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Wednesday, September 15,2010

Working through the B's

Lansing Symphony powers through a heavy opening night

by Lawrence Cosentino
There must be remote villages, far from Western symphony halls, where the whole idea of a scheduled “concert” is absurd. How could I know whether I’d feel like hearing music at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, let alone two massive works by Beethoven and Brahms?

I forgot that Western orchestras have their tricks.


Friday night, after a long summer of drydock, maestro Timothy Muffitt turned the key and mercilessly gunned the Lansing Symphony for a breakneck ride through the obscure “Donna Diana” overture by Emil Reznicek.


It’s the old Mongolian steakhouse gambit. Not sure you’re hungry? Wait until the chef comes out, bristling with blades, and chops up the meat faster than the eye can follow. Zzzing, gleam, chokachokachok, sizzle.


Now you’re hungry.


Fine thing, too, because there was a lot of meat on Friday’s menu.


Compressing three soloists — piano, violin and cello — into one symphonic slab, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is a mouthful and a half. The result is often labored, especially when all three soloists work out an idea serially, handing the melodies to each other like sailors passing orders on a submarine.


The orchestra seemed to taxi on the runway for a long time, waiting for an updraft. They got just enough lift from the Trio Terzetto, Friday’s three-person guest soloist, to get the music off the ground, in an on-and-off, running-and-kicking sort of way.


As a working chamber group, the trio had obvious rapport. I found myself wishing for a short-wave radio to pick up all their subsonic chatter, but I had to content myself with their supple, tensile sound and fascinating body language. Cellist Tanya Ell, the hometown girl from Okemos who made good in the Cleveland Orchestra, kept up a quirky, lively interplay with violinist Diana Cohen.


Ell and Cohen seemed to play against the natural tendencies of their instruments. Cohen exuded a dark, clenched introversion you don’t expect from a violinist, while Ell was all extroverted sunshine on the usually dark cello. The meeting of opposites gave the music a binary star around which to orbit.


There were many sweet moments, including Ell’s bravura handoff to the orchestra before the big finale, but this music is hard work, and it showed.


A lot of that is Beethoven’s fault. There just wasn’t a lot for the orchestra to do except elbow its way in and slam away at Beethoven’s obsessive “ending” chords, which appear at the beginning and all through the middle, as well as at the end. Beethoven had to get this unwieldy three-winged craft out of his system, it seems, and to my knowledge, nobody has ever flown very high in it. The home team and its guest trio made a creditable run.


When the orchestra dived into the evening’s closer, the gorgeous Second Symphony of Brahms, the flashy chopchop of Reznicek was forgotten.


By now, Muffitt had locked all the cleavers and knives in the cabinet. This was smooth stuff. Vast curtains of liquid light poured from giant vats into the hall. The linkages between sections, the unfolding layers of brass, strings and woodwinds, were blended into aurora-like blankets of cool fire. But this was no mere exercise in sensuality. In the slow movement, the music began to glow more intensely, like bright but focused gaslight. Just when you got into a trance contemplating the flame, Muffitt turned the gas way up, until it grew into a terrifying wildfire that seemed to sweep the world. As the huge crescendo went nova, the music was suddenly all around, unmade, indestructible. Of course, that must have been hard work, too, but this time it didn’t show.


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