You may have seen him conduct the Chautauqua, Rochester, and Toronto symphonies, and he’s in Buffalo this weekend. In his publicity photo, he looks like Wayne Newton. In real life, he’s much more like Jack Black from the movie “School of Rock,” and like legendary rock producer Phil Spector, he can produce a “wall of sound” unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time at Kleinhans Music Hall.
We’re talking about Marcelo Lehninger, the young, vibrant guest conductor this weekend who is to classical music what the Bills Mafia is to football. Even though he was born in Brazil and now lives with his wife and kids in Grand Rapids (where he’s the Music Director of their symphony) this guy is so Buffalo.
At Friday morning’s concert, after the opening movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto, several in the audience applauded. This is considered by some a “no-no” in classical music, where you’re supposed to maintain a respectful silence until the entire work is finished. But Maestro Lehninger turned around and addressed the audience, telling us that Chopin wrote to his father that at the concerto premiere how he was disappointed that the audience hadn’t applauded more. So on the spot, Lehninger led the audience in a big round of middle-of-the-work applause. It’s not a rock concert, but he schooled us that expressing joy is always okay.
And the joy and the “this guy is so Buffalo” vibe continued with an encore when the stage crew brought out a second piano bench so that he could sit down next to the internationally famous soloist and they could play a duet by Rachmaninoff together. The soloist? She’s his mother, Sônia Goulart. How Buffalo is that? I rest my case.
Speaking of cases, we pause this review for a favorite viola joke: How did the violinist keep people from stealing his expensive violin? He carried it in a viola case.
Okay, okay, back to the music and that “wall of sound.” I’ve announced Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” on WNED Classical at least 100 times and have heard it many more times than that. But I never, ever heard it the way it was played with Lehninger on the podium. It starts with strings only (Violins I & II, violas, cellos, and basses) and often “string orchestra” pieces are dreamy, delicate things. But here, each of those wooden instruments vibrated and shook the wooden acoustics of Kleinhans Music Hall. OMG. Are you kidding me? I’ve never heard that wall of sound with only strings. And the overture was just beginning.
Beethoven is noted, though, for his expert use of winds, and once the momentum of “Egmont” started moving, each of the sections, to use an expression Buffalo Sabres radio announcer Ted Darling was fond of when describing spectacular hockey moves, “came up big.”
“Nossa” in Portuguese (the official language of Brazil) means “wow” and “Egmont” was a “Nossa” moment.
Then it was on to the Chopin Piano Concerto Number 2 which is my favorite because of the second movement. It’s marked “Larghetto” (that’s slower than Adagio, Adagietto, or Andante) to allow the music to swell, on stage, yes, but also in our hearts. If you’ve ever had that feeling when confronted by something so painfully beautiful that it hurt and you didn’t have the words, Chopin has the music.
Chopin wrote mostly for solo piano; he wasn’t a great orchestrator, but that’s okay because his music really is all about the piano. He never just goes from note A to note B without a trill, a run, or some other musical figure. And Sônia Goulart let us enjoy every note (and there are A LOT OF NOTES). You know how some musicians play in a sort of “look at me” way? Ms. Goulart is much more of a “don’t look at me… listen to this” musician.
The concert ends after intermission with one of the wildest symphonies ever. It’s a teenage work (Symphony Number 1) by Dmitri Shostakovich that, as Maestro Lehninger explained from the stage, is a sort of thumbing your nose at traditional symphonies. That sounds about right for Shostakovich, who was always poking his finger into someone’s eye. It’s one of those “concerto for orchestra” type works with plenty of solo opportunities for all the sections and soloists, from the rather cocky opening trumpet to the reverberating tympani solo towards the end.