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Wednesday, September 21,2011

Starting on the right note

Guest violinist Schmidt graces an often spellbinding LSO concert

by Nyssa Rabinowitz

It’s the first concert of the new season. You might
expect cobwebs. You might expect the orchestra to be like the students
at Michigan State University: willing to play, but wishing summer had
been just a bit longer.


There may have been a couple of cobwebs still left in the
corners, but Lansing Symphony’s opening performance Friday night made
one thing clear: The symphony is ready for action.


Conductor and music director Timothy Muffitt’s first
concert blended the well-known greatness of Beethoven and Saint-Saens
with a touch of the new by kicking off the program with
Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and her 2000 hit “Blue
Cathedral.”


Mixing the unusual with the familiar, Higdon combines
unique instrumentation with a relaxing, calming style, creating a work
that brings you in at the beginning, hooks you quickly and takes you on
a wild ride before releasing you at the end. The relaxing interplay of
soloists and orchestra laid the foundation of the cathedral and
encouraged you to stay and look around. The explosive sound of the
brass fanfare in the middle filled the Wharton Center with sound, a
different style from the start to be sure, but no less entrancing. 


But the end is where the feeling of awe took hold, as one
by one select musicians throughout the orchestra began to shake Chinese
reflex bells, fist-sized bells that quietly shimmered in the background
until their volume overtook the remaining traditional players. Eight
musicians played crystal goblets filled with water by running their
fingers around the rims of the glasses, creating an ethereal drone to
complement the shimmering of the bells. The piano hit a few notes as
the piece drew to a close, adding pitch to the soothing combination of
bells and drone. When the piece ended, the audience sat mesmerized,
afraid to clap and break the spell until the maestro’s arms finally
fell, releasing both the musicians and the attendees.


Higdon’s mesmerizing spell was nothing compared to the
attention violinist Giora Schmidt commanded during his rendition of the
Beethoven violin concerto. He stood nonchalantly on stage as the
orchestra began its introduction, eyes closed, humming and swaying
along with the music. However, when he raised his violin and drew his
bow, his sound — like the bells in the Higdon piece — floated over the
orchestra with crystal precision, drawing the audience in. 


One craved the brief moments when Schmidt played alone on
the stage, not because the orchestra was bad — it wasn’t — but because
Schmidt was that captivating. His deep, rich tone, heavy with vibrato
makes him the only thing you want to hear, and nobody dared to break
his enchantment between movements. 


Nobody could question the soloist’s skill as he began the
final cadenza. The flying fingers, the crisp tone, the sultry slides
would have been enough to draw anyone in. He was so charismatic that
the listener would never know how hard the work really was. Yet he
played with such feeling and such depth that it was impossible not to
fall under his spell.


The final gem of Friday’s performance
was the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3, the so-called “organ symphony.” The
violins had some minor intonation problems in the first movement (the
cobwebs of summer slowly being brushed aside) but all discomfort was
forgotten when the organ made its first entrance in the second movement.


Although there were no pipes to be seen
since the symphony used a digital organ, the air still shook with the
vibrations from the organ’s chords.


Muffitt conducted the second movement
beautifully, making full use of rubato in the absolutely perfect spots
to tug the audience’s heartstrings without losing the intensity and
emotion that the movement demanded. 


The third movement, unfortunately, was
where the most cobwebs appeared. One violinist, no doubt swept up in
the moment, entered too early in an involuntary solo before the rest of
the section joined him, but the mistake could not break the audience’s
strict attention as the movement proceeded into the booming finale.


This is what you came to hear: the sound of an organ
unleashed. For all the orchestra’s power, it was no match for the
organ’s roar. But after the rousing beginning, a familiar theme washed
over the hall, a theme known to anyone with a fondness for the little
sheep-pig in the movie “Babe.” It was easy to see why this powerhouse
was left for last on the program — absolutely nothing could follow it.
The finale built you up and left you wanting more and the organ’s final
notes had barely begun to clear the air before the audience shot to its
feet in applause.


If you had any doubts, erase them. Muffit has done it again. The symphony has returned.

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