The Lansing Symphony and its fans got at least two twofers when Russian-born violinist Ilya Kaler took the stage as soloist for Saturday’s MasterWorks concert.
The most obvious double deal was getting to hear both of Sergei Prokofiev’s violin concertos in one night.
That’s a rare pairing anywhere, let alone in Lansing, Review but it was no stunt. Prokofiev’s two concertos were written a lifetime apart and have different things to say. Played in sequence, they turn a big light on in your head, like a two-act play that checks in on the same person at 17 and again at 55.
As Kaler crossed from one to the other, he modulated his sound and his spirit to match. He played the first concerto with a glassy, delicate tone that let a blinding spectrum of life and light come through. For the second, his sound thickened into an amber timbre that was better suited to wistfulness and nostalgia.
Kaler was in continuous command of Prokofiev’s brittle, mercurial music, even when the orchestra was not. That was the other twofer. This was more than a concert; it was a seminar for the mostly young Lansing musicians.
The players had to use their peripheral vision to track Kaler most of the time, but there was a telling half-minute late in the second concerto. Backed by cellos and basses, Kaler went into glassblower mode, working out a crystalline, spiraling motif until it was white hot and about to crack. As he spun the motif into the thinnest imaginable filament of sound, all heads in the violin section were cocked in assorted attitudes of attention and awe.
Kaler was so strong a presence that a power gap seemed to open up as soon as he started to play. The orchestra sounded tentative and far away, like an overawed group of studio musicians. Deference is one thing, but in this case, important orchestral accents and counterpunches were lost. Synchronization was dodgy well into the second movement, but that wasn’t a big deal. Every time a section or soloist strayed, however slightly, they knew where to scramble with the ball. Kaler was as reliable as GPS.
For a while, Kaler seemed to compensate for the orchestra’s tentativeness by coming on even stronger, but the adjustment period proved to be temporary. The initial awe seemed to wear off, a balance took hold and everything began to jell. The brass and percussion got into the act, parrying Kaler with thrusts that challenged his own power. Kaler made one of his deepest impressions with a stunning, prolonged passage in which he oscillated his bow to turn every note into a bat and send it fluttering to the top of the hall. It was gooseflesh time. The whole tapestry of wonder dissolved, Kaler and company with it, into one of music’s most mysterious endings.
Surveying the company he was keeping, Kaler clearly found a lot to like.
During the applause, he nodded appreciatively at the woodwind soloists, each of whom had traded licks with him at one point or another.
At one point in the second concerto — the more melodic and dance-driven of the two — he vigorously bobbed his head to the groove that maestro Timothy Muffitt and the band whipped up. In the second concerto, several melodic lines stretched so audaciously long that the Army Corps of Engineers would never have let them be built. But the Wharton Center Saturday was honorary Russian soil, so Kaler, Muffitt and crew somehow kept them in the air.
On its own, Kaler’s feat made Saturday one of the symphony’s more substantial nights, but Muffitt’s ingenious program nestled the two meaty Prokofiev concertos into hearty slices of Russian bread.
The opener, Nikolai Rimsy-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” came with slashing chords that presaged Prokofiev, and lots of violin solos from concertmaster David Lamse that whetted the appetite for Kaler’s fiddle. It wasn’t just Lamse; nimble solo turns were heard from all sections of the orchestra, recalling a line that jazz great Dizzy Gillespie often used: “This next tune features … everybody.” It was much more fun than the standard overture, especially with Muffitt trafficcopping the lightning-fast tempo changes and mood shifts with athletic grace. As for the night’s closer, there’s little new that can be said about the warhorse-y oom-pahs and smoke rings of Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, except that the requisite languor and flash were delivered on schedule and under budget. No, one more thing can be said: Borodin put a load and a half on principal clarinetist Emmanuel Toledo, who already had a few pointed exchanges with Kaler that night. Now he had to twirl several of Borodin’s most fiendish melodies in shockingly exposed positions, and did so with dash. He deserves to have his dervish license renewed for at least another year.