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Wednesday, April 25,2012

Sound and soundness

Symphony harmonizes Bach with the bottom line

by Lawrence Cosentino

A big bronze bust of 28-year music director Gustav Meier still stares from a tabletop in the Lansing Symphony’s tiny downtown office suite. 

So far, at least, Timothy Muffitt is represented by a custom-designed bobble-head doll, purchased via Groupon.

Toscanini would see this as evidence for the decline of civilization, but for the Lansing Symphony, the tale of two heads is a happy one.

By all indicators, from artistic to economic, the symphony has successfully made the transition from classical music’s marble-pedestal past to a new age of accessibility and budget consciousness.

The numbers defy national trends. Ticket sales jumped 13 percent in 2009-2010, rose another 5 percent the next season, and rose again “slightly” this season, according to general manager Courtney Millbrook. The symphony’s deficit has dropped from 19 percent in 2008 to five percent this year, and Millbrook hopes to wipe it out completely in three years.

They’re not doing it with symphonic Metallica, either. A concert with Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony and cellist Felix Wang on Jan. 7 grossed $19,000 in single ticket sales, which exceeds most Pops concerts.

“It shows this community’s support for local artists and for classical music,” Millbrook said. “It’s a really nice buzz.”

You may know Millbrook as the person who puts your cash in a box and hands you your tickets at the symphony’s chamber music concerts. This is a tight operation. The symphony’s entire annual budget is about $850,000, about one-sixth that of the Louisville Orchestra and barely enough to buy bagels and lox for one New York Philharmonic rehearsal.

Yet, in recent years, the Lansing Symphony has been knocking the stuffing out of major works like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.

Muffitt won’t take any credit, but others are happy to run interference. 

“He has the highest expectations,” said the symphony’s two-year principal clarinetist, Emmanuel Toledo. “I could feel it immediately when I stepped into my first rehearsal.”

Principal bassoonist Michael Kroth said that Muffitt makes a lot of demands, but also heeds suggestions from musicians. “He treats you like an artist and encourages you to bring your best,” Kroth said.

“He doesn’t seem like one of those Napoleon-like conductors everybody is so afraid of,” principal percussionist Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher said. “He’s just a really good leader and a great musician.”

“I think it was fortunate they chose him,” veteran pianist Ralph Votapek said. “He takes it seriously.”

Votapek, who will open the 2012-13 season with a bravura two-concerto night, has played with the symphony a dozen times since the 1960s. He’s played with nearly all the great orchestras and conductors, including the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 16 times with the Chicago Symphony, and still puts Lansing in the “top tier.”

“The orchestra is better now,” he said. “I think everybody realizes that. People don’t take it for granted when they have to audition. Sometimes people who have been there for a while find they have to worry about it. It’s a very professional atmosphere.”

A few decades ago, Votapek said, it was unthinkable that the Lansing Symphony would tackle Shostakovich’s colossal Tenth Symphony, as they will this fall.

“They can do very difficult stuff, and they only have five days to rehearse,” he said. “The Bruckner Fourth (performed in November 2011) was excellent.”

Muffitt is also a great guy to have on a visit to donors, according to Millbrook.

They need the maestro to keep that hat in his closet. While ticket sales went up in the past three seasons, private donations shrank. Ticket sales, once only a third of the budget, now shoulder about half the load. Last year, the symphony reluctantly cut its young peoples’ concerts after 60 years to keep the budget goals on target.

Whether he’s talking with donors or working on the podium, Muffitt relishes any chance to make the case.

“Like the national parks and museums, part of our job is to preserve things of great value, and help create new ones,” he said. “In a lot of ways, we’re in the same business. We serve as a place of retreat, a place of inspiration, a place of reflection and a place of appreciating some of the beautiful things that go with existence on the planet.”

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