During the second movement of Aram Khachaturian’s Concerto for Piano, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience will hear a sound unfamiliar to many.
“We’re having a real saw onstage for that piece,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. “It’s such a special moment in the piece. I think the audience will really enjoy experiencing that.”
Even though it was part of the piece’s original score, the saw is rarely seen.
When the Soviet Armenian composer and conductor came to the U.S., Khachaturian had to alter his concerto, according to Lehninger. While he was used to seeing performers playing the musical saw with a bow on the streets of Armenia, it was rarely found in his new home. He decided to adapt, and the saw was substituted with the flexatone, a percussion instrument that remains the preferred choice during live performances and recordings.
After selecting the concerto for the program, however, the GRS had the idea to play the piece as it was originally written. A plan was then put into motion after mentioning it to Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the concert’s solo pianist, who happened to know someone who specialized in the musical saw.
Getting a live musical saw is hard enough, but the piece itself is notoriously difficult to perform. In fact, it hasn’t been performed live by the GRS since March 19, 1953.
“You need to have a pianist that is truly incredible to perform a piece like that,” Lehninger said.
Enter Thibaudet, who is currently one of the leading pianists in the world and has performed the Khachaturian piece before, most notably with the Orchestre de Paris. Lehninger joked that the GRS has the advantage though, because the Orchestre de Paris didn’t perform it with a saw.
This concert will mark Thibaudet’s first time performing with the GRS. He and Lehninger have played together before, when Lehninger was working in Boston, and had hoped to work together again. Lehninger was delighted when Thibaudet accepted the invitation.
Knowing Thibaudet will be there also makes conducting the piece for the first time slightly less daunting for Lehninger. It’s a showpiece that pits soloist against orchestra in an epic battle — calling it “tough” would be an understatement, according to Lehninger.
“For me to be doing that piece for the first time with a soloist like that is a huge responsibility, but we’re friends; I’m sure he’ll guide me and help me throughout the process,” he said.
The show’s other pieces will not be a first for Lehninger, however. There’s Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Abu Hassan, which Lehninger described as a fun, short, uplifting piece to start the program.
Then there’s the concert’s grand finale, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a four-movement score based on the tale of The Arabian Nights. It has been beloved by audiences for more than 130 years, and Lehninger thinks the melodies are part of the reason why audiences keep coming back to it.
“Even though it was written in the 19th century, you have a feeling of super romantic music,” he said. “It could be movie music. It probably is.”
It’s also a chance to showcase many of the orchestra’s individual members. Scheherazade includes solos for the first violin and the principal cellist, as well as the oboe, flute, bassoon, clarinet, and harp.
A piece that has been performed so many times and is so beloved has potential to add extra pressure, but Lehninger isn’t worried.
“To be very honest, I don’t really think about that much,” Lehninger said. “I just try to be as honest as I can, have musical integrity and musical honesty, and try to present an interpretation that respects what the composer wants and asks in the score, but also reflects my understanding and my love for the piece.”
Scheherazade also has its own set of difficulties. Lehninger hopes it will inspire audiences, and make them proud to have such a high-level orchestra in their community performing such high-level works.
For Lehninger, the concert has one other bonus, as it’s the week of his birthday, as well as his daughter’s.
“It will be a great way to celebrate my birthday with a really cool program I’m looking forward to conducting,” he said.
DeVos Performance Hall
303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Oct. 5-6, 8 p.m., $18+