For its final concert of the season, the Portland Symphony Orchestra put itself in the hands of Marcelo Lehninger, a young, Brazilian-born conductor with an impressive background that includes some high profile substitutions for ailing elder maestros, most notably James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra ( Lehninger was an assistant, and later, associate conductor) and Pierre Boulez at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This season is his first as music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. His performance at Merrill Hall on Tuesday evening confirmed that he is a conductor to keep tabs on.
Lehninger’s program was firmly rooted in the standard repertory, although that was not the original plan. Although the draw was always the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony – the “Pathétique” – the familiarity of that big, emotionally fraught score was to have been offset by the Britten Violin Concerto, an intense, foreboding work composed at the start of World War II and easier to find on recordings than in the concert hall.
I can’t have been the only listener looking forward to that, but as it turned out, both the Britten and the violinist who was to play it, Karen Gomyo, vanished the program, replaced by another young wizard of the fiddle, Alexi Kenney, performing the much more familiar Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G minor (Op. 26).
The Bruch is inarguably more popular, but the orchestra did little to publicize the change, and the concert was sold out nevertheless. Even if most of those tickets were sold on the strength of the Tchaikovsky, it’s heartening to know that the Britten, which would have taken up most of the first half, was not regarded as a deal-breaker.
As it turned out, Kenney’s performance of the Bruch was ample compensation for anyone disappointed by the cancellation of the Britten. Another relative newcomer to the concert stage, Kenney, a Californian born in 1994, has won gold medals at several competitions over the last several years. He has the warm, sumptuous tone that the Bruch demands, as well as the technique to move through this richly Romantic score as if it posed few challenges.
That is an illusion, of course: Bruch’s double-stopped melodies, soaring lines and alternations of dreaminess and heart-on-the-sleeve passion need a combination of technique and interpretive focus, to say nothing of the spark of originality necessary to give this work – a repertory centerpiece of every major violinist in this century – a personal stamp.
For Kenney, that stamp was an assertiveness that made the concerto into something deeper than an essay in violinistic prettiness. But he could have it both ways. Even if his performance were less thoughtfully shaped, he could have sailed through on the strength of his sweetly rounded, fully seductive tone. He showed another side of his technique, briefly, in a rhythmically varied, sharp-edged unaccompanied etude by Astor Piazzolla, offered as an encore.
Lehninger and the orchestra provided the supple support that Kenney’s account demanded, and they brought some of that fluidity to the Tchaikovsky as well. Lehninger’s interpretation was thoughtful and well-paced, and focused on the inner turmoil that drove Tchaikovsky in his final symphony, completed shortly before his death. Exactly what lay at the heart of that turmoil is hard to say: Tchaikovsky said the symphony had an internal story line, but refused to reveal it, leaving some scholars to theorize that it was about his romance with the son of a Russian nobleman, and that his death cholera, 10 days after the work’s premiere, was actually suicide. (A great many more scholars regard the theory as ridiculous.)
The truth is unlikely to be discovered at this point (unless, for example, a trove of unseen letters or documents turns up in which Tchaikovsky explains it all) – and it doesn’t matter, because this big, powerful symphony doesn’t really need an explanation. Lehninger led the orchestra in a fine, shapely performance in which the brass and percussion playing was solid and centered, particularly in the full-throttle third movement. The winds and strings acquitted themselves honorably as well.
Lehninger opened the program with a bright, lively reading of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” Overture – an ebulliently sunny prelude to the pair of dark-hued scores that followed.