You have to be a badass if Beethoven is your opening act.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, adored for his romantic ballet music, went very big and bad — the good kind of bad — in his most famous symphony, the Fourth. The Lansing Symphony Orchestra did the same in its season closer, heaping Beethoven upon Tchaikovsky upon “The Phoenix,” an expansive 2009 tone poem by Mark Edwards Wilson.
The night started with a whisper and ended with a bang. Now and then, maestro Timothy Muffitt likes to open a concert with music that drifts into the room, rather than a stomping overture. The strategy worked well Wednesday, making the audience lean in and hearken from the start, even if some late arrivals marred the parting mists with assorted settling-in sounds.
When programs tout post-modern music as “accessible,” that usually means it would make fine background music for the adventures of fairies, hobbits, droids and such. “The Phoenix” sounded like well-crafted movie music, only a shade more substantial. Its unspooling gauzy motifs darted, shimmered and surged in a pleasing, non-tinkly way. The orchestra, especially the strings, fetchingly feathered its sound to a mysterious hush. One recurring motif — a melodic ringer for a famous dance from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” — hinted at the climactic transformation of the mythical Phoenix.
When the Phoenix was safely risen from the ashes, the program turned from postmodern swooping to the spiky, almost Gothic spires of Beethoven’s third piano concerto.
Daniel Hsu, one of this year’s celebrated young artists at Kalamazoo’s Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, hit the audience deceptively hard, like a velvet sock full of bolts. The great thing about many of today’s rising young soloists is that they’re far beyond proving they can play all the notes or merely copping someone else’s interpretation. At 19, Hsu already has Beethoven’s Third comfortably under his fingers, and he clearly wanted to get deeper into the music. He favored a smooth, rolling sound, turning the piano from a percussion instrument to a rack of rippling muscles.
Hsu’s approach might have left some listeners disappointed at the lack of flash, but he was wise to deploy his power with evenness and restraint. Beethoven’s stern declamations sometimes verge on lectures, complete with finger pokes in the chest, but Hsu and the orchestra followed the through line of logic and feeling that pulsates beneath the huffing. In the slow movement, Hsu’s limpid tone sublimated into a luminous fog, an alternative form of silence. In the solo cadenza, he suspended time in a globular, drifting bead of sound. Even the playful pokes that punctuate the finale, milked for near-comic effect by many pianists, came off as more of a deep massage under Hsu’s fingers.
After a smoke break, it was time for the season closer, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, a major piece of work for everyone on stage.
The first movement alone is a vast, constantly churning emotional arc that tilts inexorably downward.
The stalwart brass section blasted out noble fanfares that gleamed like silver columns, lashed by waves of sonic fury from an augmented string section of almost 60 players. Temporary relief from the fury came in several forms, most notably a merry march dogged by an undertone of impending disaster.
The Eastern-flavored exotica that drifts up like incense between the symphony’s bigger moments gave a chance for the wind section to twirl and dance with delicious languor.
In the third movement, Muffitt and crew broke up the heavy courses with a refreshing tray of pizzicato gelato. The whole string section, from violins to bassists, ditched the bows and turned into a collective balalaika.
The strings plucked out a tremulous, surging, elusive melody that flitted from section to section too fast for the eyes to follow — but fast enough to make you thank that parasitic fly from the Ordovician period for inventing binaural hearing. The flurry of mass plucking is great fun on recordings, but to see it bounce around before your eyes is truly amazing.
The final movement started with skyhigh geysers of notes that erupted, ceased and re-erupted so fast it was almost funny — if nervous laughter counts. Having left the emotional breakdowns largely to the epic first movement, Tchaikovsky was content to shoot off a Volga barge of sheer fireworks in the finale, starting with its famous, sudden crash of cymbals. (There were many, many more to come.) Even a listener with an endless appetite for bombast, a club to which I admit membership, can get worn down by the excess if it’s not leavened by contrasts and sculpted with care. Muffitt’s skill at tamping the tumult down before twisting the ratchet even higher made for just enough too-much-ness.