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Wednesday, November 2,2011

Mass and massiveness

Lansing Symphony rolls out a pair of blockbusters

by Lawrence Cosentino

This symphony preview is so erudite you have to take an entry quiz. Match the adjectives in Line A with the nouns from Line B:


A. Sacred/secular.


B. Gothic cathedral/ Mentos and Diet Coke.


If you drew diagonal lines instead of vertical ones, you’re either a compulsive contrarian, a subtle genius, or you peeked at the line-up for the Lansing Symphony’s second MasterWorks concert, “Mozart & Bruckner.”


Saturday’s slate is a sly sacred-secular switcheroo. Mozart’s fizzy Coronation Mass, with the Michigan State University Choral Union and four guest vocalists, will open the evening with high spirits, and Anton Bruckner’s colossal Fourth Symphony will shut it down in solemn awe. No overtures or fillers will be added.


It’s also a historic night. For the first time in Timothy Muffitt’s five-plus-year tenure as music director, he’s taking his legions into the brass-heavy world of Bruckner, where your ears have to crane their necks to take in all the grandeur.


“I’m really looking forward to diving into this piece with this orchestra because it will take us to new places,” Muffitt said. 


Muffitt endorses the phrase “cathedrals of sound,” often invoked to describe Bruckner’s symphonies. (Good heavens, is nothing secular anymore?)


“His music is built in very large blocks, long extended phrases,” Muffitt said. “It’s more about building these massive structures than it is about a lot of activity on the surface of the music.”


The Fourth’s head-spinning sonorities don’t come from crowding the stage with extra musicians, double-wide glockenspiels or other extras. Take away Philip Sinder’s trusty tuba and Saturday night’s wind section won’t look any different than a Beethoven symphony.


“The way he voices the brass instruments — how the chords are spaced out — is a lot of where the beauty lies,” Muffitt said. 


If the symphony’s overwhelming towers of sound evoke a cathedral’s master builders, so does its fine-grained detail work. To illustrate, Muffitt chose one feature among thousands: when Bruckner marks a note “marcato,” meaning “give it extra emphasis,” the direction means something different than when Beethoven or Strauss does it. Bruckner requires a polished, rolling kind of oomph; Beethoven just wants you to spank it harder.


“Our job in preparing a piece like this has a lot to do with creating that sense of grandeur, spaciousness in the sound itself — not just in the pacing, the unfolding of the piece, but also in the execution,” Muffitt said.


The long list of big and small demands, new to this group, will make rehearsal week intense. “The work we do on this symphony will stick with the orchestra for a very long time.”


Saturday’s pairing challenges the listener’s idea of what secular and sacred music are about. While Bruckner’s sonic cathedrals evoke a religious awe and transcendence in many listeners, Mozart’s Coronation Mass is flat-out feelgood stuff. In Mozart’s hands, the liturgy springs from the dewy grass, banners fluttering, more like a striped row of Mayday festival tents than a Gothic pile.


“Most of the movements are bright and loud and fast and in C major,” Muffitt said. “It’s just brilliant writing — lots of trumpets and drums and oboes, a full-throated choir.”


Only the “Agnus Dei,” with its long and buttery soprano solo, departs from the home key.


Anne Nispel, on the voice faculty at Michigan State, will handle that buttery solo. A quartet of stellar guest soloists includes alto Nicole Weigelt of New York and tenor Paul Appleby, a rising young star who has already sung at the Metropolitan Opera. MSU alumnus and bass soloist Benjamin Clements, fresh from a Carnegie Hall debut in Handel’s Messiah, will grab the low end.


These large-scale orchestral-choral mash-ups call for generalship as well as musicianship. First, Muffitt will rehearse with the soloists alone, so “we’re all speaking the same language.”


“The four soloists, except in the ‘Agnus Dei,’ work as a unit through the whole piece,” Muffitt said. “We have to agree on issues of pronunciation, balance between voices, especially four voices who haven’t sung together.”


He’ll assemble the whole army, with the MSU Choral Union and orchestra, for the first time Friday.


One division — the viola section — will be AWOL during the mass, but only because Mozart left them out. Muffitt loves to bring out the middle voices in a large work, so the omission puzzles him a bit. “I have no idea why that is,” Muffitt mused. “It’s on my list of questions to ask him when I see him.”


Courtesy Photo


Timothy Muffit conducts the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s “Mozart & Bruckner” Saturday. Performing with the LSO will be 225 singers. 

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