The New West Symphony is not bucking a trend. It now too has a young music director from South America. Last weekend the orchestra — which is based in Thousand Oaks and also performs in Oxnard and Santa Monica — began its first season under its new music director, Marcelo Lehninger.
At Sunday’s Santa Monica matinee in Barnum Hall, a birthday cake was served during intermission in anticipation of Lehninger’s 33rd birthday Monday. With his baby-face smile, he might pass for younger. The orchestra dubbed the weekend a “Marcelobration.”
He might pass for a bit younger on the podium as well, given a tendency to over-conduct. No matter, the cause for celebration was real. The program was conventional, beginning with a broad account of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” Overture and ending with a fussy and flamboyant, if also ingratiating and occasionally electrifying, Dvorák Eighth Symphony. But there was no inconsistency in the playing, which revealed an obvious chemistry between the new music director and his musicians.
There was more to celebrate. Founded in 1995 by an enterprising Canadian conductor, Boris Brott, whom Lehninger succeeds, the New West underwent a financial crisis three years ago. Musicians were required to take a significant pay cut. But an exceptional turnaround has occurred.
Along with the cake, Sunday’s intermission included a ceremonial presentation of a giant $1-million check from one of the orchestra’s supporters, Miriam Chase Wille, which Lehninger humorously tried to pocket.
Lehninger’s inaugural season means that, remarkably, no Europeans head major Southern California orchestras. From Santa Barbara to San Diego, the current music directors are Israeli, Venezuelan, Mexican, Texan and Indonesian — and with Lehninger, Brazilian. The Pasadena Symphony, which is in search mode, could change that, but Jorge Mester, its music director from 1984 to 2010, is from Mexico City.
It will no doubt take at least a couple of years for Lehninger to put a distinctive stamp on this orchestra, given how commonplace is his repertory this season. Brott was, at least at times, more expansive in his programming, and so, for that matter, is Lehninger elsewhere. He serves as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony and has stepped in more than once to lead interesting programs and premieres when James Levine or others canceled.
None of that, though, will find its way to new New West this season. Of particular disappointment is that Lehninger has programmed no Brazilian music, even though this year is the 125th birthday of Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer. When is the last time you heard a Villa-Lobos symphony? This summer at Tanglewood, Lehninger led the Boston Symphony in a highly praised performance of Villa-Lobos’ little known “Momoprecoce,” a fabulous fantasy for piano and orchestra, with Nelson Freire as soloist.
The concerto Sunday was, instead, Samuel Barber’s cloying Violin Concerto featuring Anne Akiko Meyers, who played the work with the Pasadena Symphony two years ago. This was a better performance, since in Pasadena she had been held back by lugubrious conductor James DePreist. Here thanks to Lehninger’s crisp accompaniment and Meyers’ opaque, characterful tone, Barber’s spoonfuls of sugar seemed fewer.
In Dvorak’s Eighth, Lehninger had something to say about every phrase. He would caress a slow measure, Marcelobrate a showy one. The slow movement was bathed in bathos. An unsuspecting listener might mistake this for lesser hyper-expressive Mahler, not Dvorák’s most lyrically genial symphony.
The last two movements had more to like in the performance. The Allegretto swayed somewhere between waltz and samba — all the more reason to yearn for Villa-Lobos. In the Finale, Lehninger put the flashy bits on full display, but he also demonstrated genuine flair and enticed sensational brass playing. By the end, he left behind enough exhilaration to dampen doubts.
Lehninger needs some seasoning, and New West’s seasons under him need to be more distinctive. But, for now, let the Marcelobration continue. The talent is there. And so apparently is the will. And that fat check.