March 9 2016 01:12 PM

Lansing Symphony serves up stripped-down, stepped-up night of Mozart

At the climax of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the year, in January, the lady behind me got all keyed up.

“My blood is boiling!” I heard her exclaim as she put on her coat.

Saturday’s all-Mozart concert, the second of the year, took a different tack.

After a superbly programmed, paced and performed night of music by Mozart, everybody’s blood pressure must have gone down 20 points.

It was a graduate seminar on doing more with less.

The timpani were in dry dock, the gongs in the garage, the tubas on mental health leave. For a major part of the night, a soaring suite from “Gran Partita,” there were only 11 musicians on the stage. It was all about the strings and woodwinds.

You can do without the heavy artillery, it turns out. Exuberance, precision and a relentless sense of lift made the evening close to perfect.

The concert was a change-up in more ways than one. When traversing big soundscapes by the likes of Brahms or Bruckner, conductor Timothy Muffitt widens the screen to full size and lets the tempi breathe. For Mozart, he kept the focus sharp and the lid tight. If anything, he stepped up the pace a little, keeping extra pressure on the orchestra all night. They pushed back at him like a spring, inexorable yet flexible.

The orchestra’s disciplined athleticism made the music more fun to see and listen to. The stripped-down set-up gave everyone more exposure than usual. One bearded young cellist, seated in the second row, exhibited some fierce body language as Mozart’s 40th Symphony rolled to a climax. In the midst of the fray, he turned a page on his music stand the way Captain America throws his shield. Somebody should dedicate a webcam to that guy.

There was no fluff in Muffitt’s perfectly balanced program. The evening’s opener, a divertimento for strings alone, started with a heartbeat as fast as a hummingbird’s. The violins, violas and cellos pulsated with muscular, rapid-fire wing beats.

After a dreamy middle section, the hummingbirds came back — three or four of them, circling and wheeling in figures and fugues almost too quick to follow.

There are many ways Mozart performances can go wrong. Lack of precision or shaky intonation produces a wheezy amateur hour, no matter how well-intentioned the musicians are. But technical mastery without joy, on the other hand, makes Mozart sound smug and trivial. Saturday’s suite of excerpts from the “Gran Partita” hit a sunny, earthy sweet spot. The wind ensemble drifted in happy communion with one another through nimbus, stratus and cirrus skies, with a slight hint of cumulus. It felt like a picnic on a hill, not a complacent snooze in a salon.

There are many occasions to single out principal oboist Jan Eberle, but Eberle outdid herself on the “Partita,” with a glimmering, ductile sound that reflected and refracted emotion the way silver plays with light.

For a finale, strings and winds came together to serve up an exquisitely uneasy reading of Mozart’s 40th Symphony.

The symphony’s changes in mood aren’t as obvious or spectacular as they are with, say, Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but total engagement from Muffitt and the crew left no chance for your ears to glaze over and drive into the ditch.

The slow movement, paced at a thoughtful stroll, tends to bog down even the best performances, but not this one.

Ripples and tremors of tension gave the shiny musical texture a calm-before-thestorm fascination. There’s a moment in the first movement where the strings suddenly go, “wham, wham,” and the first section repeats itself, only with a new wrinkle in its forehead and a blood vessel bulging under the neck. Muffitt made the episode sound as if it was made up on the spot, like a passionate debater saying, “No, that’s not it, let me put it this way.” The controlled intensity and surprising spontaneity of Saturday’s performance made a strong argument for music that is often dismissed as merely pretty.

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