Cover story

Explorer in residence

Patrick Harlin caps three-year LSO voyage with world premiere


It’s hard to budge a symphony orchestra, what with all those tubas, fiddles, harps and whatnot. The weight of tradition makes it even harder.
But in the past three years, 38-year-old composer Patrick Harlin has whisked the Lansing Symphony Orchestra into some wild places, from the Amazon rain forest to outer Earth orbit. He’s coaxed wind players to mimic tropical birds and persuaded maestro Timothy Muffitt to circle like a lighthouse.

Harlin’s energy, vision and craft have helped the orchestra come alive with more new music than ever, from big Wharton Center concerts to an intimate, sold-out series devoted entirely to new music, LSO at the Robin Theatre.
The orchestra will announce its second composer-in-residence in the coming weeks. For now, Harlin will cap his three-year tenure as the orchestra’s first composer-in-residence this Friday (June 2) by drop-kicking a hallowed orchestral standby, the piano concerto, into the quantum realm. Harlin and pianist Clayton Stephenson have been concocting the plan since they both took part in an LSO concert a year ago and bonded over their many mutual interests, from astronomy to hip-hop. “The Fourth Pedal” is a love letter and a kiss-off to a grand tradition, spinning grand piano majesty into electronically generated loops and opening the door to whatever comes next.
Harlin said it’s a “daunting” prospect to step into an arena dominated by Beethoven, Brahms and other big guns, but there’s a gleam in his eye, even as he plays humble.
“I think I found a solution,” he said.

Harlin recorded the sounds of the Amazon rain forest and wove them into “River of Doubt,” performed by the LSO in fall 2021. He likens the orchestra to a complex ecosystem, with each section and musician filling a crucial role.
Harlin recorded the sounds of the Amazon rain forest and wove them into “River of Doubt,” performed by the LSO in fall 2021. He likens the …

LSO musicians echoed recordings of actual birdcalls, including a species called “musician wren,” painstakingly transcribed in Harlin’s score.
LSO musicians echoed recordings of actual birdcalls, including a species called “musician wren,” painstakingly transcribed in Harlin’s score.

Fresh winds

A post-pandemic ripple of energy is pulsing through classical music, and it’s not just the alleged “orgasm heard round the world” reported via Twitter from the audience at an April performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Hall.
Concert halls are scoring big with new music, from hit operas like Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera to the Louisville Orchestra’s epic choral-orchestral work “Mammoth,” with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, performed inside Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in April.
A 21st-century cohort of composers open to using multiple styles of music is bringing diverse perspectives and stories to receptive listeners.
Market research shows double-digit jumps in orchestra attendance among millennials (aged 26-42) and Gen Z-ers (11-25), while older audiences have been slow to return to the concert hall post-pandemic, many of whom are not expected to ever come back.
Executive director Courtney Millbrook said the LSO audience has grown visibly younger at subscription concerts, the summer outdoor series and especially at LSO at the Robin, although the orchestra doesn’t track demographics.
“It’s pretty clear that the pandemic has reset things,” longtime Lansing arts patron Sam Austin said. “We have to get a new, younger audience, and most of them probably don’t care about Mozart, beautiful as it is.”
After a lifetime of cutting-edge science as a physics professor at the MSU Cyclotron, Austin expects the same spirit of exploration from art and music.
Austin and his wife, Mary, are key financial supporters of the composer-in-residence program and the LSO at the Robin series.
The magnum opus of Harlin’s Lansing tenure (so far) is “Earthrise,” an emotional rocket ride inspired by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders’ famous 1968 photo of the Earth rising over the lunar surface.
“Earthrise” got a standing ovation from the Wharton Center audience when it premiered in May 2022.

Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders felt “honored” by the Lansing Symphony’s performance of composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin’s “Earthrise,” inspired by Anders’ famous photo. In a YouTube comment, Anders predicted Harlin would “go far.”
Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders felt “honored” by the Lansing Symphony’s performance of composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin’s …

Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders felt “honored” by the Lansing Symphony’s performance of composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin’s “Earthrise,” inspired by Anders’ famous photo. In a YouTube comment, Anders predicted Harlin would “go far.”
Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders felt “honored” by the Lansing Symphony’s performance of composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin’s …
“This is where Patrick really stands out,” LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt explained. “He’s adventuresome and innovative, but never to the point where he’s losing touch with the audience. There’s a grounded-ness to this music that will make the new ideas, the innovations, feel even more powerful.”
“Earthrise” also earned the LSO a notable new fan.
“I’m honored that my Earthrise photo inspired a young talent to compose such an interesting piece,” Anders commented under a YouTube post of the performance. “He should go far in the musical world!”
(Harlin said it was “meaningful” but “surreal” to get that kind of recognition.)
That exploratory spirit is exactly what the Austins were hoping to spark.
It took a while for the change to take hold. Sam Austin said he talked with the LSO for almost 10 years about setting up a composer-in-residence program.
“Being a physicist and into music, you deal with the past by using it,” he said. “You may mention Einstein and Newton, but you build on them. In music, people just keep playing all the old stuff. I just like the idea of hearing new things, and that was rather unlikely, at least in this area.”
Subscription concerts under Timothy Muffitt’s predecessor on the podium, Gustav Meier, “bored” the Austins, and they weren’t alone.
Soon after Muffitt came on board in 2006, the rusty needle began to move.
On some nights, new music stole the show. Audiences jumped to their feet when athletic marimba player and multi-percussionist Lisa Pegher dove into an electrifying (and electronically enhanced) performance of Paul Dooley’s “Northern Nights” and a furious percussion concerto by Joseph Schwantner.
Muffitt and the orchestra were not just checking a box. They were going for blood.
In early 2019, the LSO scored a big-city coup with the premiere of a harp concerto by one of the nation’s foremost composers, Jennifer Higdon, played by samurai harp warrior Yolanda Kondonassis. A few weeks before that, the orchestra premiered a profound and lyrical trombone concerto by MSU composer David Biedenbender — also a premiere.
“These are not dinky, three-minute pieces,” Muffitt said. “The response to David’s piece was fantastic. It’s like — we’re not apologizing for doing this. I feel our community is right there with us, and this is part of our identity as an orchestra.”
The fresh winds also roused the orchestral ranks. LSO timpani player Andrew Spencer found himself pounding the skins with extra brio.
“For so much of my career, especially at the beginning, it was always the ‘three B’s,’” Spencer said, and he didn’t mean Biedenbender. “The musicians are embracing playing new pieces and audiences seem to enjoy hearing them.”
Learning new pieces means extra work, but LSO principal trumpeter Neil Mueller said the musicians relish the challenge.
“A lot of times, we show up and ask, ‘OK, what are we playing? What are we wearing? When does the rehearsal end?’ You get locked into a punch the time clock sort of attitude,” Mueller said. “Tim is committed to new music and so are the musicians. We want to pump new life into the ecosystem, and audiences have been responsive.”

Haydn in plain sight

After planting the flag for new music, the next logical step for Muffitt and the orchestra was to find a composer who could work with the group over a few years, get to know the musicians and the community and even write music tailored to the talents of individual players.
Muffitt, a passionate advocate and consummate interpreter of classical composer Joseph Haydn, compared Harlin’s tenure to the halcyon days when Haydn wrote reams of sublime symphonies for the court orchestra of his longtime patrons, the Esterhazys, in 18th-century Austria.
“Here’s one of the greatest composers ever, and he has this band of musicians of a very high caliber at his disposal on a daily basis,” Muffitt said. “He writes music, puts it in front of them and gets immediate feedback. Even Haydn grew as a composer in that kind of relationship.”
Despite the vaporized pandemic season of 2020-‘21, Harlin set to work right away.
“What we got from Patrick was a much more intimate connection than we envisioned,” Muffitt said. “He spent a lot of time in Lansing.”
Harlin was a key player in launching LSO at the Robin, an eclectic series of almost all-new music played by a rotating cast of LSO musicians that will enter its fourth season in fall 2023.
The series has showcased dozens of living composers, many of them in attendance at the intimate, 90-seat theater. A genre-blurring concert called “Crossovers” Feb. 16 pinballed through music with bluegrass, hip-hop, Yiddish and jazz elements, but the show-stopper was a rousing performance by Lansing’s All of the Above Hip-Hop Academy,

Harlin worked with the rappers to arrange their music for a backing group of bass clarinet, trumpet and strings.
Their music confronted gun violence, three days after a shooting at MSU, but also expressed pride, hope and exuberance, especially in the rappers’ ode to Lansing, “Breath of a City.”
“It was fun to see such unmitigated joy from performers,” Harlin said.
At every Robin Theatre concert, several audience members found the Austins, sitting quietly in the back of the hall, and thanked them for supporting the series.
“That’s very unusual,” Mary Austin said. “The Robin concerts attract a mix of people you don’t see at the symphony.”
For Muffitt, the launch and success of the Robin series was a long-held dream come true.
“We were looking for that kind of opportunity, a really strong new music initiative, for many years,” Muffitt said. “Having Patrick on board helped us go from concept to a tangible result.”

To the lighthouse

If there is a common source of energy among the cohort of younger composers whose music is filling concert halls in the 21st century, it’s the unresolved tension between their love of orchestral tradition and the urge to pry open the hermetic concert hall to the noise outside.
“River of Doubt,” performed by the LSO in January 2022, featured field recordings of birdsong Harlin recorded in the Amazon rain forest, along with intricate trills and warblings played by the musicians. Harlin painstakingly transcribed the bird songs, resorting to some strange markings on the page.
“I wanted to merge the soundscape in the real world with the soundscape in the concert hall,” Harlin said.
As Harlin got to know the players, he put juicy bits in his music for some of the orchestra’s stellar players, including clarinetist Guy Yehuda and bassoonist Michael Kroth.
“I realized each of those players can fill the hall,” Harlin said.
Harlin called on Mueller’s noble trumpet to conjure one of the most moving moments of “Earthrise,” when the blue oasis of Earth shines across the airless void.
“That was a nice moment toward the end, a really great trumpet moment,” Mueller said. “Each instrument brings something different, and it’s nice when someone understands what the trumpet can do.”
At an early 2022 rehearsal, long before he set “Earthrise” to paper, Harlin made the unheard-of request to take over 10 minutes of rehearsal time — not to tweak a finished work, but to try some experimental “games” in the early development of “Earthrise.”
To put this seemingly modest request in perspective, the orchestra usually rehearses for each major concert only twice, for about two and a half hours.
“That much time is like asking for somebody’s firstborn child,” Muffitt said.
But by then, Harlin, Muffitt and the orchestra had reached a high level of trust.
“They didn’t think it was a lark,” Muffitt said. “They knew it was serious business. We had the opportunity, in a very Esterhazy-like situation, to test it out.”
But Harlin had weirder things in mind than Haydn did when he asked Count Esterhazy’s musicians to leave the stage while playing the “Farewell Symphony.”
In one experiment, Harlin asked the musicians to play random notes. Musicians who played on top of each other were eliminated from the “game.”
“You had to put a note where no one else was,” principal oboist Gretchen Morse said. “Somehow, I was able to do it, and I won a six-pack of beer. What’s more motivating than that?”
Next, Harlin tried to paint a sonic “blur effect” by having the musicians chase each other sequentially, each playing faster than the one before.
“It sounded terrible,” Harlin said. “I could tell it wasn’t going to work and it was the wrong tack.”
Finally, Harlin struck gold with a technique he called “the lighthouse.” Instead of marking time, Muffitt served as the focal point of an invisible control beam, sweeping his arm to and fro in a semi-circular pattern.
“As soon as his hand passes a player in the orchestra, they change from one chord to the next chord or sound,” Harlin said, with the aim of creating “a wave or cascade of shifting sonorities.”
The result was a shimmering aurora of sound that set the stage perfectly for the symphonic thrusts and climactic re-entry of “Earthrise,” which had yet to be written.
“That one did work, and it was really cool,” Harlin said.
For Muffitt, moments like that demonstrate the value of a long residency.
“It’s all about trust,” Muffitt said. “Patrick had to be comfortable asking, and we had to be comfortable saying ‘yes.’ That happens when relationships are built, nurtured and developed.”
Orchestral rehearsals are often tense, with a painfully limited time to conquer mountains of complicated music, but Harlin and Muffitt were invariably on the same page.
“You have to pick and choose what to work on, and what you think will solve itself on its own,” Harlin said.
“I’ll circle a bunch of things as we go through, and every time, Tim captures my top items, without fail.”
At rehearsals, Harlin’s eyes would often stray from the score in front of him to the drama on the stage.
“Tim is also a really fun conductor to watch,” he said. “He’s incredibly elegant on the podium. There’s this component of seeing how your music is presented, not just hearing it, and Tim is able to put the music into movement, which is very rewarding to a composer.”
Attack of the fourth pedal
Last weekend, Harlin and pianist Clayton Stephenson huddled in Stephenson’s Boston apartment to work out the details of Friday’s premiere.
Their newfound artistic bond is just the kind of bonus Muffitt hoped the composer-in-residence project would bring.
A year ago, Stephenson, 24, came to Lansing to perform a piano concerto by pioneering African-American composer Florence Price. Harlin’s “Earthrise” premiered the same night.
Stephenson loved Harlin’s music and Harlin sensed a kindred musical spirit.
“I don’t always get that at every concert, even with the best soloists,” Harlin said. “There’s something about the way he was approaching the music in his playing.”
The two quickly developed a warm relationship. Three days after Stephenson left Lansing, the LSO asked him to return in a year.
“I wanted to work with someone who has their whole career ahead of them and is open to new ideas,” Harlin said.
“It’s fun to delve into uncharted territory,” Stephenson enthused.
Harlin’s music doesn’t imitate jazz or R&B outright, but he uses harmonies and meters that Stephenson called “modern and energetic.”
Breathing air is another virtue Stephenson seldom encounters in the composers he interprets. He admitted to an impossible itch to interrogate Mozart on his maddening piano fingering, which seems to require six fingers on each hand.
“Having the composer being alive is a great asset to the performer,” Stephenson said. “Many times I’ve wanted to ask, ‘Why did you do this? Why did you put this in here?’ Now I can.”
Harlin welcomes the give and take.
“I told him, ‘If something is feeling weird, or you don’t like a section, just tell me. This is your concerto. You can’t do that with Beethoven, but I’m right here.’”
They spent a lot of time last weekend working on a hypnotic, undulating pattern of ultra-fast 16th notes that runs through much of the concerto.
“He wanted it played in a specific way, more wave-like,” Stephenson said. “There’s no way to write it down like that. Those things helped me bring this piece to life.”
Harlin didn’t want to say too much and spoil the concerto for the audience, but the names of the movements circle back to the unresolved tension between Harlin’s love of tradition and his urge to break away from it.
The first movement, “The Echo Chamber,” leans into the glamorous, mirror-gazing exchanges between piano and orchestra that fill a traditional concerto, until they ominously begin to resemble 21st-century bubbles of information and culture.
He called the second movement a “theme and variations a la Wikipedia,” but its official name is identical to a web address —
Unsurprisingly, the music takes a dizzying dive into “hyperlinks” and has a bit of trouble finding its way back home.
“Sorry about the title,” Harlin chuckled. (He didn’t look sorry.) He knew it would show up as a hot link when mentioned on line, so he bought the web domain and is building a web page for it. Click at your own risk.
The third movement, “Object permanence,” deals with the question of whether things exist when there is no observer.
Hey, isn’t that the old tree-in-the-forest cliché? Harlin seemed to regret having said that much. He simply described the fourth movement, “The Fourth Pedal,” as “a study in the flow of energy in music.”
“I can’t really say anything else,” he said.
Then he said something else.
The fourth pedal, he added, is not a metaphor — or not just a metaphor. It’s a real pedal, hooked up to the piano, “right on the edge” of electronic enhancement.
“It’s augmenting the capabilities of the pianist,” he said. “What he plays gets looped back, and he adds on top of that.” To blur things even more, Stephenson will add his own improvisations to the loop.
Oboist Morse speculated that playing a brand-new piece lights up dormant areas of the brain, in both performer and listener.
Morse’s day job is doing neurofeedback, a therapy for pain and stress management that helps patients monitor and adjust their brain’s electrical output.
“We’ve played Dvorak’s Ninth a million times, and Beethoven and Brahms,” she said. “New works aren’t written into your brain and body. I like the newness. It gets the brain cells working a little more than something old and familiar. We can all think about what colors and frequencies might be shifting in our brains Friday night.”


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