CONCERT REVIEW Performance or Performer?

Marcelo Lehninger premieres as BSO new assistant conductor

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Marcelo Lehninger, conductor

Symphony Hall

October 21, 2010

Thursday evening’s BSO performance found it hard to separate artist from opus: Marcelo Lehninger’s performance with the orchestra marked the 31-year-old conductor’s premiere as assistant conductor of the ensemble. Not a daring program, the performance somehow begged a divination of the young maestro’s future career than a complete synthesis of the evening’s works.

But the distraction still left much to learn: The performance began with a confident performance of Samuel Barber’s overture to the School of Scandal. Although the ensemble seemed to lose some accuracy in the more detailed portions of Barber’s work, most prominent in Thursday evening’s performance was the overall narrative and conception of the work. A confident performance, Lehninger highlighted the rich contrast essential to the piece: beyond the sharp dynamic shifts that compels the odd counterpoint of work forward. Barber’s work was swept with contrast in orchestral texture: Grandiose, film-like orchestral tone painting stood starkly against stolid chorales that underscored delicate folk-song-like melodic lines. A virtual catalogue of the considerable talent available to the young composer, (Barber composed the work at 21) Lehninger’s understanding of the work connected the often-irreconcilable sections of the work in a cohesive dramatic contrast.

Barber’s work led into two more familiar pieces. Pinchas Zuckerman joined the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto. While Lehninger’s proceeded with a solid, traditional performance of the work, Zuckerman, dressed in what can be best described as a pair of overwrought black pyjamas, treated his performance as such. Distracted and uninterested during orchestral passages, Zuckerman’s solo performance seemed to appraise his own interpretation of the work over the orchestra supporting him: Transitions from solo to orchestral passages almost consistently languished in the soloist’s rococo sense of bravura. Although technically not much more could have been asked from the violinist’s performance, Zuckerman’s comport and disinclination to accommodate Lehninger’s ultimate thesis distracted from the work as a whole.

The evening concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. While it’s difficult not to hear Tchaikovsky’s symphony as an old work, as with the Barber, while — again — details were sometime sacrificed at the altar of orchestral texture and contrast in sonority, Lehninger’s Tchaikovsky presented the work through the lens of its dramatic narrative. It’s this perspective that breathed refreshing life into the workhorse of the Romantic symphonic repertoire: Unexpected harmonies (note: native to Tchaikovsky’s score) highlighted moments of complex drama at the end of the first movement. Again, deeply satisfying chorale-melodies led to the complex interaction of voices and the rich tonal world of Tchaikovsky’s work in the second movement. Ultimately, it was the fourth movement that drove the work home: Desperate melodic lines surged with a passion throughout the piece; Lehninger’s interpretation read a post-industrial bass section, terrifying in its stoic, machine-like compulsion that drove the work home in new and vivid colors.

Should Thursday’s performance mean anything for the young conductor, certainly Lehninger has a bright future: Although this program was disappointingly guarded in its content, Lehninger’s considerable abilities with standards of the genre provide optimism for more daring content. Whatever it should mean, Thursday’s performance was somehow a qualified success in presenting standard works in a reading that an audience was eager to hear. Certainly, too: Multiple ovations at Marcello Lehninger’s premiere with the BSO portend many more to come.