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Review: CSO summer debut displays Lehninger’s strengths

Marcelo Lehninger
The Chautauquan Daily

By Zachary Lewis

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.