The Boston Symphony Orchestra has not exactly been a low-key place to be an assistant conductor in recent years. In March 2011, during his first season on the job, the Brazilian conductor Marcelo Lehninger stepped in for an ailing James Levine to lead the world premiere of a fiercely challenging violin concerto by Harrison Birtwistle.
It’s been a pleasure to watch Lehninger’s comfort grow and his rapport with the orchestra deepen since then, as he has by now notched significant experience with the players, leading them at Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Tanglewood. It also comes as little surprise that his career is beginning to take shape beyond Boston. This fall, he assumes the directorship of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles, which is currently billing his arrival as a “Marcelobration.”
Thursday night, in works by Tchaikovsky, Bernstein, and Dvorak, Lehninger, 33, demonstrated once more his strong musical instincts, his clear technique, and his dynamic podium style. In Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” he drew warmly rhapsodic playing from the orchestra, and some boldly energetic playing in the outer movements of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.
That said, Lehninger’s performance also demonstrated to the room he still has to grow as an interpreter. He often gravitates toward one of two gestural registers, conducting with either cool precision or with the appearance of scorching heat. But the most supple and effective performances rely of course on countless degrees of shading between these two poles, and on a sense of phrasing that stretches and shapes the music such that climaxes arrive not only with their own momentary force but with a power accumulated over the long journey. I wish I heard more of that rhetorical cogency Thursday night, which would have taken the orchestra’s bright-hued and highly virtuosic playing to the next level of impact.
Violinist Joshua Bell was also on hand, lending his trademark silken tone and debonair style to Bernstein’s Serenade, a musical imagining of Plato’s “Symposium.” For Tuesday’s repeat of this program, the Bernstein will be replaced by Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Orchestra, featuring the Hawthorne Quartet, made up of BSO players. It’s too bad that this fascinating work received a spot on just one of the four performances. But one is better than zero.