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Wednesday, October 10,2012

Life, death and extra percussion

Lansing Symphony cuts to the heart of Shostakovich's 10th

by Lawrence Cosentino

The anesthetic was plummy with a finish of unconsciousness, the surgeon made the incision with brio, the nurse slipped in the IV with a poignant air, the next day’s salmon en croute was surprisingly tasty and I’m not dead. Bravo.

That’s how silly it feels to review Dmitri Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, the crushing centerpiece of Saturday’s Lansing Symphony concert and another performance milestone in the orchestra’s recent history.

It didn’t feel like music. It felt like life and death.

The music cuts right to the heart and bones of the artist’s struggle with murderous dictator Joseph Stalin. There are a lot of moving parts, including a long string of exposed moments where a mistake could have flatlined all life systems in a heartbeat.

From the start, as the cellos and basses stirred into motion like lead pendulums, the music’s message burned through the medium and became shared experience. Mammoth crescendos, moth-wing-delicate solos and countless in-between textures and tones got equal care from maestro Timothy Muffitt and his astonishing crew. 

The only tear in the fabric came about halfway through the first movement, just before a mighty climax, when the brass and string sections fell out of synch. It was not a big deal, because all forces were set to rendezvous at a steaming crater in a few seconds. Reset was quickly achieved and the spell never broke.

I’d love to know what people were thinking about as this vast story unfolded. I saw gray horizons, heavy interrogations and desperate dances. Tanks ripped through the mud in my mind and tender shoots grew in their tracks.

The chance to plumb such mighty music clearly excited the orchestra. In every section, musicians were practically springing out of their chairs with effort. Whenever the percussionists (four of them) got up from their chairs and picked up their weapons, you knew worlds were about to collide. 

Shostakovich often entrusts the winds to carry his most vital messages across the battlefield, like angels of mercy. Janine Gaboury’s haunting horn calls, a coded message from Shostakovich to a female student, sounded 12 distinct depths of nobility and tenderness. Oboist Linda Binkley, flutist Richard Sherman, clarinetist Emmanuel Toledo, bassoonist Michael Kroth, English hornist Gretchen Morse and their colleagues twirled, keened and cried through a series of difficult solo passages. 

If we’re sticking with the hospital scenario, these were the nurses, the healers whose skills and human touch you call to mind first when you’re back home and start to unblock memories of a trauma.

Locked into Muffitt’s ruthless tempo, bassoonist Kroth had to hustle through his last-movement solo, one of the symphony’s rare playful moments. But he was well warmed up, having already served as soloist in the Mozart bassoon concerto earlier in the evening.

Mozart was a great setup for Shostakovich: Music as joy, just life, no death. Kroth is a symphony mainstay and always fun to watch, but it was a delight to see him standing in front of the orchestra, droll and thin, much like his instrument, one diagonal line romancing another.

He refused to be limited by the bassoon’s distinctive purplish sound and showed a surprising variety of colors and shades. In the first movement, he entered on two solid feet, boom boom, but slipped into the second movement like a butler with a tray. Suddenly, he was just there, serving up songfulness.

Kroth’s cadenzas (the bits where he played alone) were absorbing little stories in themselves. He gave every note a distinct shape, packing so much feeling and drama into so little space that for the first time I can recall, I wished a cadenza could have gone longer.

Although there was plenty of emotion in Kroth’s playing, what stood out most was precision so extreme it became another level of passion. On that count, Kroth may even have outclassed the orchestra, which sounded slightly tin-canny by comparison, at least in the elegant cabinetry of Mozart.

The night’s opener, the “Fingal’s Cave” overture by Felix Mendelssohn, was a refined, subdued affair, played with polish and restraint. And who cranked up the butterfat in the violins? They sounded positively creamy Saturday, extruding a smooth aural substance they later heated to magma for the Shostakovich.

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