Review: CSO summer debut displays Lehninger’s strengths

Review by Zachary Lewis

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Guest conductor and music director candidate Marcelo Lehninger leads the CSO in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58, at the Amphitheater Saturday.

The number 86 may not be terribly special so far as anniversaries go. The 86th season of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, however, and particularly its opening night, could come to be quite notable indeed.

Especially if the conductor advances. Should Marcelo Lehninger progress in the orchestra’s season-long series of auditions for a music director, his appearance Saturday night at the Amphitheater will go down not only in the mind of the audience, but also in local history.

What’s more, such an eventuality is far from out of the question, judging by his performance. Handling weighty, complex works by Strauss and Wagner, Lehninger, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, proved to be a lively, insightful and technically assured artist worthy of both invitations to return and serious long-term consideration.

Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is a genuine test for even the most experienced of conductors, and Lehninger emerged from it with flying colors. The opposite of episodic, his performance with the CSO Saturday fused the score’s several distinct scenes into a compelling, cohesive whole.

Which dimension of the piece was the more affecting is hard to say. The darker, brooding elements were lustrous, driven by powerful momentum and robust contributions from the low strings, and the famous “Introduction,” with its throbbing bars for organ and contrabassoon, literally rattled listeners in their seats.

The brighter side of the music, meanwhile, was equally captivating. All one could have wanted in terms of cheer was present in the perky, colorful woodwinds, and the swirling solo by concertmaster Brian Reagin in the “Dance Song” was thoroughly charming, a radiant clearing in a dense orchestral forest. If this is what Strauss sounds like under Lehninger, then Strauss must be one of his calling cards, now and in the future.  

Much the same can be said of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” the first piece on Lehninger’s program. Only here, instead of an effusive display of raw power, the conductor offered 20 glorious minutes of intimacy and lyricism, latching onto the score’s origin as a gift for the composer’s wife.

Again, Lehninger proved an adept navigator, channeling the music’s many twists and turns into a single, unbroken stream. As the stream ebbed and flowed, he always seemed to know just when to hesitate or surge, when to linger on a phrase or to move on to the next, for maximum emotional impact.

Not that anyone could have been eager for the piece to move along. So ardent was the playing under Lehninger, so responsive and abundant in nuance, one suspects all in attendance could have remained happy under the spell of that “Idyll” for any length of time.

Lehninger made an excellent case for himself as a candidate. 

Pianist Andreas Klein, however, did his partner fewer favors.

As the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, he turned in an uneven account that, while enjoyable in many respects, also demanded more of the conductor than it might have. To his credit, though, Lehninger rolled with his colleague, holding the performance together and putting its best face forward.

Much of Klein’s Beethoven was spot-on. In tender moments, such as the Andante, the pianist brought to the music great sensitivity and mystery, and where the score turns boisterous, such as his solo cadenza, Klein tapped reserves of power that seemed limitless.

But for every occasion on which Klein shone, there was also a wrong or blurred note, capricious tempo, or strangely stiff turn of phrase. If, from a performer’s perspective, the pianist was as challenging to track as he was for the audience to follow, Lehninger had his hands full indeed.

Best let this particular performance fade from memory. Lehninger’s, however, is one to keep, one to recall with favor when the moment for making decisions arrives. 

When the last notes at the end of the season trail away, let those from opening night sound again.

Zachary Lewis is music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

There is one comment

  1. Andreas Klein

    Usually I do not read nor respond to reviews of my concert performances. This time, I was made aware of the negative and somewhat biased contribution of Mr. Zachary Lewis through my agent, and I decide to write here, so this time the critic does NOT have the last word.
    First of all, I find it unfair to the future conductor applicants that Mr. Lewis assumes the role of a jury member by declaring “Lehninger’s, however, is one to keep, one to recall with favor when the moment for making decisions arrives”: even though the reviewer is entitled to his personal opinion, he should remain neutral and shouldn’t use his platform to influence the selection committee nor the audience. After all, this was the first concert; there is much more to come.
    Mr. Lewis, who is interested in and writes about gymnastics when not attending concerts (according to his employer, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland), seems to “stretch” (pun intended) the truth about my performance as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4. Statements like “…every occasion on which Mr. Klein shone, there was also a wrong or blurred note, capricious tempo, or strangely stiff turn of phrase” are simply derogatory, untrue, and unclear (“strangely stiff turn of phrase”?).
    It is offensive that this critic characterizes my interpretation and performance as a challenge to conductor Lehninger “holding the performance together and putting its best face forward”: I never was criticized for erratic, unreliable playing. And if Mr. Lewis expected a flawless, note perfect rendition, he should be advised to refrain to listen to live performances – and certainly not at Chautauqua where only one rehearsal is scheduled on the day of the concert! If the critic prefers pure perfection, he probably will only find it on some CDs (minus the spontaneous expressiveness).
    I shall remember my visit to Chautauqua and collaboration with Marcelo Lehninger favorably despite these tainted comments.
    Andreas Klein

Comments are closed.