GR Symphony, conductor Lehninger to take tour of historic Mussgorsky’s ‘Pictures’

Grand Rapids Symphony, conducted by Marcelo Lehninger, will present “Pictures at an Exhibition” next week. (Supplied/Stu Rosner)


By K.D. Norris


Marcelo Lehninger, in his first full year as Grand Rapids Symphony’s Musical Director, has a long history with Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” — ranging from hearing it in its original piano solo form as a youth, to it being on his debut program at the famous Tanglewood Festival, to his now conducting it on both sides of the Atlantic in the span of a month.


But as he prepares to bring Maurice Ravel’s orchestrated version of the work to Grand Rapids’ DeVos Performance Hall on Friday and Saturday, March 3-4, he admits to having only a cursory knowledge of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s progressive-rock, synthesizer-driven version.


And who is to blame him? He was raised in Brazil, surrounded by classical and Latin music — his father is German violinist Erich Lehninger and mother Brazilian pianist Sonia Goulart — and he was born in 1979, eight years after EL&P’s vinyl version debuted.


“I first heard the piece on its original piano solo version, and I felt in love with it,” Lehninger said in a email interview this week. “I’ve conducted many times — in fact I just conducted it in Europe (Slovenia) where I am right now. It was also on my debut program in Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony.”


The cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmers vinyl recording to “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

And, despite his only passing familiarity with the rock variation, he is all for even old rockers giving Ravel’s version a listen.


“I heard about the ELP version, but never got familiar with it,” he said. “In any case, we will rock with ‘Pictures’ next week in Grand Rapids!”


Ravel’s version, with its virtuoso violin work required, is the most “colorful” of all the versions, Lehninger believes, despite the fact that he studied both violin and piano early in his career.


“I definitely have an affinity for both violin and piano, not only because I studied these instruments, but because I grew up listening to them,” he said. “However, one instrument was never enough for me. I loved playing the violin and piano, but I needed more colors, more sounds; therefore I exchanged the 88 keys of the piano for 88 musicians in the orchestra.


“I believe that many composers that orchestrated the piece felt exactly how I felt playing just one instrument. This is a piece with so many sounds and colors possibilities, somehow the piano alone doesn’t achieve that. Therefore many composers orchestrated the piece. Although Ravel’s orchestration is criticized for not ‘sounding Russian enough’, it is my favorite orchestration of the piece. Ravel was a master of orchestration and with ‘Pictures’ he explores all the sound palette of the orchestra. I have to confess that I like Ravel’s version much better than the original piano solo version.”


In addition to “Pictures at an Exhibition”, also on the symphony’s upcoming program are Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major with guest soloist Stefan Jackiw, as well as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and “John Corigliano’s Promenade Overture from 1981.


Violinist Stefan Jackiw. (Supplied)

Jackiw’s career has included performing at the grand opening of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall alongside pianist Emanuel Ax, soprano Renée Fleming and conductor James Levine. He may be best known to younger audiences for his performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at Australia’s Sydney Opera house, seen live on YouTube by more than 30 million people worldwide.


For more information on Grand Rapids Symphony concerts visit