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Wednesday, September 11,2013

Beauty from the beats

Percussionist Lisa Pegher wants to whack lyrical at Lansing Symphony opener

by Lawrence Cosentino

A bomb goes off in a fireworks factory.

“Nothing to see here,” a cop barks to the onlookers as fireballs erupt behind him.

That’s the paradox of Friday night’s explosive Lansing Symphony opener. (It’s also a scene from the classic ‘80s cop spoof “Police Squad.”) Athletic percussionist Lisa Pegher will join maestro Timothy Muffitt and the home team for a sensesshattering per- cussion concerto by Pulitzer Prizewinning composer Jennifer Higdon.

Pegher, 33, joined Muffitt and the LSO for a stunning performance of Joseph Schwantner’s percussion concerto in 2008.

Muffitt is relentless when it comes to following the emotional thread, even in the most overwhelming music. He admires the same trait in Pegher.

“She transcends the surface technical wizardry of solo percussion playing and probes the depths of the music,” Muffitt said. “Both of the pieces I’ve done with her have a great deal of emotional depth.”

Pegher is most concerned with bringing out Higdon’s rich textures with maximum clarity. “There are soloists who want to make it into a circus act, and the ones who are trying to get the beauty and the substance of the music across,” Pegher said, leaving no doubt which camp she favors.

But there’s something intense about percussion, period. The mere sight of a stage bristling up front with drums, vibraphones, marimbas, crotales and assorted exotica is startling in the orchestral world.

“When we’re at the back of the orchestra, percussion is often the icing on the cake, what comes at the climax,” Pegher said. “Here you’re bringing all that excitement to the front of the stage.”

Each time Pegher plays the cadenza — the improvised solo that brings everything to a head — she looks for new ways to weave the concerto’s manifold themes and moods together. “I’m not out to impress the audience with how fast I can play,” she said. “If I can get the audience to hear those themes in the percussion line, then I can succeed in making sense of the entire piece for everybody.”

Audiences have a tendency to lose it after watching Pegher throw herself into the cadenza and spontaneously burst into cheers.

Nothing to see here, folks.

“If Tim takes a second too long to bring the orchestra in, the audience will start clapping,” she said. “If it’s just soon enough, the audience realizes it’s not over.”

The cadenza is the musical mountaintop, but Pegher’s favorite moments in the concerto are the lyrical ones. At the start, mysterious solo ripples lap at the shore of silence.

“Immediately the audience is drawn in to that introspective, great sound of the marimba,” Pegher said.

An aching melody in the middle of the concerto requires Pegher to handle three instruments at once. Mallets tucked under her arm, she draws a bow over the vibraphone to coax haunting overtones. That’s when she finds her work most satisfying.

“When I have a great, beautiful line to play on the vibraphone, or I get to bow something, that makes me feel great as a soloist, because I get to present percussion as it should be presented, as a beautiful musical instrument,” she said.

That goes for the drums, too. “People think you just stand up there and beat them, but that’s not the case,” she said. “You can play into the head and it makes a harsh, difficult sound. You play up from the head and get a really beautiful tone out of the drum.”

She wants to do what any solo pianist or violinist does, only with a room full of cool hardware. In the past decade, a series of richly textured percussion concertos, from Higdon’s and Schwantner’s to a vinegary new double concerto for percussion and saxophone by composer Mathew Rosenblum, have given her a chance to do just that.

The trick is cluing people in to these compelling new sounds. Pegher praised Muffitt as one of a dwindling few conductors willing to take a risk at introducing new music to audiences.

“Tim picks really good pieces that are new to audiences, but he has a great way of getting them ready for it and presenting it,” she said. “I wish there were more conductors out there willing to take risks like this.”

Muffitt will fold Pegher’s percussion panoply into a rugged Eastern European musical landscape Friday night. The anchor of the concert is Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, which Muffitt considers the composer’s best.

“It’s the symphony where we see his mastery of the form,” Muffitt said. True to Dvorak’s folk-based style, blocks of rustic, rough hewn material are polished and stacked into the kind of massive edifice Muffitt loves to take his audience through.

“It has the greatest emotional depth of his symphonies,” Muffitt said. “It holds together and comes across in an even more powerful and profound way than any of his other symphonic works.”

The opener is Romanian composer George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, a jaunty romp that lightly hints at the rustic roots of the Dvorak to come. The music is so much fun it inspired seriousminded Muffitt to fire off a rare bon mot.

“It’s a very unusual piece,” he said. “I would say that it’s one of a kind, except that he wrote two of them.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Lisa Pegher, percussion 8 p.m. Friday Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $15-50 (517) 487-5001 whartoncenter.com


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