In the current Lansing Symphony Orchestra program booklet, an ad for a mechanical engineering firm offers a “symphony in HVAC,” a “symphony in plumbing” and a “symphony in fire alarms.”
Friday’s LSO concert was all of that and more.
In an evening devoted to Mozart and two of his latter-day successors, the biggest thrill of the night came from a young man who sat in the sixth row.
“Shadow Dances” was a fire alarm, all right — a whacking, seven-minute wake-up call from LSO’s first-ever composer-in-residence, Patrick Harlin. After a rock-style, drumstick-clacking intro, the music bounded into symphonic dance territory, but Harlin was chasing grander game. Parrying and pivoting, skating and stopping short, over-reaching and plummeting, he sucked the audience into not just listening, but rooting for the music to find unity.
Half of the orchestra seemed to pull against the rhythm, like Prometheus straining at his chains. Percussionist Ari Hajek was in three places at once, egging everybody on with jabs and slaps and thwaps. When the chains broke, however, everything came untethered in a way that felt more disorienting than liberating. The winds and strings pushed a series of scales higher and higher until the room got eerily quiet and the icy ionosphere beckoned.
Gravity re-asserted itself, first as a rain of needle thin pulsations, thickening to big, heroic chords. It all synched up at the last micro-second, but just barely.
If “Shadow Dancer” is a fair sample, Harlin will be a tremendous asset to the symphony in the coming years. He had the Wharton Center audience swallowing a new piece of music, still flopping and wet, like a happy pelican.
A careful buildup of classical and neo-classical gems set “Shadow Dancer” up for maximum impact. After a slightly ragged rip through a Mozart overture (“The Impresario”), the orchestra settled in for the slow, rolling intro of the same composer’s “Prague” symphony. Maestro Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra gave every inch of this music’s fine cabinetry — all the joins, scrollwork, dovetails and tracery — close attention without lapsing into dry pedantry.
Next came a grand homage to the styles of Haydn and Mozart, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, the perfect transition from the 19th to the 20th century. The fun of the “Classical” symphony is that it’s voluntarily classical, so it can color outside the lines, with harmonies and detours Mozart never thought of. In one thrilling moment, the overall sound suddenly doubles, like the aspect ratio of a movie expanding to wide-screen. The finale whooshed by, compressing 10 million notes into a velvety, moth-like blur.
The evening’s closer, Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” suite, was a whole new kind of fun. Eccentric jigs from the brass, pennants of melody snapped taut by the woodwinds, solo, duet and ensemble turns spilling into the margins — the odd, wind-up, tabletop charm of this neo-classical gem grew in fascination with each section. The superfast toccata sent a sack full of mechanical mice scurrying all over the auditorium. The woodwinds caressed the finale to heights of song.
And oh, oh, oh, what could be more delightful than a playful, low-end duet from principal bassist Ed Fedewa and the formidable lady several heads to his right, principal trombonist Ava Ordman? When Fedewa’s resonant box merged with Ordman’s gold spiral of tubing for a few brief seconds, the very air in the auditorium was burnished to deep amber. We finally got our symphony in HVAC and plumbing.