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Mid-January is not a propitious time to pile more angst onto a pre-oppressed populace, already weighed down by foul weather and fouler news.
So, without waiting for April, the chestnut blossoms and all that stuff, the Lansing Symphony whisked a packed house of semi-frozen Michiganders to France Saturday night.
On paper, the program presaged a frivolous night, but there are deep and dark layers in music director Timothy Muffitt’s lightest soufflés.
Two famous works, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” provided the obligatory fireworks, but the cream of the concert was in the middle.
I’d be surprised if 20 people in the packed hall had ever heard the clarinet concerto of Jean Francaix. Thanks largely to the athletic and agile artistry of principal clarinetist Guy Yehuda, stepping out Saturday as soloist, the concerto went over in grand style, like an airship built by the Montgolfier brothers.
A jaunty, slightly off-kilter promenade, utterly out of touch with the weightier manifestations of 20th century music, set a mood of urbane drollery. Soloist and orchestra adroitly bounced the melody back and forth in a fine-tuned two-act that only tightened as the music grew more complex.
Yehuda yoked the concerto’s magician-in-top-hat showmanship to his own disciplined precision and gorgeous tone, erasing the distinction between fun and high art. Everybody in the orchestra seemed to be on Yehuda’s wavelength. There was even a wink-wink moment when Yehuda took the clarinet out of his mouth and it seemed to continue playing! Of course, the notes were emanating from acting principal Tasha Warren, a few rows back, who took over the seat vacated by Yehuda for the night and produced many memorable moments.
Yehuda was almost as much fun to watch as he was to listen to. His body twisted and swayed as he coaxed long, ductile melodies and adroit bursts of punctuation from his ebony horn. His virtuosity was beyond impressive, but it always served an emotional mood or a musical thought, the same way a stunt by Buster Keaton revealed some aspect of his character while making you say “wow.” A sudden ascent to a dog-whistle-high note, while breathtaking to follow, finished the phrase leading up to it as logically as a tail completes a cat. When Yehuda played alone, pianissimo, he took the volume down to a daring threshold of audibility, commanding the stage so completely that people stopped coughing, or even breathing.
In the dense second movement, Yehuda packed even more colors, gestures and textures onto the canvas, melding complexity with comedy in a way that never got confused or overloaded. The bumptious bustle receded completely in the slow movement, a languorous play of undulating, intricate sighs.
The other half of the night’s cream center had a completely different flavor. Even when you think you are ready — when you have not been lulled into complacency by extroverted drama and rollicking showmanship — there is no preparation for the merciless beauty of Maurice Ravel. Judging by its title, the “Mother Goose” suite promised the most lightweight fare of the night. But nobody is ready for a miraculous trip back to a state of mind associated with childhood. Ravel’s downy reveries and haunting harmonies, like the impossible touch of a long dead loved one, are so painfully lovely they seem to come from a forbidden place. In the transcendent last movement, the strings generated a long, sweeping arc of airy uplift, with a throbbing undertow, climaxing with a glittering eruption of percussion.
Need a cigarette now? Sorry, no smoking in the auditorium, but a kaleidoscopic escapade through the streets of Paris, courtesy of George Gershwin, effectively shook off the post-Ravel reverie. Maestro Muffitt’s professional uprightness, his skill at opening up the music and burnishing every detail, was almost misplaced in “An American in Paris” because it made you notice how labored some of the transitional passages really are.
A bit of headlong rushing, some throwaway carelessness, a spritz of good old schmear and schmaltz, might have livened things up and papered over the music’s inherent cracks. But the performance was grand where it needed to be. In the nick of time, trombonist Ava Ordman goosed the big finale with a magnificent, sliding “whomp” that put it over the finish line.