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Orchestra excels in opening concert

Lehninger makes impressive debut with 'Beethoven's Fifth' at the Sarasota Orchestra.

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  • | 9:29 a.m. September 30, 2019
Marcelo Lehninger is the first guest conductor of the season. Photo courtesy Sarasota Orchestra.
Marcelo Lehninger is the first guest conductor of the season. Photo courtesy Sarasota Orchestra.
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At least once during Saturday’s concert by the Sarasota Orchestra, I felt I had to look at the date to be sure it was only the end of September and not mid-year because the orchestral playing had a unity and precision of sound that made me believe the season was well underway.

Not so, for it was the first full concert of the season, devoted to Beethoven and featuring the first guest conductor of the season, Marcelo Lehninger. Lehninger, currently the conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony, brings with him a wealth of experience, notably five years with the Boston Symphony as assistant, then associate conductor.

Lehninger knows what he wants from his orchestra, and he communicates his wishes clearly and precisely, without sacrificing emotion or credibility. The orchestra obviously read his desires almost instinctively and played as if they had been together for months rather than just a few days.

Lehninger’s program was “Beethoven’s Fifth,” with just a soupçon of Rossini for an opener. Rossini’s overture to “The Italian Girl in Algiers” has long been a staple of the concert repertoire while providing real challenges for the woodwind sections. New principal oboist Jonathan Gentry and principal flutist Betsy Traba, who switched to piccolo, were brilliant in their solo passages. Rossini’s music sounds simple, but every part is so open and exposed that it is actually treacherous to play. All these musicians tossed it off with great elan.

Beethoven wrote five piano concertos and nine symphonies, and each concerto and symphony reveals a new facet of the composer’s genius. This concert featured his Third Piano Concerto and Fifth Symphony, ironically both in the key of C minor.

Pianist Drew Petersen was the soloist in the concerto.
Pianist Drew Petersen was the soloist in the concerto.

Pianist Drew Petersen, winner of the 2018 Avery Fisher Career Grant and several other prestigious awards, was the soloist in the concerto, and he and Lehninger were mostly of one mind in the concerto. Petersen has a strong and fluid technique, and he’s not afraid to bring forth really commanding sounds when called for. Both conductor and soloist opted for a straight-forward interpretation, which allowed all of Beethoven’s inventiveness to shine forth.

There were some absolutely lovely legato dialogues between piano and principal bassoon Fernando Traba in the second movement. Petersen’s expert handling of the finale brought the sold-out audience to its feet at the conclusion.

Yogi Berra would probably say that “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is so popular that nobody plays it no more.” And it’s true that this symphony has probably been played more than most any in the repertoire, except maybe the “Unfinished” Symphony of Schubert.

Yet each time I hear, play or conduct it, I find something new and marvel anew at how beautifully it is constructed, like a virtual Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal of sound. From the opening “four most famous notes in all music” to the majestic entrance of the trombones at the start of the final movement, this symphony is an exquisite example of musical inspiration and engineering. Every note and every motive fit together into a complete whole of musical inspiration and construction that has survived and thrived for more than 200 years.

Lehninger and the Sarasota Orchestra brought forth each motive and phrase to fruition in one of the finest performances I’ve heard of this work. Of course, we had the driving force of the first movement, which carried throughout the piece, but the seamless legato of the strings in the second and third movements were for me a highlight of the evening.

Lehninger had a complete picture of exactly how he wanted this piece to proceed, and the orchestra followed his plan brilliantly. The instantaneous ovation at its conclusion more than showed that his message had indeed reached the audience.

Quite an accomplishment for a first full orchestra concert, but the Sarasota Orchestra obviously senses that this season of well-known guest conductors — any of whom could perhaps be their new music director — is a pivotal one, and all are completely ready and willing for any challenge that may come their way.

I mentioned to a friend that it might be a good idea to install seat belts in the concert halls because it seems we are in for a great musical ride this season. Let’s all be ready for it.


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