LENOX -- It could be called the art of living dangerously. Or it could be called part of the assistant conductor’s job.
For example: In 2011, James Levine was too sick to go on for his scheduled concerts. Marcelo Lehninger, then the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, would have to step in for the then music director.
For three days, Lehninger recalls, he locked himself up with his scores and saw his wife, Laura, only when she brought him food. Then, five minutes before he met the BSO for their first rehearsal, word came: Levine had resigned.
With heavy hearts, Lehninger and the orchestra went on to prepare the daunting program Levine had designed for himself. It featured the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto along with Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist.
Four performances in Boston were climaxed by one in Carnegie Hall. By New York, Lehninger and the BSO knew the pieces and each other well. In The Times, critic Anthony Tommasini described the young substitute as "terrific," conducting "with impressive technique, musical insight and youthful energy."
The feeling of friendship and support from the orchestra in such situations is "amazing," says Lehninger. It makes it easier to get through the ordeal.
Tonight at Tanglewood, Lehninger, now the BSO’s associate conductor and the director of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles, leads a BSO program of his own.
Lehninger, who is 34, has been on Tanglewood podiums before -- both the BSO’s and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s. Just last Monday, stepping in for the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, he conducted the student orchestra in Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony.
After three years as assistant conductor, Lehninger moved up to associate last fall. The current appointment runs for one more year.
He says the promotion means, in addition to sitting in on rehearsals and being on standby duty, more concerts of his own. He will, for example, open the BSO’s fall season with a program of Mozart, Villa-Lobos and Beethoven. An assistant conductor also helps the announced conductor with such tasks as correcting scores, doing sound checks during rehearsals and coaching soloists.
Born in Brazil to a pianist mother and violinist father, Lehninger first came to the United States in 2004 to study conducting at Bard College. He was about to return to Brazil for a job in 2010 when the BSO invited him to audition for an assistant’s position. The audition and job offer happened so unexpectedly that the family’s belongings were already on the way back to Brazil.
"Do you thing we can get everything back?" he remembers asking his wife. It was too late. They stayed six months in Brazil and returned to Boston and the BSO that fall.
Stepping in for disappearing conductors -- he has also subbed for Andris Nelsons -- can be hairy but it can also be rewarding, Lehninger says. There was the time, without rehearsal of his own, he took over a program including Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony from Stephane Deneve. Deneve had taken the first three concerts in the series of four but couldn’t stay for the last.
"It’s funny, how I was trying to do as much as I could his way, because of course I didn’t want the orchestra to get confused," Lehninger recalls. But at one point in the Shostakovich, "I experimented to change little things here, there. And the BSO is such a wonderful orchestra, they respond so fast, that I thought, ‘I can do whatever from this point on.’ "
He did and, he adds, "They got excited, actually. They liked it."
Lehninger, his wife and their daughter, Sofia, 2, are staying in a rented house in Richmond. He and Sofia share a birthday, Oct. 1, but as a celebration, he says cheerfully, "It’s not my birthday anymore. It’s hers."
Lehninger is too young to have known Leonard Bernstein but as he spoke, he sat under a portrait of the master in the green room of Ozawa Hall, on what is now the Bernstein campus. Before Lehninger’s TMC Orchestra concert Monday, Tanglewood dedicated a bust of Bernstein in the Highwood Manor House, also on that campus.
There’s more than coincidence here. Speakers at the ceremony, including John Williams, who commissioned the bust from sculptress Penelope Jencks, recalled Bernstein’s half-century of nurturing young conductors in his Tanglewood concerts and classes. Bernstein never knew Ozawa Hall or the Bernstein campus, which were opened after his death in 1990. But when Lehninger stood before the student orchestra, he stood where Bernstein had stood and was an inheritor of the Bernstein legacy.