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Wednesday, April 25,2012

Stalin is dead — let's party

by Lawrence Cosentino

A double shot of piano concertos featuring piano god Ralph Votapek, the mighty rumble of Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, big choral works from Brahms and Monteverdi, the return of pianist Christopher O’Riley and a generous salvo of lesser-known music promises to make the 2012-2013 Lansing Symphony season a ride and a half.

The judicious recipe of comfort food and triple espresso buzz has Timothy Muffitt’s prints all over it, but the symphony’s music director of six years shied away from any hint he’s turning the ratchet. 

“You do it ever so gently and nobody notices,” he said.

Principal bassoonist Michael Kroth, in his 10th year with the Lansing Symphony, has noticed. Kroth said that under Muffitt, programming is “much more adventurous than it used to be.”

“He’s demanding,” Kroth said. “He wants the orchestra to improve and has programmed to build the orchestra.”

“I think our audience wants to be stretched a little bit,” Muffitt said. “Any time I do something that’s a little bit out there, I’ll get a note or an e-mail that says, ‘Thanks for the opportunity.’”

The lid will open and close on the 2012-2013 season with ambitious piano extravaganzas.

For the opener Sept. 14, Michigan State University pianist Ralph Votapek returns to play with the orchestra for the first time since 2005. He’ll play two major piano concertos — Beethoven’s massive Fourth and Sergei Prokofiev’s sparking Third — to mark the 50th anniversary of his first-place triumph at the first Van Cliburn competition. (Those are the same concertos he played in 1962.)

“We can’t ever lose track of the fact that this is a world-class pianist and we’re fortunate to have him,” Muffitt said.

The season ends with the return of pianist Christopher O’Riley, the henna-tattooed, trench-coated NPR darling who won over young and old with his Radiohead transcriptions at the opener of the symphony’s 2009-2010 season.

“I couldn’t get him back fast enough,” Muffitt said. “Everything clicks with him. I love the spirit of music-making he brings.”

This time, O’Riley will tackle the Rachmaninoff First Concerto on a massive program that opens with music from Sergei Prokoviev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

The surprise monster of the season is the Tenth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, a vast tapestry of angst, doom, defiance and grotesquerie that includes a ferocious musical portrait of Shostakovich’s oppressor, dictator Josef Stalin, who died shortly before the piece was written in 1953.

“It was time for some Shostakovich,” Muffitt said. 

Guest conductor David Rayl tackles two major choral works, Johannes Brahms’ magisterial “German Requiem” and a rare early-music treat, Claudio Monteverdi’s ringing “Vespers of 1610.” Brahms’s First Symphony, a favorite with musicians and audiences, will anchor the Jan. 5 concert.

But there’s no such thing as a night of reruns with Muffitt. On Jan. 5, he’ll balance Brahms’ First Symphony with John Corigliano’s suite from the film score for “The Red Violin” and an obscure bit of exotica by Ottorino Respighi, “Brazilian Impressions,” inspired in part by the composer’s visit to a reptile house.

Even when Muffitt programs a familiar composer, he goes for a fresh perspective. There’s only one bit of Mozart on the slate this year, but it’s a bassoon concerto, with Kroth as soloist. The concerto, like last year’s tuba concerto with principal tuba Phil Sinder, puts the spotlight on an artist who seldom gets to move his chair to the front of the stage.

“They’re not quintessential prima donna solo instruments, but Tim doesn’t care,” principal flutist Richard Sherman said. 

Muffitt got lucky when he programmed the season curtain-raiser, “Millennium Canons” by Alma-born, New York-based composer Kevin Puts. Last week, Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music for his opera, “Silent Night.” Unafraid of narrative in music and aware of the broader culture, Puts is the kind of contemporary composer Muffitt likes to showcase. His Third Symphony, “Vespertine,” was inspired by Icelandic pop queen Björk.

“One of the most interesting things about Tim is his programming,” Kroth said. “We do the major works everybody is looking forward to, a chance to play those moments we’ve practiced our whole careers to do. And then he throws these tidbits that are really interesting.”

Muffitt said he programs the bigger works in five-year chunks, orchestrating them to maximum variety and impact, and fills in the shorter works each year.

His first five years, he said, built on the last decade of 28-year music director Gustav Meier’s tenure. This fall, Muffitt will start his seventh year as maestro. That puts him in a position to make a deeper stamp on the institution, much like a president beginning a second term. 

“All of us are pulling from the same basic canon of masterworks,” he said. “We have a responsibility for the care and maintenance of the standard repertoire, and we have a responsibility for nurturing the music of today and tomorrow. Good programming has a balance.”

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