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Wednesday, April 2,2014

Erb-encrusted Bernstein

Ava Ordman gets elemental in Lansing Symphony shocker

by Lawrence Cosentino
The most seasoned Lansing Symphony subscriber would have had trouble copping a snooze at Saturday´s concert. Damn that barking trombonist!

The dizzying, dance-infused densities of Leonard Bernstein took the lion’s share of an all-American evening, but 20 years from now, anybody who was lucky enough to be there is likely to recall something else: a burbling mud pit of music that smelled more of Yellowstone than Tanglewood.

Ava Ordman, the Lansing Symphony´s principal trombonist, should have been smudged with clay and festooned with twigs and leaves before her powerhouse performance of Donald Erb´s elemental 1976 trombone concerto.

This was music you felt, like a fever, instead of listening to it. Near the end of the first movement, a tremor rose up the orchestra´s collective body, section by section, from dirt-level double basses and tubas to loin-stirring woodwinds to piercing, forehead-high brass to the hair follicle-tingling of a xylophone and celesta.

It was a "Bride of Frankenstein" moment, horrifying, beautiful and a little bit funny. My god, it´s alive!

Ordman made mercurial leaps in register from subsonic bullhorn to trumpeting elephant, with a multitude of murmurs, shouts and serenades in between. No wonder she took a death-row swallow of water before embarking upon her adventure. (The gulp got a sympathetic laugh from the audience.) She hadn´t played the concerto, her signature piece, in 20 years, but at 60, her command was complete and her power and purity of tone were unyielding.

In the absence of melodies and other predictable stuff Erb called “commercial bullshit,” an undertow of mounting drama swept the music forward.

At first, Ordman seemed to be summoning the mysterious forces around her, like an earth goddess blowing into a tree or a seashell. The orchestra responded evasively, with furry wingbeats, strange echoes and odd stirrings. There were two mind-bending moments in the first movement when the whole orchestra buckled like melting glass with weird smears of notes, executed with perfect precision.

The bleating, crying and scuttling sounds seemed written by nature, not the human mind, except when ashen flakes of harmony and melody drifted by, like traces of long-burnt manuscripts.

On the timzescale of human civilization, “pre” oscillated with “post” like a musical Moebius strip. In the second movement, Ordman put a mute in her trombone and delivered a cryptic, muffled incantation. The violins responded with two seconds of downy melody Mendelssohn would have recognized, but the wisps instantly blew away.

In the last movement, the music got wilder and denser, putting Ordman into a corner and forcing her to fight off the forces she had summoned. It was a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scenario, only nobody was Mickey Mousing around. Going back to the primal roots of her art, Ordman made her trombone growl like a didgeridoo, adding canine vocal “yips” that froze the blood. Floor-quaking drums set off an orchestral tsunami. Just as the crescendo crested, Ordman let out a scream that ripped through the fabric of the music and it was over.

If this seems like a lot of fuss over 20 minutes of music, there´s more reason to be proud of Saturday’s performance than boasting to Loki that we have an Ava Ordman.There are big city orchestras (and audiences) that don´t tackle music like this. Maestro Timothy Muffitt has stretched Lansing’s cultural dough again, gently but firmly, without rupturing the pizza. His main motive was to give Ordman a worthy vehicle, but he couldn´t have done justice to her like this 10 years ago.

Bravo to the audience for trusting Muffitt and to Muffitt for earning that trust.

The night’s major work, a generous suite of Bernstein’s music from “West Side Story,” had the requisite wham of Broadway and back alley, but it was not as complete a success as the Erb concerto.

The cascading curtains of sound were all there, vividly clear and distinct, but the music never reached the Dionysian surrender to dance Bernstein was after. For good or ill, nobody lost their cool. In fact, the finger-snapping “Stay Cool” segment came off best. The jazzy shuffle popped as cleanly as mid-century-modern architecture, with empty spaces that made me imagine the Sharks and Jets dancing on floating steps made out of vibraphone keys.

Saturday’s concert was packed with dense, shape-shifting music, beginning with the night’s opening salvo, Bernstein´s bustling “Candide” Overture. From the opening fanfare, Muffitt set an almost frantic pace, as if to goose the orchestra into all-American overdrive. The band responded with a crack five-ring circus, sending melodies tumbling over each other with agility and verve.

Despite the differences between Erb and Bernstein, the theme of American restlessness vibrated through the entire program. (Even “Candide” is about frantic optimism in the face of horrific events.)

Only the rarely heard "Letter From Home," a six-minute idyll by Aaron Copland, sat still for long. Muffitt excels at drawing the emotional logic from a long arc of music, and this was his only chance to do it Saturday. But even this bucolic music permitted no snoozing. Half way through “Letter From Home,” the orchestra extruded a toxic blast of dissonance, heroically rendered by the brass section, before pulling back to a dusty pink sunset. Is the reader of this letter squatting on a battlefield or sitting in prison? Music in America is usually running, or dancing, away from tragedy.

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