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Wednesday, September 18,2013

Percussion and purity

Symphony serves up spectacle, breaks bread

by Lawrence Cosentino
The Lansing Symphony Orchestra had a stiff creak in it, like a pair of new shoes, at the beginning of Friday’s season opener, but it’s amazing what a little sweat can do.

As Romanian composer George Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1” got up a head of steam, the orchestra got its dance moves on so fast the music started to blur. Sharp woodwind solos helped pin the whirling skirts of melody to the supple body of music under them.

Maestro Timothy Muffitt reveled in the weirdness of the music, especially toward the end when a series of strange harmonic blocks go by like mismatched train cars. When the dance figures started bouncing like crazy molecules, he kept on pushing the energy down and hushing them up until it was time to go nuts and lift the lid.

The same play of tension and release, on a much bigger scale, drove the evening’s big event, Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto, featuring New York-based percussionist Lisa Pegher as soloist.

The first two minutes seemed to recap the history of life on the planet, from solo marimba tremors that hinted at inchoate, wiggly bacteria, to up-thrusting Manhattan skyscrapers in the brass and strings. Who got their Aaron Copland in my Steve Reich? Pegher returned many times to the five-octave marimba, which carried most of the solo weight. She almost seemed to hearken to it, head tilted like a robin listening for a worm, pouncing on each life-giving note.

The next big revelation was an aching solo by Pegher on vibraphone, with bowed overtones that seemed to herald the next phase of existence: pure thought.

There was spectacle to spare, but careful, often fleeting details knit the music together. A harp picked up a vibraphone passage, violins echoed Pegher’s bowed overtones, and countless other touches built up a seamless world of sound.

Frequent parries and thrusts between Pegher and three (!) percussionists in the back of the orchestra reached their peak when Pegher played a solo cadenza, followed by a group drum avalanche with her comrades-in-arms and -sticks. The solos drew two waves of cheers from the audience. When the concerto was over, Muffitt called Pegher back and they did it all over again for an encore.

After the bravura percussion experience, Antonin Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony gave Muffitt and the orchestra a chance to make pure music — the purest this side of Brahms or Haydn. This time, there was no soloist, no unusual hardware and no stylistic breakthrough to distract or divert the ear. As deftly as Muffitt handles splashy works and unusual collaborations, he seems to relish these trips to the well of pure music more than anything. He broke the symphony open slowly and with deep purpose, like a monk tearing open a loaf of bread.

The music didn’t even have any extramusical associations to chew on, like the Americana bit in Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony or the artist-vs.-authority tussles underlying Beethoven’s Third and Shostakovich’s Tenth, all featured in recent LSO programs.

The biggest drama you can wring out of the Seventh is that Dvorak wanted to top his hero, the god of “absolute music,” Brahms, and gave it a good shot. Melodies and countermelodies drifted and collided in a majestic play of contrast and shadow. The string section built up color on color, tan on ochre on brown on black, from the violins through the violas and cellos down to the double basses, like the strata of a mountain rising under your feet. Silvery highlights from flutist Richard Sherman snaked through the earthy tapestry throughout the night.

The breadiest part of the symphony was the simple second movement, with its noble, hymn-like chorales, first in the woodwinds, then in the finely blended Lansing Symphony brass. There were also huge swells, as in the first movement, but both movements died away with an almost liturgical hush.

In the third movement, Muffitt locked into a striking, schizophrenic rhythm — waltz on top of march — with airtight mastery. The whole orchestra bumped up and down to that gear-like pattern, generating hypnotic patterns like architecture in the air. It ended with the satisfying hammer-on-nail ending coyly withheld in the first two movements. (We didn’t know it yet, but that was only the little hammer hitting the little nail.)

By the last movement, Muffitt seemed to have everyone herded onto the mountain of pure music. The lady in front of me stopped looking at her cell phone and the guy next to her let the program slip out of his hands. What do you know about Dvorak? Nothing? Good. Our minds are jumbled with too much gossip about who Beethoven or Mozart were sleeping with, what a jerk Stravinsky was and so on. It’s fun to know all those things but it’s not music.

When Muffitt and the Lansing Symphony waded into the last movement of the Dvorak, a vast drama of pure vibrations, a tapestry of time, closed in on a shattering finish. Before the initial buildup was over, the main theme hovered in the wings and you could hear Muffitt open a definitive can of sonic whoopass. At symphony’s end, three major chords, like blasts from high Olympus, closed a well-argued case for absolute music.

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