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Washington’s Bellingham Festival of Music Hires New Artistic Director

Brazilian-born conductor Marcelo Lehninger will assume the role for a five-year term, effective immediately


Marcelo Lehninger, 43, succeeds the Bellingham Festival of Music’s (BFM) co-founder and conductor laureate, Michael Palmer, who led the festival between 1993 and 2022, and will lead one concert per year as of 2025.

Following a three-year search, Lehninger was the unanimous choice of all the Festival’s constituents — orchestra, board of directors, sponsors, and audiences — who had filled out detailed opinion surveys about each of the five guest conductors who performed at the festival this summer.

Chaired by the retired physician and BFM cellist Daniel Feller, the search committee comprised four BFM orchestra players, two board members, and the BFM production manager.

Also the music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony (where his contract was recently extended to 2030) Lehninger made his Bellingham debut this summer, performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with violinist Blake Pouliot, plus works by Valentin Silvestrov and Dvořák.

Appointed music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 2016, Lehninger brought the orchestra to Carnegie Hall in 2018 for its first performance at the venue in 13 years. His previous roles include music director of the New West Symphony, plus assistant and then associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). 

His recent and upcoming engagements include the Sarasota Orchestra, North Carolina and Tulsa Symphonies, and San Antonio Philharmonic; Peninsula Music Festival, Prague Philharmonia, MAV Symphony, the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, and Minas Gerais Philharmonic.

Making his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011 with the BSO, Lehninger has performed with the Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Houston, Detroit, Baltimore, and Seattle Symphonies; plus led the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Orchestre National de France, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, and Lucerne Symphony.

He has led all of Brazil’s top orchestras and served as associate conductor of the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, where he returns regularly as guest conductor. He has also assisted conductors Mariss Jansons and Kurt Masur.

Additionally, Lehninger served as music advisor of The Orchestra of the Americas from the 2007/08 season. His awards include the League of American Orchestras’ Helen H. Thompson Award for Emerging Music Directors.

Prior to conducting, Lehninger took lessons in violin and piano. He is a graduate of the Conductors Institute at New York’s Bard College, where he studied conducting with Harold Farberman and composition with Laurence Wallach.

Already planning BFM’s 2024 season, Lehninger will oversee all artistic aspects of the festival in consultation with the board and the BFM artistic committee; select repertoire and guest artists; plan future seasons; audition musicians to fill vacancies in the orchestra and chorus; set the performance and rehearsal schedules; plus collaborate on educational outreach and fundraising.  

For his inaugural 2024 season, Lehninger will conduct all five of BFM’s orchestral concerts. 

“I am so humbled to be appointed…The energizing chemistry with the orchestra, meeting new friends in beautiful Bellingham, WA and seeing the involved and hard working board were top highlights of my summer,” Lehninger wrote on Facebook. “Additionally, meeting and having numerous conversations with the wonderful executive leader Erika Block made me so enthusiastic for this position. These are very exciting times and I am honored to be a new member of the wonderful Bellingham Festival of Music family.”

“As soon as Marcelo stood on our podium for his first rehearsal, I think the whole orchestra could feel his warmth and sincerity,” said Christina Smith, principal flute of both the BFM and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “He showed great confidence and direction, while also being genuinely inspiring, bringing the music to life. Marcelo’s concert was electrifying, and I am so excited about the future of BFM with him as our musical leader.” 

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