Lansing Symphony returns with a vengeance

A bagful of bangs


After a year and a half of pandemic-imposed exile, the Lansing Symphony will be back Saturday, not with a bang, but with a bagful of bangs.

A saucy salvo of slaps, courtesy of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town,” will serve instant notice the orchestra is open for business.

“It’s not very subtle, but we wanted to make the very first thing the audience hears to really have an impact,” music director Timothy Muffitt said.

The biggest bangs Russia has ever produced, this side of the tank battle of Kursk, are the crushing chords that open the evening’s centerpiece, Tchaikovsky’s massive piano concerto.

One of the most skilled and compelling young musicians on the scene, New York pianist and composer Michael Brown, will provide the keyboard fireworks.

Brown has the unique ability to project stress and joy at the same time — the perfect combination for one of the toughest works in the repertoire.

He’s been holed up in his Manhattan apartment, his pandemic headquarters for the past year and a half, getting the beast under his fingers.

“You can start anywhere and four hours later, you’re not much further than where you started,” he said. “It’s exciting because you can never be good enough.”

Although Brown emerged from his hideout for a few outdoor festivals this summer, Saturday’s concert will be a comeback for him as well.

“I’ve done concertos during the pandemic, but a lot of strings-only or smaller ensembles,” he said. “This will be the first time in two years I’m doing a piece that requires this many players.”

Brown is an accomplished composer as well as a pianist. 

After several false starts over the pandemic, he came to Kalamazoo in April to perform a lyrical, probing piano concerto he wrote while living at Rock Hill, the Aaron Copland House in New York.

He recently wrote a piece for the Maryland Symphony about COVID, “Merging Pods.”

“It’s based on the fantasy that we start together, we all come apart, and we come back together,” he said. “It’s not really true, but maybe in art, we have better luck to create our own fantasy worlds.”

He got through the pandemic with the help of long walks in gorgeous Fort Tryon Park and along the High Line in Manhattan, where he lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood, and quality time with his quarantine buddies: two Steinway pianos he has named Octavia and Daria. The ménage a trois has taken the opportunity to plunge into all-consuming vortices like the Tchaikovsky concerto and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, which he called a “weird, psychotic puzzle.”

Octavia and Daria were “born” in 1893 and 1884, when Tchaikovsky was still around, and Brown can feel the affinity when he practices. 

“I’m drawn lately to music that’s beautiful, and makes you cry,” he said.

He’s never worked with Muffitt, but he heard about the maestro from his friend, frequent duet partner and Manhattan neighbor, Nick Canellakis, who played the Schumann cello concerto with the Lansing Symphony in April 2019. 

Brown was happy to learn that visiting artists prize Muffitt as a flexible and dynamic collaborator who tackles the biggest concerto as if it were an intimate duet with the soloist.

“When a concerto can feel like chamber music, that’s really awesome,” Brown said. “Otherwise, you get this leading-following thing, where it’s not a unified experience for everyone.”

The cream center of the concerto, for Brown, is the gently whimsical middle movement.

“It’s just really fun to play,” he said. “It’s like a ballet for the fingers, especially after this titanic opening movement that’s like a battle to get through.”

To master a concerto this intense, he has to will himself to stay in the moment. 

“I have my anxieties,” he said. “Will I remember what comes next? Will I forget something? The best thing for me is to limit my negative thoughts and focus on how beautiful the music is.”

Fortunately, Tchaikovsky gives the pianist much-needed breaks while the orchestra storms away.

“There’s a lot of great orchestral moments,” Brown said. “It’s an experience for the pianist and the orchestra together. I’m just a part.”

He paused. 

“A major part.”

Between the bangs Saturday night, Muffitt and the orchestra will acknowledge the emotional weight of their return to Wharton with a 1985 piece by American composer Roger Briggs, “Gathering Together.”

“It’s the perfect piece for bringing an audience back into a concert hall after a global pandemic,” Muffitt said.  “The composer spins these long lines that are achingly beautiful, that put the audience in this space of warm contemplation.” 

The Lansing Symphony’s COVID-19 guidelines for Saturday’s concert are roughly in line with widely adopted rules in venues across the country, including Broadway theaters. Audience members will need proof of full vaccination or a negative test and masks will be required. (For more detailed information, see the LSO website.) All symphony concerts through November will not have an intermission and no concessions will be available.

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