Lansing Symphony Orchestra: ‘Not to be missed’


The upcoming Lansing Symphony Orchestra season, announced this week, runs a breathtaking gamut, from a gala gospel-music extravaganza in December to a much-anticipated visit from British piano star Benjamin Grosvenor next May. Along the way, music director Timothy Muffitt has deftly nestled many brand-new or relatively unfamiliar works he feels will resonate with local audiences alongside familiar classics from Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Gershwin and others.

"LSO at the Robin," at the Robin Theatre in REO Town, returns with a full schedule of chamber and pops concerts. The adventurous series sold out last year.

The season kicks off Oct. 3 with a concert anchored by Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” with guest cellist Tommy Mesa.

Mesa, a young and charismatic Cuban-American cellist, tears into each piece of music like there’s no tomorrow and has already performed with top orchestras worldwide. In 2023, the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, dedicated to supporting young Black and LatinX classical artists, awarded Mesa its highest honor, the Medal of Excellence.

“He has a unique voice on the cello, a beautiful sound, great facility, but also that X factor of nuance and expression,” Muffitt said. “There’s something very personal in his playing that I think will really resonate with the audience.” The concert opens with “Bravado,” a celebratory blast from a very much living composer (under 30, in fact), U of M-based Gala Flagello, a finalist last year for the position of LSO composer-in-residence. Music by Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Mozart will round out the evening, all written in a theme and variations style.

The Nov. 1 concert explores the intersection between classical and jazz music with guest pianist Willis Delony, a longtime scholar, teacher and performer specializing in the connections between classical music and jazz.

 “If you see one of his recitals, it would have Claude Debussy and Art Tatum on the same program,” Muffitt said. “He’s uncompromising in both realms.”

“Jazz Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” by Greg Yasinitsky, was commissioned by Delony and Muffitt for the Baton Rouge Symphony in 2017. The performance, conducted by Muffitt, helped earn the piece The American Prize in Composition that year.

Unlike many classical works that fly under the color of jazz, the Yasinitsky concerto includes improvised passages and “truly explores the jazz side of the piano,” Muffitt said.

The concert will open with William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2, “Song for a New Race.” Muffitt hasn’t conducted the symphony, but he’s wanted to for a long time.

“From the moment it hits your ears, draws you in,” Muffitt said. “It’s so attractive, so appealing, so American. I just know people are going to walk out saying, ‘Why haven’t I heard this before?’”

Neither the Still symphony nor the Yasinistsky concerto are well known to Lansing audiences, so Muffitt threw in a much more familiar work, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” an Art Deco tower of glitter and fizz that’s a genre unto itself. Finding a soloist was no problem. Delony gladly agreed to warm the piano stool for another glorious 20 minutes or so.

The Jan. 10 concert continues the tradition of featuring one of the orchestra’s principals in a solo role, this time with principal horn player Corbin Wagner playing Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 2. The concert also features a world premiere by LSO composer-in-residence Jared Miller, “Trittico Botticelliano,” by Ottorino Respighi and the soaring, elegant symphony No. 43 (“Mercury”) by one of Muffitt’s favorite composers, Joseph Haydn.

The whole evening is scaled to a classical-sized orchestra, even for the Respighi, who usually deploys bigger legions. However, true to Muffitt’s modus operandi, he tucked in this little-known masterpiece inspired by three Botticelli paintings to blow the audience away with a piece they probably don’t know.

“It’s a gem,” Muffitt said. “He pulls out ancient music techniques and puts it in this tonally brilliant 20th-century idiom. It just shimmers and glistens and shines.”

Five works with a Spanish tinge fill out the April 4 concert, “Sketches of Spain.” Guest violinist Chee-Yun will play one of her signature works, Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole.”

Muffitt has worked with her several times but not yet in Lansing.

“She’s just a dazzling violinist with unlimited technical ability but also so much personality,” Muffitt said. “She creates a very strong connection with the audience.”

 Some of the music on the slate, like Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” and a suite from Manuel De Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat,” are well known, but Marc Migo’s “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” is a sleeper of more recent vintage.

Muffitt delights in sneaking in sleepers like Migo’s “Ecstasy,” the symphony by Willliam Grant Still and Respighi’s “Trittico Botticelliano.”

“That’s one of the things that’s exciting about being in a place for a long time,” he said. “I really believe in these works. I think it’s something the audience will embrace rather than just endure, and it’s fun to be able to share them.” The concert ends with Ravel’s famous slow-motion dance explosion, “Bolero.”

The May 9 season finale is a monster, anchored by Beethoven’s epic Piano Concerto No. 5.

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, one of the biggest international stars ever to appear with the LSO, will do the solo honors.

“His career has gone through the roof, and he’s playing one of the great staples of the repertoire,” Muffitt said.

Grosvenor has played with all the major U.K. and U.S. orchestras, from the London and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras to the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. It’s a major coup to get him to Lansing.

“We have a good reputation,” Muffitt said. “People know they can come here and have a good experience.”

The concert will open with composer-in-residence Jared Miller’s “Under Sea, Above Sky” and close with Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8.

The LSO has had great success with its pops series, from the music of the Abba and The Beatles to “Star Wars,” and bigger extravaganzas are on the way.

“Some orchestras have a hard go of it in pops,” Muffitt said. “I think we’ve hit the mark with programming, we’ve built a nice, loyal audience and people are coming and having a great time.”

The Feb. 8 pops concert will feature Queen's music, and an April 18 show, “Diva Legends (I Will Survive),” will wrap exquisite symphonic furs around disco, pop, and R&B showstoppers associated with Gloria Gaynor, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Diana Ross and many others.

But the most hotly anticipated event is a spectacular gospel-based pops holiday concert Dec. 15.

LaVonté Heard, director of the Verna D. Holley Project, will lead a 100-voice chorus, with Muffitt conducting.

The Verna D. Holley Project is the recently formed successor to the long-lived Earl Nelson Singers, a Lansing gospel music institution.

“We’ve been talking with LaVonté for a couple of years now, trying to find some way of doing something together, and he’s bringing in some heavy hitters, both soloists and choruses,” Muffitt said.

The chorus will combine several mid-Michigan gospel choirs, including the Bread House International Ministries Choir, The Jeremy Winston Choir International, Jeremiah Towner & Highest Praise and the Verna D. Holley Project.

Heard has worked with orchestras before, and Muffitt has conducted several gospel-orchestral concerts — they’ve even worked with some of the same soloists — but they’ve never brought their combined majesty and might to Lansing. Together, they’ll choose from a rich selection of arrangements built up over the past several decades.

“Gospel is so powerful,” Muffitt said. “There’s nothing else like it in terms of the emotional impact on the listener. This is not to be missed.”




No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Connect with us