Back to New York: With second Carnegie Hall trip, the Grand Rapids Symphony looks to the future

Almost 13 years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) ventured beyond Michigan’s borders for the first time. The destination: Carnegie Hall, New York City’s iconic concert venue.

The orchestra brought along more than 1,000 audience members to wind up its 75th anniversary season. The performance earned a positive New York Times review.

Now in its 88th season, the Symphony is returning to Carnegie Hall on April 20. This time, the GRS Chorus and a legendary soloist, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, are traveling with the orchestra.

According to Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, this season’s trip is not simply a repeat of the past, but “something that an important orchestra needs to be doing.”

“The good thing about Carnegie is that it’s not like the moon, where you go there twice, find a few rocks, and find out there’s nothing more interesting there,” Lehninger said. 

The program the GRS has planned for Carnegie offers more than a few elements of interest in the form of music rarely performed by major orchestras. A lifelong friend of Lehninger, Freire will perform Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Momoprecoce. The GRS Chorus will be heard in Villa-Lobos’ Choros No. 10. Audience favorite Bolero opens the program.

“All the best orchestras go to Carnegie Hall every year — the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony — and they play all the symphonies by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky,” Lehninger said. “With this program, I thought about how we could bring something to New York that would be unique within its season.” 

Before the orchestra and chorus leaves for New York City, it will present the program together with Freire in Grand Rapids on April 13 and 14.

The GRS is not only bringing a unique program to New York City, but also its approach to expanding access to music. Since launching its Symphony Scorecard program in 2015, the GRS has worked with more than 70 social service agencies to provide thousands of free concert tickets to community members who receive financial assistance. Ahead of its Carnegie Hall performance, the GRS has been in contact with several agencies whose recipients will be guests at the April 20 concert.

“We’re excited about this concept, which we believe is unique to us and not known in New York City,” said Peter Perez, president and CEO of the GRS. “We’re telling New York that we do some innovative things here in Grand Rapids.”

By demonstrating what the orchestra can do on the Carnegie Hall stage as well as in its own community, Lehninger is hoping to raise the profile of the GRS.

“The Grand Rapids Symphony is a respected symphony, and it is a wonderful organization, but I think there is room to be even more recognized,” Lehninger said. “That’s something we are working very hard toward right now. Carnegie just reassures that we are on the right path.”

Another goal for the trip is to attract high-profile guest artists to Grand Rapids. After working for 18 years as a conductor, Lehninger has built a wide network and cultivated friendships with several renowned soloists, many of whom have performed with the GRS since he began his tenure as music director. This includes superstar violinist Sarah Chang for the GRS season opener last September, and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who will join the orchestra for its 2018-19 season next fall.

“But eventually, I’m going to run out of friends,” Lehninger said with a laugh.

The orchestra’s legal agreements prevent it from broadcasting concerts on YouTube, as many others do today, so travel is required to bring its sounds outside of West Michigan. Lehninger says New York is the best place to do it.

“Carnegie in New York is a very vibrant place,” Lehninger said. “It’s full of music managers and people that need to see the Grand Rapids Symphony.”

Beyond Carnegie, the orchestra plans to continue serving its community with great musical opportunities. The GRS recently announced its 2018-19 season, featuring classical masterworks, must-see soloists, several presentations of films with live soundtracks, and a concert celebrating the work of women composers.

“Carnegie is a wonderful moment for our orchestra, and for our organization,” Lehninger said. “It shows that we are really building the foundations and reaching the next step.”

Carnegie Hall Preview - Bolero Encore
DeVos Performance Hall
303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
April 13 & 14, 8 p.m., $18+