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Wednesday, May 6,2009

It is finished

Symphony plumbs Mahler’s Fifth in season finale

by Lawrence Cosentino

It’s only a hypothesis.


Maybe Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt and his gang were worried people would ask for a refund when they saw Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony on Review the bill for Saturday’s season finale.



So they compensated in two ways.


First, they showed why the Schubert is really complete in its two parts. In the first movement, the music seems to bang its head against a wall, like a person working out a difficult problem. Saturday’s performance eloquently expressed tension, effort and frustration, with just the right hint of hysteria at the end.


The second movement seems to offer a solution by settling down to purposeful work. There’s a continuous “thump, thump, thump,” like highway stripes slipping by as you think your road-trip thoughts. Sometimes the thump is explicit; at other times it’s only implied. At one point it just stops and your mind keeps it going through the silence. Muffitt and the band passed this vital throb from soloist to soloist, section to section, without losing the thread or even calling attention to their skill.

OK, so the symphony lacked the customary slam-bang ending. The other Schubert never drops. But Muffitt and crew had a little something up their tux cuffs by way of compensation.

To finish off the year, the home team served up the 72-minute mother of orchestral epics — Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

You want a finale? The Mahler Fifth has about 34 massive climaxes, each one more crushing than the last.


You knew it was going to get heavy when timpanist Mark Johnson stayed on stage during intermission. While the other musicians ducked out for a Camel or a Zagnut, Johnson snuck into Mahler land, practicing his rumbles and booms for the tumult to come.


Mahler’s Fifth is an exhausting emotional journey, but Muffitt and the band sprang through it all, from bleak foothills to bright heights, without a significant slip. There were a few droopy patches, especially toward the end, as the orchestra began to tire, but I’ve heard the same thing happen to Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony with the same music. This is a marathon, after all.


Overwhelmingly, all the notes were there, but technical accomplishment wasn’t even the point. Among Muffitt’s many accomplishments as music director — perhaps the most important — is that he has definitively turned the symphony’s musical face toward the audience. Even when the going got tough, there wasn’t a moment when it seemed as if the musicians were up there to gratify themselves or work out some abstract task. They kept up the emotional intensity, never lost sight of the music’s inner logic and brought the listeners right with them through all 72 minutes.

It couldn’t have been easy. The music starts like a cancer diagnosis, with ominous throbs from low brass. Starting a trend for the evening, principal trombonist Ava Ordman and her cohorts rattled audience chest cavities with infernal vibrations.

Hell really broke loose in the second movement, where Mahler seems to throw the musical rulebook away and shove the whole churning panorama of early 20thcentury life, from ballroom dances to battlefield slaughter, down a giant garbage disposal.

Through it all, Muffitt took pains to bring out the weirdness in the music, whipping up conflicting outbursts and cross-currents, pushing the music to a disturbing edge.


Not only does Mahler exult in life’s extremes, he dares to declare their essential unity. Saturday’s performance really dug into this unsettling androgyny of good and evil. Sometimes the horror was exhilarating and the beauty dragged like a ball and chain.

A strange waltz movement was just as rich in contrast. In a haunting, intimate middle section, the strings plucked out a delicate web of melody and a round of lovely woodwind solos played out like a heartfelt conversation over beer. By the time Muffitt uncorked the songful slow movement, letting its heady vapors gradually drift through the hall, he had the Wharton Center audience in a trance.

The finale — nobody can accuse this symphony of being unfinished — delivered one cathartic sunburst after another. Musical minds talk a lot about the “finale problem,” but Mahler’s solution here was simple enough: blast out a couple of headclearing hunting fanfares, roll out some rollicking fugues, then do both at once. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a simple rule, but Mahler takes it to his usual Olympian extremes. Lansing’s brass section may never have another opportunity to cover itself in so much glory.

To kick us into summer, Muffitt and the orchestra did more than pull through their most ambitious sally yet. They took us into very deep waters and brought us safely to shore. Here’s hoping they are game for more voyages after a few months of dry dock.

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