Review: Technology and music go hand-in-hand in collaboration with National Geographic, Lehninger and CSO

Review by Zachary Lewis

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Marcelo Lehninger, candidate for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra music director position, leads the CSO through its Tuesday evening performance in the Amphitheater. The concert featured a unique collaboration with National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson, as a selection of his photos was shown on screens above the orchestra during Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture.

Brazil may have been the site of a critical loss for the U.S. soccer team Tuesday. Here on the grounds of Chautauqua, however, a Brazilian that same day enjoyed a musical triumph.

Leading the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for the second time this season, conductor Marcelo Lehninger strengthened his case to be the group’s new music director. If his performance Saturday at the Amphitheater made a fine impression, his work on Tuesday only cemented that view in the mind of another houseful.

It also rounded out the picture of his artistry. Where his program Saturday was steeped in the late Romantic period, featuring substantial works by Wagner and Strauss, Tuesday’s array of Classical and early Romantic-period music demanded and received a lighter, more precise touch.

Most emblematic of these qualities was Lehninger’s performance of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture. The place itself, a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, may be rugged and difficult to reach, but the music as rendered Tuesday by Lehninger, associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was as smooth and present as one of the area’s sea-polished stones.

High in contrast and sweep, the reading by the CSO vividly evoked the majestic, picturesque landscape that so inspired Mendelssohn. Then again, it did not operate alone.

A big-screen display of gorgeous Hebrides-area photographs by National Geographic journalist Jim Richardson contributed vastly to the experience, adding visual splendor to sonic beauty. Technology and classical music don’t always mix well, but in this case, they went hand-in-hand.

No one, meanwhile, would call Lehninger’s account of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 light. Not in terms of weight, anyway. No, on that scale, the reading stood out for its lush, almost ponderous romance and emphatic, boldly defined finale.

But the terms light and precise still apply to a performance that regularly soared, and in which nuance was a high priority. Shape, momentum, vigor: the effects Lehninger had on the opening movement were profound. Similarly, his scherzo was an episode both graceful and strikingly direct.

As it happens, Lehninger and Richardson weren’t the only artists who came off in a positive light Tuesday. Eli Eban, the CSO’s principal clarinetist, also emerged from the Amphitheater victorious, following a brilliant performance of Mozart’s one-and-only Clarinet Concerto.

Chalk it up, perhaps, to his longtime membership in the orchestra, but Eban’s collaboration with Lehninger and the ensemble was remarkably easygoing. The conductor offered his partner the tidiest, most colorful of support, and the soloist responded with comparable lyricism and animation.

Not only that, but Eban himself was a delight to hear. At no point did he play with anything less than a sweet, full tone, as rich in feeling as it was dulcet. To the outer movements he brought dramatic shading and variety of expression, but it was the Adagio, rendered with exquisite finesse, that probably earned Eban the ovation he received.

Lehninger’s audition is now complete, and it was a solid one. At this point, all Chautauqua would need to understand the conductor better or appreciate him more fully is a sampling of his work in the Baroque, 20th-century and contemporary arenas.

Those opportunities may come later. For now, Lehninger will have to wait as the audience votes and the CSO auditions seven other candidates. Meanwhile, in his effort at Chautauqua on Canada Day, the Brazilian artist can only take pride.

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