OK, I made up that New Yorker cartoon, but it´s condescending enough to seem real.
The point is, nobody had any problem figuring out whom to root for at Wednesday’s Lansing Symphony season finale.
Pianist Andrew Hsu, all of 19 years old, didn´t just play the shoes off the Schumann piano concerto — he tinkered with it like a happy motorhead tuning up a red 1970 Mustang. His joyful absorption was so complete he may as well have been alone in his garage with a beer on the toolbox and a pizza on the way. He folded the concerto into an origami flamingo, had it for breakfast, married it and buried it. He made it fun.
Applying ineffable skills beyond soloists twice or thrice his age, Hsu had the audience belly up and purring with pleasure within 30 seconds. Without pretension, angst or apparent desire to prove anything, he glided along with a liquid touch, totally engaged, creating the rare illusion that he was making it all up as he went along. The orchestra responded with equal spontaneity and springiness. At the beginning of the second movement, Hsu volleyed a bouncy little phrase back and forth with the strings, beaming and shaking his head with pleasure, as if they were all jamming in that garage with the beer and pizza.
Not that Hsu made light of the job. Schumann’s bouts of despair and declarations of passion were there, not to be wallowed in, but to be plopped and fizzed into the sheer joy of making music. It was the lightest heavyweight performance an LSO soloist has delivered in a long time.
Hsu got an instantaneous standing ovation as soon as the concerto was over, but he wasn’t through yet. He didn’t take the easy way out for an encore. He tore through the furious fugue from Samuel Barber’s piano sonata, a vortex of spiky melody that wheels, burns and bites back at itself like hellfire.
Hsu’s second standing O was the third overall that night — and it wasn’t even intermission yet. The first spontaneous audience eruption came in response to the evening opener, Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body.” This was an IMAX performance masterfully rendered in 3-D by maestro Timothy Muffitt, with primordial growls from bassoon and cello in the background, smeared notes oozing in all directions, and a luminous medieval melody, superbly played by the LSO strings, shimmering in the center.
Sudden, whip-like outbursts from the woodwinds lashed just short of your nose. Long pedal points — bottom-dwelling notes sustained about as long as sperm whales dive for giant squid — rumbled under the seats. After a series of struggles rendered in primary-color movie-score style, the serene melody, based on music by medieval visionary Hildegard von Bingen, rematerialized, like the Good Witch of the North, inflated to purple-faced intensity by every mother’s son in the orchestra to climax in a shamelessly orgasmic major chord. The crowd went wild, but no smoking was allowed.
After all that pleasure, I’d love to report that the evening’s (and the season’s) crowning glory, Brahms´ Fourth Symphony, went off without a hitch, but that was not quite the case. It´s petty to point out the random clams that slip out in nearly any orchestral performance, but when the number exceeds three man-eaters — as it did among the brass players in the first movement — it´s hard not to notice. For the rest of the night, the brass couldn´t completely shake a detached, loudvoice-at-the-party intrusiveness.
However, all forces rallied to nail down the third movement´s best-day-of-yourlife exultation. The stage was set for one of music’s most inexorable steamrollers — the last movement, in which the same eight notes ratchet upward and upward, gathering torque like Archimedes lifting the world, until there is nothing left but empty space.
Neither rushing nor dragging the weight entrusted to him, Muffitt should have his juggernaut operator’s license renewed after guiding this monster home. The orchestra’s grasp definitively caught up with its reach, breathing Brahms’ mighty answer to death into tender air before closing the lid on an ambitious and memorable season.