Grand Rapids Symphony aims to step into the rhythm of the times

Marcelo Lehninger, Music Director at the Grand Rapids Symphony, is working to bring music and community together in new ways as the symphony seeks to maintain its appeal in a changing cultural landscape. As Grand Rapids continues to grow, attracting a new generation of young professionals and families, innovative voices within the symphony, like Lehninger’s, are asking how to best appeal to a wider audience. Changes to formats, blending genre, informal educational opportunities, and more community-focused events are on the horizon for the symphony, updates which Lehninger anticipates will be music to the ears of area music fans, particularly younger crowds.

Marcelo Lehninger, who is currently finishing up his third season, is hoping to bring new energy into the symphony. “It’s my mission as a musician to connect with a younger audience,” Lehninger says. At 39, Lehninger himself identifies as relatively ‘young,’ that is, compared to the traditional crowd at a symphony. However, his age only explains part of his commitment to reaching that below-40 demographic.

“We [the symphony] need to think of the future,” he says. According to Lehninger, bringing in younger people and their families and creating new meaningful, community-driven experiences is essential to keeping cultural institutions like the symphony relevant and well-attended. As the symphony begins to compete more with other exciting entertainment options, they must adjust their offerings to better suit what audiences are after, or risk falling into obscurity as another relic of a bygone era.

For those with eyes on the horizon like Lehninger, it’s about recognizing that, “we aren’t only entertainment. Orchestras need to be for the community,” he says. In order to create a larger and more meaningful experience, the symphony needs to make a concentrated effort to build a connected musical community. It means moving out of the orchestra hall to create more intimate experiences, like their most recent ArtPrize performance, in which the symphony performed nine mini-concerts featuring brand new music by four young and emerging composers. 

While the details of these experiences remain to be seen, Lehninger hopes to innovate, possibility collaborating with area musicians and poets to create something never seen before. Ideas like a blended genre concert, or a symphonic poetry slam are possibilities in a city like Grand Rapids, he says. Ultimately Lehninger believes that to truly forge a direct link between audience and orchestra, the symphony must create opportunities for patrons to voice their opinions and allow their input to give direction to the symphony as an organization.

This is the motivation behind a recent outreach initiative that has Lehninger inviting community stakeholders for an informal discussion on the future of the Grand Rapids Symphony. This outreach committee may form the prototype for future meet and greets, where conductors or musicians have the opportunity to bond with their audience directly over their shared passion: music.

Certainly his is an ambitious approach, perhaps even too radical a shift for the symphony to sustain, but Lehninger is speaking from a place of experience. He has been playing music nearly his entire life, and got his start conducting youth orchestras at age 18. Over the course of his career, he’s conducted at both organizations that valued tradition, like The Boston Symphony Orchestra, and programs that emphasized innovation, like the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin. Lehninger knows that the culture of a city can dramatically affect the opportunities for their symphony, and that’s precisely what brought him to Grand Rapids.

When speaking of his first visit, Lehninger says “I saw an orchestra full of possibilities.” He saw a community with a healthy base of philanthropy, a growing population of young professionals, and an influx of younger musicians in the orchestra itself. It is, in the eyes of Lehninger, at the perfect spot to try something new, with a culture that could easily adapt to the new offerings if invited to participate in their creation.

If these new initiatives are as successful as Lehninger and the organization hope, there may come a day in the not too distant future when going down to the symphony on a Friday night is the hip and happening thing to do. While the results of such efforts remain to be seen, audiences can look forward to new experiences as the Grand Rapids Symphony seeks to evolve.

Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Symphony.
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