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Wednesday, April 17,2013

Uvulas, Yuri, Yo-Yo and you

Wharton Center's classical and jazz lineup bring big names, big orchestras, top singers

by Lawrence Cosentino
There aren’t a lot of classical and jazz dates on the Wharton Center’s 2013-14 schedule, but what’s there is “cherce,” as Tracy once said of Hepburn.

Marquee names like Russia’s St. Petersburg Philharmonic, star cellist Yo-Yo Ma and top-selling jazz singer Diana Krall head the lineup for 2013-14, announced Monday night.

After years of maneuvering by Wharton Center director Michael Brand and his staff, the St. Petersburg orchestra, one of the world’s mightiest, with its maestro for 25 years, Yuri Temirkanov, will come to the Wharton Center for the first time next year on Feb. 24.  

To double the musical attack from the Baltic Sea bloc, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra will appear at Wharton this Nov. 8.

Both orchestras and Yo-Yo Ma have the same agent, and the dates all worked for everybody, so the stars lined up for a package deal, Brand said. The Vienna Boys Choir, with “Christmas in Vienna” Dec. 3, made the package a “four-fer.”

The Estonians will bring a familiar figure on the podium —music director Neeme Järvi, maestro of the Detroit Symphony for 15 years. Järvi was born in Estonia, started his career here, and returned in 2010, bringing his musical life full circle. 

Brand wanted both orchestras to play music they, and they alone, can really rock. The Estonians will play stormy Baltic Sea stuff, including Jean Sibelius’ Fifth symphony and an overture by Veljo Tormis. The St. Petersburg unit came through with Rachmaninoff’s huge Symphony No. 2 and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. One local man who knows a thing or two about orchestras, Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt, is pretty jazzed about that.

“The real excitement is the chemistry of a Russian conductor, Russian repertoire and an orchestra that is from the heart of the culture,” Muffitt said. “Russian music tends to be high-octane, and the orchestras play it that way.”

Brand wanted the St. Petersburg orchestra to do an all-Russian program, with Temirkanov on the podium, not an assistant conductor, and waited a long time to get what he wanted.

“I’m tired of hiring great European symphonies, top philharmonics, have them come here and do Brahms symphonies,” Brand said. “If they come over here, they gotta play big Russian works.”

It didn’t hurt that MSU alumnus Edward Minskoff, a Manhattan real estate tycoon and major donor to MSU’s Broad Art Museum, pals around with Temirkanov. Brand hopes Temirkanov will also do a conducting master class at MSU while he’s here.

“Yuri and this donor [Minskoff] love certain vodkas, so I’m sure we’ll make that work,” Brand said.

On the gentler side, Yo-Yo Ma, often called the world’s greatest cellist and arguably the planet’s most famous classical musician, will do a recital with pianist Kathryn Stott on Nov. 18. Ma and Stott have worked together for more than 30 years.

Ma was last at Wharton in 2001, when he turned largely from recitals to crossover projects like his Silk Road Ensemble. Brand said it’s very hard to pin him down.

“I’ve been asking for [opera star] Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo since I came here,” Brand said. “It finally worked with Renee, and now it worked for Yo-Yo.”

With stature to burn in the classical world, Ma has ventured into duets with people as diverse as Sting, bassist Edgar Meyer and amateur pianist Condoleezza Rice. In 2005, Timothy Muffitt teamed with Ma for a performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Baton Rouge Symphony. 

“I was amazed,” Muffitt said. “How many times has this guy played the Dvorak concerto? But he knows the audience and knows how to make it fresh. In many cases, he’s reaching them for the first time, and he wants it to be a great experience.” Ma’s repertoire is pan-galactic in scope, so his recital with Stott will cover a lot of ground, from Stravinsky to Brahms to Piazzolla.

If Wharton’s jazz lineup of 2013-14 were a menu item, it would be a singer sandwich, with extra singer. While Rodney Whitaker’s Jazz Department at MSU holds the fort for instrumental jazz, with a new guest artist series kicking off next year, Wharton seems to be turning to jazz artists with broad crossover appeal.

The two mainstays next season are sultry vocal star Diana Krall, one of the top selling artists in jazz history, and Cyrille Aimée, a smoky-voiced 26-year-old singer from France who specializes in Gypsy-ish, Django Reinhardt-style jazz. Neither of them are musical lightweights. Both combine solid cred among jazz musicians with the ability to easily seduce non-jazz fans (well established, in Krall’s case; spreading fast in Aimée’s). Krall’s slinky dominatrix rubdown of the old standard “Peel Me a Grape” has become a radio mainstay. Eight of her records have debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts, and she comes to Wharton Sept. 28 on the heels of the latest, “Glad Rag Doll.”

“That’s a big one,” Brand said of Krall. “We were lucky to anchor a date for her early.” 

Aimée will perform at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival this June and return to sing at Wharton April 24. True to her distinctive gypsy style, Aimée will sing with an unusual backing combo of bass, drums and four guitars.

Another top jazz vocalist, Karrin Allyson, will appear with an all-star lineup March 27 for a Wharton stop on the Newport Jazz Festival’s 60th anniversary tour, led by Israeli reed sensation Anat Cohen. Allyson and Cohen are conspicuously commanding female artists in a male-dominated jazzscape, but the boys in the band are stars in their own right as well: trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, drummer Clarence Penn and bassist Larry Grenadier.

Unlike classical and jazz music, marquee names are absent from the roster of dance are coming to the Wharton for 2013-‘14, but a strong mix of local innovators and plucky visitors will keep dance lovers interested. More Russians are coming Jan. 9, as the Moscow Festival Ballet, an independent company formed by Bolshoi Ballet principal Sergei Radchenko in 1989 and featuring dancers from the Kirov and Bolshoi, performs “The Sleeping Beauty.” The date is also noteworthy because it’s getting rarer for visiting companies to present complete works rather than a grab bag of selections.

The ever-popular contortions of Pilobolus round out Wharton’s dance slate April 8. As far as big names in ballet are concerned, Brand said he is working on a deal to get the Joffrey Ballet for 2014-15.


Wharton’s upcoming Broadway season mixes hits and classics 

The Wharton Center’s 2013-‘14 Broadway season was also announced on Monday. The lineup includes an irreverent hit musical that Wharton is getting on the first leg of its touring production, three movie-to-stage adaptations (including a smash Disney favorite) and a grown-up — but not “adult” — take on the Peter Pan story. Oh yeah, and a show commonly called the Great American Opera as well as the jukebox musical that launched the whole singing-along-with-radio-songs fad 14 years ago. Talk about diversity. 

The big coup is Wharton’s ability to snag “The Book of Mormon,” which won nine Tonys in 2011, including Best Musical. From the controversy-courting team behind “South Park” and “Avenue Q,” this is the first national tour for the religious spoof. It arrives next June for an eight-performance run. 

 This fall sees the arrival of both “Flashdance: the Musical” (Oct. 8-13) and “Ghost: the Musical” (Dec. 10-15) The former, which includes several songs from the movie, seems to lend itself naturally to the stage musical adaptation; the latter is a curious choice — but with Eurythmics musician Dave Stewart and songwriter Glen Ballard, who co-wrote some of Michael Jackson’s and Alanis Morissette’s biggest hits, the pieces are in place for a solid show.  Wedged in between for a three-night show is Mamma Mia! (Nov. 15-17). 

In late January, “Peter and the Star Catcher” soars across the Wharton stage. The musical play is an adaptation of humorist Dave Barry’s children’s book, which is a pseudo-prequel to “Peter Pan.” And with a built-in, international, all-ages audience, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” based on the 1991 animated feature, is sure to be a weeklong sell-out.  

Finally, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” last year’s Tony winner for Best Revival of a Musical, arrives March 18-23. The opera, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, features the memorable songs “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

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