The first thing a real, live audience will hear from a real, live Lansing Symphony Orchestra at its 2021-’22 season opener Oct. 9 will be the blinding neon smack of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” — brash New York chords that bark “open for business.”
“We’re back on the town, gathering together,” maestro Timothy Muffitt said. “It’s not very subtle, but we wanted to make the very first thing the audience hears to really have an impact.”
When the 2020-’21 season was announced a year ago, between peaks of COVID, it felt like a noble but doomed gesture. The 2021-22 season lineup, announced this week, feels more than just aspirational to the orchestra’s executive director, Courtney Millbrook.
“After the last year, I’m hesitant to say I feel sure about anything, but this feels very real to me,” Millbrook said.
The last time the orchestra played a full-on concert at the Wharton Center was January 2020. Since then, it has kept the flame lit with online recitals and distanced outdoor concerts featuring small subunits of musicians.
Muffitt avoided the temptation to mark the occasion by packing the stage for a full-throated choral “Ode to Joy” or “Carmina Burana.” Most of the music calls for a medium-sized orchestra that can be socially distanced on the Wharton state if necessary. Selections are timed in such a way that intermissions will be optional. (Muffitt envisions bringing intermissions back in the early spring.)
“We planned for contingencies,” Muffitt said. “These aren’t tiny works, not chamber music, but you don’t see a Mahler symphony or a big oratorio. You see things that are going to keep us nimble.”
Millbrook said the orchestra’s board, staff and musicians are still working out a safety protocol and have yet to decide whether vaccinations will be required of musicians.
“We follow what the state requires and what the science tells us,” she said. “Across the country, orchestras are going to be back to capacity, likely without social distancing, depending on the venue. Some people might do masks, because that’s what their audience wants, but we haven’t made a decision yet.”
The season will feature many of the same soloists and works planned for the doomed 2020-’21 season, minus the now-outdated Beethoven birthday bash and without star Beethoven pianist Jonathan Biss.
The season’s only explicit nod to the pandemic will be the second work on the Oct. 8 program, “Gathering Together,” by American composer Roger Briggs.
Muffitt gave the piece a compliment Briggs surely didn’t foresee when he wrote it in 1985: “It’s the perfect piece for bringing an audience back into a concert hall after a global pandemic.” Based on a poem by Patricia Goedicke, the music’s dream-like pulsations will give listeners a luminous 20 minutes in which to let the enormity of the past year, and the joy of getting back together, sink in.
“The composer spins these long lines that are achingly beautiful, that put the audience in this space of warm contemplation,” Muffitt said. The LSO’s composer-in-residence, Patrick Harlin, alerted Muffitt to the piece.
Harlin’s own works, yet to be finished, will be featured on two of next season’s MasterWorks concerts and one entire chamber concert Dec. 5.
Aside from the Briggs piece, no targeted laments, requiems or tributes are in the cards. Muffitt is ready to move on and believes the audience will feel the same way. The Oct. 6 concert bangs to a climax with Tchaikovsky’s famous first piano concerto, with brilliant pianist-composer Michael Brown as soloist.
“I didn’t want to create a program where we’ll still be wallowing in our thoughts of the pandemic,” Muffitt said. “We didn’t want a season to be reliving all that, but I do feel it’s important that our first concert coming back has a tone that suits the occasion.”
The Nov. 12 concert will feature charismatic violinist Lucia Micarelli, a post-modern, multi-talented artist who also sings and acts and is known to many HBO viewers as the busker Annie Talarico in the “Treme” series. Micarelli will perform Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. The same concert will also feature “Strum,” by American composer Jessie Montgomery, and Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony.
Muffitt felt lucky that Micarelli was able to re-schedule her Lansing appearance after the pandemic vaporized the 2020-’21 season. Another happy holdover from the season that wasn’t is MSU cellist Suren Bagratuni, the featured soloist for the Jan. 14, 2022, concert. Bagratuni, a Russian master in the tradition of David Oistrakh and Mistislav Rostropovich, will play searing music that is very close to his heart, Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. The concert will close with Antonin Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony.
The March 19 concert is a tightly braided set of witty, classically scaled works by Haydn, Mozart and Francis Poulenc.
The program is the sleeper of the bunch. There are no blockbusters, but the combination of three sublime voices with many traits in common, with Poulenc as the wild card, will give Muffitt a chance to serve up one of his purest musical offerings.
The season closer March 19 will feature Brahms’ magisterial Second Symphony.
By then, Muffitt hopes, “the pandemic will be fading in our memories.”
“The symphony is both joyous and melancholy. I don’t know how he does that,” Muffitt said. “The whole experience, from beginning to end, gives you a feeling of elation, but the emotional complexity is representative of what we’ve all been through.”