Lansing Symphony hopes for June concerts, moves live music online


MONDAY, April 20 — Tuba players can’t wear masks. There’s no research yet on what happens to the coronavirus when it goes through a contrabassoon. A section of 20 cellists, sitting six feet apart from each other, is like something out of a Magritte painting.

Nevertheless, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra is in a hopeful holding pattern, with plans to finish out its 2019-2020 slate of concerts in June. Last week, the orchestra launched a lively series of on-line quarantine concerts by quarantined musicians, “LSO at Home.”

In an interview Friday, Courtney Millbrook, the Lansing Symphony’s executive director, and LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt shared some of their hopes and fears for the future. The maestro also clued us in on what he’s been up during quarantine.

The LSO’s last two concerts of the season have been rescheduled to June 12 (a pops concert featuring the music of Abba) and June 26 (the season finale featuring Brahms’ Second and other works).

Millbrook knows that’s optimistic. Health experts have speculated that it may be months, if not more than a year, before large public gatherings such as concerts or sporting events can be held safely.

Cramming the orchestra on stage to play Brahms’ huge Second Symphony, let alone bringing in an audience to hear it, is pretty much out of the question for the time being.

“Some days I feel really optimistic and other days I feel really naïve,” Millbrook said.

“Yes, it’s optimistic, and we know that,” Muffitt said. “If we need to cancel or postpone, we will, but we can keep that possibility alive, and why give it up if we don’t have to? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by keeping the possibility of those concerts out there.”

If the ban on public gatherings continues into June, Millbrook said the concerts will probably be canceled rather than pushing them back further.

Even if restrictions are eased or lifted by mid-June, Millbrook knows that people may still be wary of gathering in large numbers.

“There are people who are eager to come out and just need a green light, and others who will have concerns, and we’ll have to figure out ways to address them,” she said.

Orchestras across the country are dealing with the same questions.

“Some of our colleagues are saying that everyone who’s not a wind player should wear a mask — things that a month ago would have seemed completely crazy,” Millbrook said. “None of us know what to do. The only thing we know is that everything is unpredictable.”

Seating patrons three chairs apart is an option for the audience, but not for the orchestra.

“Orchestras, by nature, sit close together,” Millbrook said. “We’re set to perform Brahms, and that doesn’t call for a small orchestra.”

If the concerts are canceled, ticket holders will have the option of donating the cost of their tickets to the orchestra, which is facing some lean months, or request a refund.

Millbrook said the LSO was on track to announce its full 2020-2021 season just before the coronavirus hit Michigan in March, and still plans to roll out the schedule by mid-May. The 2020-21 soloists were all signed up by February and they’re all still on board, she said.

Two or three months ago, the orchestra was in good financial shape, with a modest reserve to keep operations going, Millbrook said.

How long the LSO remains viable depends on what happens in the coming months. Even if the 2021-2022 season kicks off as scheduled in September, a weak economy could dry up individual and corporate donations — a significant source of the orchestra’s revenue — and shrivel ticket sales.

Or the euphoria of coming back after a long hiatus could lead to an unprecedented rush.

“Everybody is in a real uncertain time,” Millbrook said. “People need to take care of their immediate needs and their families, but ideally, we can get through this.”

In the meantime, the symphony has launched an online series of mini-recitals and concerts called “LSO at Home,” available on its web site.

The project started with a literal bang — a great many bangs — in the first installment of “LSO Kids,” which will run every Tuesday at 2 p.m.

“Play something loud,” LSO Education and Outreach director Ashleigh Lore pleaded. Principal timpanist Andrew Spencer obliged with a sonata for solo timpani by composer John Beck.

When Muffitt saw Spencer thunder away in his home studio, jammed with percussion artillery of every caliber, he texted Millbrook: “Are you seeing this?”

She texted back: “he’s auditioning for you.”

Spencer seemed to be dropping an unsubtle hint that he was ready for a solo turn in a timpani concerto with the full symphony some day.

“I think we’ve come up with a winner,” Muffitt said. “The LSO Kids got a huge response.”

“LSO at Home” will also include solo recitals every Thursday at 5 p.m., featuring LSO musicians performing from their homes. Last Thursday was a twofer, as violinists Eliot Heaton and Ran Cheng (who are married to each other) did a duet of music by Saint-Saëns.

At 7:30 Thursdays, an archive LSO performance goes online. Millbrook has been lining up artist permissions to cull some of the orchestra’s best recent concerts.

The lively and engaging “LSO at Home” series bears Lore’s energetic stamp.

“She’s a born educator,” Muffitt said. “When we came to her with the idea, it took her about two minutes to formulate what she wanted to do.”

Unsurprisingly, Muffitt is not frittering away his quarantine time. He’s maintaining a strict routine, studying scores for June’s concert and into the next season.

“For me, keeping the noise out and keeping my sanity means trying to keep as much normalcy in my life as possible,” he said. “I’m studying scores I think I may conduct and looking at when we may do a concert again. That can keep getting kicked down the road, but I’m trying to keep my routine the same, with plenty of score study ever day. At this point, I’m getting pretty well prepared,’ he added.

By now, Muffitt has posted over 20 entries in a jaw-breaking seminar on his public Facebook page, “Social Distancing Chronological Survey of the Romantic Piano Concerto.”

“I’m sure the two or three people who follow this are enjoying it,” Muffitt said. “Who doesn’t love a chronological survey of the romantic piano concerto?”

But Muffitt is taking the deep dive as seriously as he takes everything else. He got the idea while preparing for the LSO’s season finale, which will feature a piano concerto by Camille Saint-Saens. He decided to delve into the development of the romantic concerto, from its beginnings in the classical era to little-known, latter-day concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward McDowell.

It’s an expansive subject, perfect for filling quarantine time with food for the soul and mind.

In the 21 concertos Muffitt has rolled out so far, the dialogue between the individual and the collective takes a myriad of complex, beautiful and turbulent paths. (Muffitt’s favorite is the sublime Brahms’ Second.)

While in quarantine, Muffitt has been taking solace in all sorts of music. He and his wife, Elise, have been avidly going through Ken Burns’ epic “Country Music” documentary. Muffitt recently interrupted his piano concerto marathon to write a post celebrating the music of jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, who died two weeks ago.

It might seem like a busman’s holiday, but even after a day of studying scores, Muffitt still turns to the music of Brahms and Beethoven when he’s in need of a serious reset.

“When I’m looking for music to really take me away, the middle and late string quartets of Beethoven always do that,” he said. “Brahms chamber music can really carry me. The piano music of Debussy does that too. Those are powerful remedies for difficult times, in my book.”

LSO at Home:

LSO Kids: Tuesdays at 2 p.m.

LSO Thursdays: Thursdays at 5 p.m.

LSO Repeats: Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.


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