Music is nothing but vibrating air, but sometimes it has the power to convince you that the world is just being born — or that it’s coming to an end.
Friday’s world premiere of “The Fourth Pedal,” a piano concerto by Lansing Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin, had it both ways.
The swan song of Harlin’s three-year tenure (four years, including the pandemic year of 2020-‘21) was part Art Deco dazzle, part techno-pocalypse.
It began with a ringing call to arms from the piano, a cascade of arpeggios that whirled down, down, down like a giant drill, until it hit bedrock with a thunderous “bong.” Thus thwarted, the arpeggios zoomed back upward with a transcendent glow that swept the orchestra into the maelstrom.
With pounding power and pointillistic precision, pianist Clayton Stephenson was in the driver’s seat from start to finish. His caffeinated energy and forward momentum were perfect for sending a piano concerto in a grand manner, like a crash dummy dressed in a top hat and tails, into the cascading realities of our own time.
With his left hand, Stephenson dredged up cavernous, low chords that tolled like underwater cathedral bells. At the same time, his right hand released a series of twinkling high notes that flew over the murk-like fragile doves. A third melody, clear and lyrical, took flight in the space between.
A third melody? Did Stephenson grow another hand? No, he quietly entrusted the subterranean notes to an electronic loop — the titular “fourth pedal” — that kept on tolling while he improvised ripples of melody above it using the customary two hands. The effect was mesmerizing, like the play of light on the walls and ceiling of a cavern, but nothing lasted long in this mercilessly propulsive concerto. A salvo of thrusting low chords, instantly amplified by the low brass, broke the loop. The energy thus released spent itself in a tense paroxysm that left a lot of loose ends.
The concerto raced forward in an urgent quest for impossible answers, even in its quietest moments. Stephenson’s hands melted like quicksilver through moods of playfulness, abandon, loss and joy in a solo intro to the second movement that lasted less than a minute. To some, this may sound like attention-deficit hell, but the flow felt completely honest, never forced, and every note made a difference. The fleeting splendors moved on as if there were simply too many things to figure out, too much to take in, too many distractions pulling away from the essence. It was often hard to determine whether the music was running desperately toward something or running away from it.
There was plenty of fun along the way. Again deploying the fourth pedal, Stephenson broke into a loping — and looping — gallop, riding the melody with bouncing exuberance. A tender response from the strings pushed him in the other direction — to simplify, simplify, simplify until he calmed the tumult to a gem-like twinkle.
The third movement began with solemn, dark tones, akin to medieval plainchant, attended by mysterious smears from the strings. Suddenly, Stephenson erupted with a flurry of notes, egged on by clacking wood blocks and escalating typhoons from the full orchestra, until he reached terrifying new heights of energy. Like Prospero from “The Tempest,” maestro Timothy Muffitt unleashed the most massive orchestral storms he could conjure, but Stephenson rode on top of it all — until he didn’t. Colossal explosions of brass and bass drum, like syncopated pinball flippers, kept his multiball piano wizardry out of the “game over” abyss as long as they could, but nothing lasts forever. Instead of the customary solo cadenza, Stephenson finally circled down the chute, having burnt through a spectacular simulacrum of a lifetime in about 25 minutes. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this concerto, at least for a while.
“The Fourth Pedal” drew a warm standing ovation from the Wharton Center audience, having pulled off the admirable feat of vibrating with the uncertain times while remaining recognizable as a showstopping, virtuoso piano concerto in the grand tradition.
Except it didn’t quite stop the show. The grand finale to Friday’s concert, and the 2022-‘23 season, was a magisterial and absorbing voyage through Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ expansive second symphony.
Here I feel obligated to make an embarrassing confession. Those long, leisurely Sibelius symphonies, with their endless horizons, billowing swells and salt Scandinavian breezes, evoke a certain dread in musical landlubbers like myself. As soon as Muffitt gave the downbeat, I began to pre-regret the next 50 minutes of my life, as if I were a 9-year-old getting into a boat with my dad for a slow ride across a big lake with no place to stand and no pizza, french fries or bathrooms in sight.
But Muffitt and the orchestra never abuse the listener’s trust. Consummate as professionals, and passionate as amateurs, they always dive in, take their sweet time and make the case. Rooted to the earth, pulling at unseen cables from the depths of his guts to the tips of his fingers, Muffitt devoted his entire being to the large-scale sound sculpting he does so well. Complete immersion in a panoramic soundscape of soaring strings, drifting woodwinds and rolling timpani, with shafts of spectacular brass chorales breaking through the clouds, swept all my apprehensions away. Before long, I forgot all about the vulgar attractions of dry land. At length, the soundscape coalesced into a mighty, low-rolling bass figure, upon which a triumphant anthem set full, glorious sail. Before I knew it, I felt 9 years plus an exhilarating 45 minutes old: “Gee! And to think I was worried about this! Let’s do it again!”
Finally, speaking of timpani, the triumphant finale gave retiring timpanist Andrew Spencer a fine platform for a fond farewell.
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