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Poems and pines

LSO opener is homecoming for violinist Melissa White


Next Thursday’s Lansing Symphony season opener will end with one of the most thunderous thumpings in all of symphonic music, Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” a panoply of sonic pageantry that whiplashes from sweet little bird calls to clanking, horn-blasting Roman legions.

But many proud Lansing-ites are more interested in the road to Rome, which, as all history buffs know, runs through Gaul.

Violinist Melissa White, who grew up in Lansing and is now a mainstay of the globe-spanning Harlem Quartet, will bask in the solo spotlight for two epic-romantic French effusions by Ernest Chausson and Camille Saint-Saëns.

White comes back to Lansing for holidays and family visits, but hasn’t appeared with the Lansing Symphony since March 2011, for a soaring ride through Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

“The Wharton Center stage is so huge and intimidating,” White said. But the chill evaporated fast and she felt enveloped in a “supportive family.”

“I grew up with them,” White said. “A lot of them are my teachers, or we were in the same programs growing up.”

White didn’t know Maestro Timothy Muffitt back then, but came out a true believer.

“He was so supportive that it allowed me to take liberties and I knew he’d be right there,” she said. “I trusted him. I could sit back and let him lead and not worry about what would happen with the orchestra. It felt like he was doing lovely music-making and I just got to play along.”

“Playing along” is not an option for White next Thursday, by any stretch. Ernest Chausson’s “Poeme” and Camille Saint- Sa ns’s “Havanaise” are major statements, and star turns, for White.

The emotional weight of Chausson’s one-movement concerto is borne by a steely, suspension-cable through-line of violin virtuosity.

Every weekend, for four or five years, White listened obsessively to “Poeme,” on repeat play, while driving with her mother from Lansing to Chicago for lessons.

She learned the piece in college but has not yet played it with an orchestra.

“Now I get to perform it, not only with an orchestra, but back home, and my mom will be there,” she said. “That is super special to me.”

While in Lansing, White likes to check out what’s new at favorite haunts like Horrocks Farm Market. She has fond memories of Celebration Cinema, where she got her first job as an usher in her teens. “I was super nervous for my job interview,” she said. “When I got it, I was so proud I wore my uniform for fun.”

White’s main gig is the Harlem Quartet, a multi-cultural ensemble that fearlessly blurs genre lines, has lots of fun on stage and uses much of its energy to reach out to young people all over the world, especially those who haven’t gotten much exposure to classical music.

The quartet’s ever-growing tours and commitments have made it harder for White to do solo engagements, but she called it a “fun challenge.”

The quartet is in the second year of a residency at London’s Royal College of Music, navigating a schedule jammed with concerts, master classes, workshops and outreach. After Thanksgiving, White is heading back across the Atlantic for another round.

Since the Harlem Quartet formed in 2006, its eclectic repertoire has grown to global proportions. White and her band mates just came off of a tour with Cuban pianist-composer Aldo Gavrilan, including Gavrilan’s originals and jazz standards.

One of White’s favorite recent gigs was a tour of the U.S. and Japan with jazz piano legend Chick Corea and his frequent duet partner, vibraphonist Gary Burton.

“Chick’s really a rock star in Japan,” White said. Adoring mobs lay in wait for Corea at every town.

“It made the energy incredible,” White said. “I’ll never forget — we arrived at one of the halls and there was a massive crowd waiting someone to arrive. It was only a rehearsal day, so I thought, ‘Wow, who’s playing here tonight?’” Touring Japan, White got to apply the Japanese language skills she learned in Lansing, at the Black Child and Family Institute, Gardner Elementary and Everett High School, from the age of 6 until she left for studies at Interlochen at 16. White even visited Japan with her father as part of an exchange program with one of Lansing’s sister cities, Otsu.

Working with Corea was a career and life high for White. Enjoying five-star hotels and first-class food and conversation at Corea’s favorite restaurants didn’t hurt, either.

“He’s immensely creative,” White said.

“Every time we perform, it’s new. He has a way of making everyone on stage feel empowered to be their most creative self.”

When White works with young students, she treats them the same way.

“I try to influence them to create something that doesn’t exist yet,” she said. In a world where content pours into musician’s heads via the Internet, White has to remind herself of the same thing.

“Uniqueness is what makes the arts the arts,” she said. “Trying to sound as perfect as Itzhak Perlman is one goal, but if I want to hear Itzhak Perlman I’m going to put on Itzhak Perlman.”

Lately, White’s search for her own best self has broadened to include projects like Intermission, a union of yoga and music-making, “movement and mindfulness.”

The idea, she explained, is to carve out “the silence to hear your own mind.”

“It’s a little scary,” she allowed. “But somehow, it’s almost empowering to feel like all you have to do is be your best self, instead of trying to re-create being the best version of someone else.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra Melissa White, violin 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing $20-55 (517) 487-5001 tickets.lansingsymphony.org


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