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Wednesday, February 29,2012

A musical mixed bag

Lansing Symphony falters and stumbles before standing and delivering during an uneven evening

by Lawrence Cosentino

Promotional posters with the words “Appalachian Spring” floating serenely next to a big tuba gave fair warning: Friday’s Lansing Symphony concert would probably be a mixed bag.

But who knew it would be this mixed?

If the concert were a bag of three cats, such beasts could never interbreed: one roaring lion, one wobbly tabby and one steamrollered Sylvester.

The purring tabby was Aaron Copland’s familiar “Appalachian Spring,” curled on a cushion of gentle strings — at first.

Suddenly, the brass went off like a car alarm, leaving only visual evidence that the violins were still at work, playing intricate patterns. (Most music lovers could fill in the famous fiddlework mentally, having heard the music many times, but still.)

After the early bout of severe imbalance, nothing went terribly wrong, or even moderately wrong, but the performance never lost its slightly frayed edge. True to Copland’s Great-Plains-meets-Stravinsky style, tender idylls gave way to tricky pauses, astringent plinks and dinks and sudden starts and stops that seemed to elude the players in dozens of tiny ways — an early entrance here, a slight grinding of gears there, a clam in the horns there.

Everyone managed to recover in a split-second, but the lingering uncertainty made it hard to relax and enjoy the waving wheat.

Another rehearsal or two would have sharpened up an already credible job on the Copland, but nothing in the world could have made the second piece on Friday’s program, Bruce Broughton’s Tuba Concerto, worth the 10 minutes of life it sucked away.

Intended as a showcase for principal tuba Philip Sinder, this wad of sticky ear candy from second-rate film composer Bruce Broughton did a disservice to everyone involved, Sinder most of all.

The first movement, a perhaps unintentional riff on the “house began to pitch” ditty from “The Wizard of Oz,” and the equally busy final movement, kept Sinder in low-register hyperactivity that sounded like burbling mud by the time it reached row O.

To call Broughton’s canned flourishes “cartoony” gives short shrift to Warner Bros. masters like Carl Stalling.

The middle movement’s vaguely operatic aspirations made no impression. Why bring a fine artist like Sinder up front, only to give him a rubber bone?

Last month, Sinder worked wonders with a concerto written for him by Michigan State University composer and pianist Ron Newman. That noble and worthy vehicle deserved a wider hearing and ought to have been reprised for Lansing Symphony audiences instead of this.

The only good to come of it all was that Sinder stuck around and did a fun, virtuoso solo encore (The Beatles’ “Blackbird”).

After the intermission, the game changed again, drastically for the better. The low strings began to shimmer and sink like a plumb line into the bottomless well of sound where Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor dwells.

Inexorably, the first movement coalesced into vivid towers, walls and buttresses of sound, keeping an uncanny feel for the vast spaces around and within the centers of mass. Hypnotic pizzicato in the strings, delicate harp flickers and exquisite woodwind colors filled the slow movement, resulting in a strange and perfect balance of momentum and languor.

The hidden cable of emotional and sonic logic holding the massive symphony together never slackened.

Whether you like the symphony’s finale or not depends on how you feel about its famous main theme, around which so much of the vast machinery revolves. I find it insufferably jaunty and unworthy of the rest of the music, but no matter.

If you had to nail one of these three works, this was the one, and there was no denying the power, finesse and passion of the Lansing Symphony’s take.


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