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Wednesday, May 4,2011

Organic sounds

LSO pulls out the stops for the 2011-’12 season

by Lawrence Cosentino

Steady on the podium, gentle in person, Lansing Symphony
maestro Timothy Muffitt is the last person you’d cast as a mad organist. 


But Muffitt and his legions are sounding mighty chords in next year’s season, which was announced Sunday.


For the first time in Muffitt’s 6-year tenure as music
director, the orchestra will unleash a tower of sound from Austrian
arch-Romantic Anton Bruckner (4th Symphony, Nov. 5) and a full blast of
genius from Russian Igor Stravinsky (“Petrouchka,” May 10, 2012). 


For a grace note amid the tumult, a pops concert Oct. 21
will give East Lansing jazz vocalist Sunny Wilkinson a long-awaited
chance to romp through the American songbook with Muffitt and a full
symphony orchestra.


The subscription series is just about as
meaty as they come. Call it a crescendo, or a twist of the ratchet, but
Muffitt is pushing the envelope again.


“Every season is an opportunity for growth for everyone — for the audience the orchestra, for myself, ” he said.


Fresh music from living composers,
Muffitt said, will be a part of that growth. The season will open Sept.
16, with tintinnabulations few people in Lansing have heard: “Blue
Cathedral,” a delicate tone poem by brilliant American composer and
Pulitzer Prize laureate Jennifer Higdon. On Feb. 24, 2012, another
above-ground composer, American neo-dazzler Bruce Broughton, weighs in
with something completely different: a tuba concerto, with Lansing
Symphony tuba man Phil Sinder soloing.


“When was the last time you heard a tuba concerto?” Muffitt said.


When Muffitt and Sinder conspired to
uncork Broughton’s colorful, bumptious brass blowout on unsuspecting
locals, they passed up the usual place for tubas and orchestras to meet,
a (relatively) famous concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams.


“We wanted to go in a different direction,” Muffitt said. “Let’s see how composers today are thinking about this instrument.”


What tops a tuba? Every night in the
six-concert MasterWorks series has a huge, pull-out-the-stops
centerpiece, beginning, appropriately, with the “Organ Symphony” of
Camille Saint-Saens (Sept. 16). After that, it only gets bigger, with
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Nov. 5), with its vast, cathedral-like
spaces and blinding beams of brass. 


“I think the Lansing Symphony is ready to
grab ahold of this piece and sink our teeth into it,” he said. “You
can’t program Bruckner with just any orchestra and just any brass
section, and we clearly have the right people in the right places.”


The juggernauts roll on with the original
Big Statement, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (Jan. 7, 2012), Cesar
Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (Feb. 24, 2012) and the mightiest of all
piano concertos, Brahms’ Second, with French star Phillipe Bianconi
soloing (March 10, 2012).


Even the season’s “lesser” stuff, like
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (Feb. 24, 2012), Beethoven’s Violin
Concerto (Sept. 16) and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (March 10,
2012), are substantial enough to anchor most subscription concerts.


When putting the season together, Muffitt
said, he didn’t have an over-arching theme in mind. He was too busy
with the symphony conductor’s eternal conundrum: how to shove the square
peg of freshness into the well-worn circle of familiarity.


“We want to make each night special and
unique, even for people who have been going to concerts their whole
lives,” Muffitt said. 


Looking back, Muffitt realized that two
threads run through the year. For one thing, Saint-Saens, Bruckner and
Franck were all organists.


“I can hear the organist’s temperament in their music,” Muffitt said.


Besides the “Organ” Symphony, Saint-Saens
is also represented next season in the Cello Concerto No. 1, with
Okemos native Felix Wang soloing (Jan. 7, 2012).


Muffitt also sees a strong French
influence running through the season. Four concerts have French curves
on the menu (Saint-Saens, Franck, Debussy and Ravel). Give Beethoven,
with his heart-on-sleeve passion for the French Revolution, an honorary
tricolor.


Muffitt wove all these themes together, in the May 10, 2012, season closer.


Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and
Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” make a nice fairy-tale pair, but the affinity
is even more organic.


In fact, it’s pure math, with a French
composer, Ravel, as the numerator, the Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff
(“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”) as the denominator, and the ultimate
cosmopolitan, Stravinsky, on the other side of the equal sign. 


“The equation that led to Stravinsky’s style was the blending of French and Russian music,” Muffitt explained.


It felt right to mix French and Russian music that way.”


Thundering away with Beethoven, Brahms
and Bruckner is nice work if you can get it, but Muffitt’s baritone
voice acquires a fond pianissimo when he talks about the pops concert
with Sunny Wilkinson.


“Here’s an extraordinary talent, and we
wanted to feature her here on her home turf,” Muffitt said. “She’s the
real deal in the world of jazz singers.”


Muffit relishes the chance to import an
international star like Bianconi (the Brahms guy), but he really loves
the idea of giving Wilkinson’s sunny muse an orchestral field of clover,
right in her own backyard.


“How exciting to say we can create something like this right here, at home,” he said.

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