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Wednesday, November 11,2009

From orbs to urbanity

LSO wades through contrasting worlds

by Lawrence Cosentino
Mud clod for mud clod, bruise for bruise, I’ll take any 1960s Hollywood battle epic over the computer-generated spectacles of today. There may be TV antennas in the distance and a different sky in every shot, but you can feel the armor clank, the winds blow and the muscles strain. And there’s nothing like the thrill of knowing that real people were killed, or at least badly hurt, just to entertain you.

As far as I know, nobody was maimed at Saturday night’s Lansing Symphony concert, but the orchestra’s Napoleon-scaled march through Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” was a bruiser. With an augmented orchestra straining the Wharton Center boards, the symphony mustered brutal momentum when it had to, but it also willed itself into a lightness that belied the effort and scale of the performance.


The charms of “The Planets” are familiar to most music lovers, but on Saturday, countless details that go unnoticed on recordings spilled into the hall. Among these were the scary scrape of violin bows bouncing up and down on the strings in the build-up to war in “Mars,” the two-tuba asskicks at the end of “Uranus,” the fleet violin and woodwind work of “Mercury,” the chugging brass undertow of “Jupiter” and a lovely nebula of female voices drifting into the hall from backstage for the transcendent finale.


It’s unusual for maestro Timothy Muffitt and the band to falter technically these days, but there were a few transitional bits that almost came unglued, and intonation went slightly off course a few times.


But a lot happens in “The Planets.” Whenever there was a whiff of trouble, Muffitt subtly activated the retro-rockets, so everybody could hit the important marks. More than that, Muffitt and crew pumped red blood and raw feeling into the sonic spectacle. There was hairy jollity in “Jupiter,” supple eroticism in “Mercury” (but not in “Venus,” which felt slightly rushed) and testosterone to spare in “Mars” and “Uranus.”


But the music hit hardest in the slowly tick-tocking “Saturn,” an astonishing meditation that takes the listener from rockingchair boredom to wild panic over death to blissful reconciliation with the order of the universe. (Not bad for five minutes.)


The first half of Saturday’s concert, Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” offered a more refined array of pleasures. In the middle of a conservative Lansing Symphony season designed to sell tickets more than break musical ground, it was kind of Muffitt to freshen things up by sneaking in Poulenc’s bright and tuneful yet oddly astringent music. “Gloria” may be a harmless mass, but it’s a bustling, dapper Parisian take on the Catholic liturgy — an Art Deco stairway to Heaven. The orchestra got with the program from the first note, putting an extra crease in its crescendos and starch in its staccatos to cultivate the correct level of urbanity. “Laudamus Te” bustled with brisk, melodic cross-traffic, and “Domine Fili” was as exuberant as a pillow fight (with satin pillows).


Soprano soloist Nancy Allen Lundy put a fine glass case over these high-end goods. Her voice was focused and clear, but its brittle timbre verged on shrillness at times. However, a warmer singer might have put too much hearth, home and fish smell in this decidedly modernist church.


The MSU State Singers, Choral Union and University Chorale had the orchestra outnumbered, but they didn’t match its precision, clarity and punch. The imbalance wasn’t a deal-breaker, though. On the music’s imaginary Paris street, the choir swung by every so often like an overstuffed bus, adding welcome heft to the scene. No matter that a few arms and legs were left flailing from a window as the bus rounded a curve — it only made the corner more fun to watch.

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