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Wednesday, January 4,2012

When 'Eroica' was new

Lansing Symphony Orchestra strips away the varnish from Beethoven’s breakthrough masterpiece

by Lawrence Cosentino
There comes a time when the voice deepens, strange new emotions stir and hair grows in interesting places.

Adolescence? No — there’s something even hairier, deeper and more emotional than that. Nothing surges through a culture more powerfully than a major change in music.

For some, a big change came in the late 1960s, when bubblegum Top 40 morphed into epic rock odysseys on FM radio. For others, life went into a new key when jazzman John Coltrane spun Tin Pan Alley tunes into profound half-hour meditations.

For people of a certain age — about 230 years old or so — the big break came when Beethoven whipped old-fashioned symphonies (his own first two included) from quaint dance movements to furious storm fronts of personal expression.

On Saturday, the Lansing Symphony and maestro Timothy Muffitt re-create that watershed moment by playing Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” along with a dazzling work by American composer David Diamond and Camille Saint Saens’ second cello concerto, with Felix Wang as soloist.

It’s a special challenge for Muffitt, who hasn’t done the “Eroica” in several years. He’s eager to strip off the varnish of two centuries and smell the wood again, freshly hacked and planed.

“I’m taking a new approach,” he said. “For me, this is a personal new venture into ‘Eroica.’ I sit down, put on my powdered wig — figuratively — and look at it with an 1803 eye, as if I were to play a Haydn symphony. That makes it all the more bracing and bold.”

Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher, had already inched away from the decorous minuets and fancy figures that helped build the modern symphony. But when the first chords of Beethoven’s Third came slamming down, the symphony format broke away from its own version of Top 40 into a expressive, expansive new world, like that of FM rock or Coltrane’s jazz.

“The ‘Eroica’ was a real groundbreaking piece, the avant-garde of the day,” Muffitt said. “Audiences of 1803 had never heard anything remotely like this before, both in terms of its adventuresome harmonic language and its length. The coda of the first movement is as long as an entire movement of Haydn and Mozart.”

Muffitt compared the debut of the “Eroica” to the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s savage “Rite of Spring” about a century later: “A lot of people got it and a lot of people didn’t get it. It was met with a lot of head-scratching and people walking out.”

In rehearsal, Muffitt will ask the symphony to forget the manifold symphonic worlds that sprang from Beethoven’s Third, from Schubert to Mahler and beyond, and play the music as if the ink was still wet. 

“That puts the innovative qualities, the boldness of the piece, right out there on the edge,” he said. “The result is that the tempos are a little bit brighter, articulations are a little bit sharper, the textures have more clarity.” 

Saturday’s concert will begin with a bracing shot of Americana: “Rounds for String Orchestra,” by mid-20th-century master David Diamond. Muffitt called Diamond’s vigorous, optimistic music “emblematic of the American voice, without having ‘The Camptown Races’ in it.”

With some prodding, he also admitted that it’s a bitch to play.

“It’s a real virtuoso piece,” Muffitt said. “It’s difficult to pull it off with the panache it deserves.”

Okemos High School alumnus Wang will return to his old stomping grounds to solo in Camille Saint-Saens lush first cello concerto, a gem of the cello-and-orchestra repertoire.

“Compared to the Dvorak concerto, it’s probably half the length, and it flows together in one seamless unit,” Muffitt said. “It’s highly distilled music. Nothing is watered down or expanded for the sake of expansion.”

Wang studied in Okemos under longtime LSO cellist Marilyn Kesler. After winning the Lansing Symphony youth competition, he went on to a busy career as a chamber musician and soloist. He’s a member of the Blair String Quartet, Blakemore Trio, and leads a chamber orchestra at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he teaches.

“He’s gone on to have a really significant career as a chamber musician,” Muffitt said. “It’s exciting for me to bring people who are products of our community who have gone out and are really successful.”


Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Felix Wang, cello

8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7

Cobb Great Hall, Wharton Center

$15-$45

(517) 487-5001

www.lansingsymphony.org

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