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Mahler, McDonald loom large in symphony’s '19-20 season

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The soprano splendor of Broadway and screen star Audra McDonald and the transcendent grandeur of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony will make mighty tentpoles for the 90th Lansing Symphony season gala, to be announced to subscribers after Friday’s 2018-19 season finale.

“We wanted to do something really special for the 90th season, something that might have even broader appeal than straight classical music,” Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt said.

McDonald has received six Tony Awards, more than any performer, and is the only person to win all four acting categories. She’ll join the home team Sept. 21 for a romp through the Great American Songbook, preceded by an orchestral warm-up of symphonic dances by energetic California composer Bruce Stark.

McDonald’s supple, muscular pipes and sharp sense of humor spark instant rapport with audiences, whether the venue is Broadway, the White House (where President Barack Obama bestowed a National Medal of Arts upon her), Lincoln Center or a gig with the Lansing Symphony.

“Audra is magic,” Muffitt said. “No one does what she does. She seemed like the perfect fit, as one of America’s great artists and musicians.”

On Nov. 2, the orchestra will go in a completely different direction, devoting an entire evening to Mahler’s gargantuan Second Symphony, also known as the “Resurrection” Symphony.

The rare feat will require all of MSU’s choral forces, vocal soloists, augmented strings and major orchestral reinforcements.

“There’s a very large contingent of offstage brass players — and a pretty large contingent of onstage brass players,” Muffitt said. “It’s very exciting to mount something like this.”

Anytime Mahler’s Second is performed, it’s a major cultural event.

“You’re just walking into a new world,” Muffitt said. “There’s something almost visual about this music. Unlike a Brahms symphony, which seems to exist in the realm of pure music, Mahler has roots that are somehow in daily life — it seems to spring from an earthly experience and goes upward from there.”

The classical connoisseur’s night of the year, and Muffitt’s favorite set list, is a tight braid of centuries-spanning artistry Oct. 11, from Mozart (“Prague” Symphony) to Prokofiev (“Classical” Symphony) and Stravinsky (“Pulcinella” Suite).

Muffitt considers “Pulcinella,” with its many extended and exquisite solos, a chance to highlight some of the orchestra’s talented principals, concerto style. Muffitt has been eager to do “Pulcinella,” the pungent fruit of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, for years. To further refine the program, he paired it with another great 20th-century neo-classical work, by Prokofiev, and added a dose of the real deal, from Mozart.

Each year, Muffitt likes to feature one of the symphony’s principals as a soloist. The Jan. 18 concert will feature a little-heard clarinet concerto by Jean Françaix, with Lansing Symphony principal clarinetist Guy Yehuda doing solo honors.

When Yehuda suggested the fairly obscure Francaix concerto, Muffitt built a “colorful and spirited” French program around it — Paul Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

“Guy is a beautiful musician with a lot of personality,” Muffitt said.

The season will close May 8, 2020, with one of the most lyrical and noble of symphonies, Brahms’ Second, and a solo appearance by a pianist from Kalamazoo’s Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

The season, as announced, looks a bit short on newer music, but it’s not. It’s just that Muffitt doesn’t know what it will be yet. Next season, for the first time, the Lansing Symphony will host a composer in residence for three years, from fall 2019 to spring 2022. Symphony donors Sam and Mary Austin are the principal supporters of the initiative, which has given the maestro a whole new way to be excited.

“We’ve always had a commitment to nurturing new music, but this is a whole different ballgame,” Muffitt said. “This person will be integrated with the orchestra and the community for an extended period of time.”

The last concert of the 2019-2020 season, and the two subsequent season openers and closers, will each include a piece of music by the composer-in-residence.

The job comes with several duties, including writing a 10 to 20-minute piece the orchestra will premiere some time during the composer’s tenure.

The community will get a rare chance to follow a composer, up close, in real time.

“This also puts us on the map, by doing work that is highly significant to the music world in this country,” Muffitt said.

The symphony’s executive director, Courtney Millbrook, said the applications have been “overwhelming.”

Rounding out the 2019-20 season, three pops concerts are planned: a holiday concert Dec. 22, a night of movie music Feb. 15 and an ABBA extravaganza March 28.

The Chamber Music Series starts with an ensemble anchored by horn player Corbin Wagner Sept. 29 and continues with the group Quartal Harmony (string quartet plus flute) Oct. 20 and piano quartets by Fauré and Dvorák March 1.

The Lansing Symphony Jazz Band will hold two concerts, Nov. 24 and April 16. LSO musicians will pop up in the community at several scheduled events, including two stops at the downtown Capital Area District Library Oct. 17 and Feb. 9 and the Broad Museum ArtLab Nov. 17 and March 8.

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