal responsibility. However, I don't want to do big pieces with a small string sound, with everyone giving too much and the sound isn't quite right. The musicians don't feel good and the conductor doesn't feel good. I tend to push to have a bigger string size when necessary. For instance, on Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 we had extra strings. We'll have it for Mahler, and we'll have it for more programs next year. For Beethoven, it's okay to have smaller strings; it doesn't make sense to play Beethoven with 16 first violins and 8 basses. I think about style, and also the level of comfort for musicians, and being financially responsible for the organization. I am always given a budget restriction, so for programming, we are in a box. For instance, we're doing a large Strauss work next season, so we can't do Mahler. It’s a bit of a mathematical puzzle.


ET: Any ideas on the importance of recording, touring or residencies to the growth and reputation of the GRS, and without giving away any spoilers, do you envision any special projects coming up?


ML: Yes. We are exploring. Recording needs to be something that makes sense. Not just recording obscure repertoire because it's obscure. Why? To do what? It needs to have a purpose. Is this a CD we give donors as a gift? Do we create our own label? I do have a big project planned, but it's not so easy because it involves a major label. We'll encounter some obstacles to make that project possible. Touring? I’m also working on that. There are many different touring possibilities that will make sense or not make sense. Right now, I'm working on expanding the visibility of the orchestra in the music industry.  There is something in the works in the next couple of years.


ET: Do you have any special place where you prefer to study your scores?


ML: I don't know why, but I have a problem learning music when I'm on the road, or in a hotel. I tend to have periods when I'm home that I call study periods: two weeks or a month, where I study all the pieces I need to conduct for the next six months. I like to have the possibility of spending 6 or 7 hours straight with my scores, and having access to other scores and books that I don't have when I travel. When I studied Eroica for instance, I was reading four books at a time, studying the critical edition, etc. I like my work environment. Sometimes it's inevitable that I have to learn in a hotel or on a plane, but if I have a choice I will study in my office at home, where I have all my scores and can use my desk.


ET: Finally, to wrap up, who are your biggest mentors or musical influences?


ML: Of course, my first musical figures were my parents – my father is a violinist and my mother a pianist. My first teacher in Brazil was a great mentor for me.  His name was Roberto Tibiriçá.  Kurt Masur was a big influence for me, because I spent so much time with him, going to his house in Leipzig.  I was his conducting assistant in Europe. A big musical influence! James Levine - I spent only a short period of time with him, but he has such a big personality. Every conversation was meaningful!


ET: Thank you so much for spending time talking with us today. We are looking forward to many seasons of wonderful music making.

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