It ended in a conflagration — you could practically smell the burned eyebrows — but started on a modest scale.
Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a thoughtful, chamber-ish work, felt like a colloquy by a cozy fireplace, thanks largely to a relaxed, slow burning solo turn by cellist Joshua Roman.
Roman’s tone was so fine and mellow you could almost taste it — far in the back of the palate, where dark, smoky things like red wine and elk jerky find a trapdoor, slip into your neck, sidle up your spine and take control of your pleasure centers.
Roman’s performance was intimate and grounded, with a directness of communication that made each moment roll around like a marble in your mind before plopping into place. It didn’t matter whether the music was loud or soft. Roman’s control and focus kept even his more passionate utterances on the scale of intimate conversation. His quietest passages pierced the silence with an uncanny light, like a lit cigarette in a dark room.
The rapport between Roman, Maestro Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra was uniformly tight, with just the right amount of play. He never went off into a brown study by himself, even when the music gave him an opening, but always seemed to keep the orchestra in his confidence, even while playing solo.
The second movement gives in to music-hall-ish merriment that borders on kitsch, but Roman and the orchestra tripped through it with such a light, sure tread it was hard not to smile. Several times, Roman glanced over his shoulder, at the violins, with a conspiratorial smile. He is clearly an intelligent man, with interests ranging far outside the corset of late romanticism, but he didn’t condescend to the music. He seemed to take a long perspective, even while being lost in the moment.
“First came the Big Bang, then dinosaurs, and here we are in Lansing, trading these nice flourishes,» he seemed to be thinking.
After the dignified Elgar, Roman set aside his reserve and treated his encore piece, a partita by Bach, as an integrated exercise in counterpoint and caresses.
Cut, as they do in a movie trailer, from Elgar’s cozy fireside to the pitchforking flames, flying ash and melting bricks of the burning of Atlanta (or maybe Pompeii), as heard in the third movement of Rachmaninoff ’s Second Symphony, the big piece on Friday’s program.
The massive buildup, halfway through that movement, put Muffitt to work as hard as I’ve ever seen him work. He folded and unfolded his tall frame as if he were manning a giant bellows, fanning the flames of the ultimate romantic apotheosis. Every section of the orchestra, from strings to winds to brass and percussion, pulled at the ropes for all they were worth, like the Egyptians raising the obelisk of Pharaoh in “The Ten Commandments.” (And that’s not easy to do when Atlanta is burning all around you.)
Finally, the familiar melody sounded — or the first few chords of it, like the telltale scarf of the missing heroine, surrounded by tongues of flame. (Those Russians love to work you into a lather and then tease you.) Look! She’s all right! And that was enough to bring about a massive epiphany in the besotted Wharton Center audience.
True to custom, the symphony gave its all to this massive, overwrought score. The ensemble layered sound on sound with amazing clarity and tenderness, in spite of the Sisyphean labor involved in all those heavings and subsidings. In the second movement, Muffitt made the most of everything that was interesting in the music, including a slicing fugue that cleared the air in the middle of the bustle.
After all that drama, the “hope-you-liked-our-show” last movement always comes across as overkill, like a jolly round of paintball after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.
But Muffitt and the orchestra did not blow it off. Their philosophy seems to be “if you’re going to burn the place down, burn it down.” The intensity, earnestness, workmanship and passion of the Lansing Symphony — even when it’s taking a match to a zeppelin like Rachmaninoff›s Second — make you walk away smiling, with the sweet smell of singed eyebrows in your ears.