Sept. 14 2016 12:46 AM

Lansing Symphony holds its own with star pianist in season opener

When certain species of male and female spider approach each other, things can go either way — sex or cannibalism. There was a tentative hush, a tense bit of probing, in the opening seconds of Friday’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra opener.

No, not in the national anthem. No tension there.

But after the patriotic, supersonic rocket’s red vibrato in the audience died down, a web of unusual circumstances came together to give maestro Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra, as they say in the movies, their ultimate test.

A high-profile gig with formidable pianist Jeremy Denk would have been challenge enough. Denk is a major musician, thinker and national figure, used to trading licks with big-city outfits in Philadelphia, L.A. and Chicago.

But the web tightened further when, with only a week’s notice, Denk changed the program from Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand to a work that’s twice as long, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor.”

Of course, it’s not the first time the Lansing Symphony has performed with a world-class artist. But on a Lansing-sized budget, guests are usually culled from a roster of dazzling up-and-comers — of which the supply seems boundless — or plucked from a stable of top MSU-based virtuosi, such as pianist Ralph Votapek or cellist Suren Bagratuni, or from the orchestra’s own first-chair musicians, usually with excellent results. The Lansing Symphony snagged Denk mainly because it has worked with other artists who have the same management he does, and they've been spreading the word that Muffitt and the orchestra are the real deal.

But Friday’s concert showed that playing with a top national soloist in the prime of his or her career can take the concert experience to a different level. (On that note, watch for guitarist Sharon Isbin, who joins the symphony Feb. 11.)

As it happened, nobody ate anybody for breakfast. The orchestra’s dance with Denk resembled respectful romancing more than close-your-eyes cannibalism.

Not only did the orchestra keep up with Denk’s vigorous, propulsive playing, it was right there with every form of cushion, backdrop, butt-kick or echo Denk needed for his incisive statements to resonate.

The violins swept like golden skies behind towers, staircases and minarets of ringing melody. The woodwinds fused so completely with Denk’s middle register in a few exquisite moments that you couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from.

There’s a lot of starchy, ceremonial sounding music in this concerto, but the give and take between soloist and orchestra got earthy, too, as when Denk’s arpeggios tumbled onto a dark, furry mat of violas and cellos, like beads of rain on the hide of a sleeping bear.

Denk’s mastery of the score, engagement with the orchestra and trance-like concentration were mesmerizing enough, but he had more up his sleeve than that. Several times during the performance, he opened small doors into a bigger cosmos, toying with dangling, tail-end passages that oscillated like a screen door in a ghost town. The effect was striking, to say the least, a touch of Einsteinian infinitude in a clockwork, Newtonian musical universe.

That’s one of Denk’s big things. In a recent interview on “weirdness in music” from the New York Philharmonic website, Denk talks about “moments of harmonic slippage” in Beethoven, “magical ‘purple patches’ or senses of instability” when the composer is “deliciously enjoying how off the track he’s getting.”

Denk’s scientific fascination with these moments, muscled up by his familiarity with the thorniest modern music, put a cherry-sized black hole (hmm, isn’t that dangerous?) on top of an already energized event horizon that is likely to be remembered in these parts for some time.

The concerto’s last movement seems to trip off, “tra-la-la”-ing a bit too lightly in the wake of the heavy stuff that came before, but that’s nobody’s fault but Beethoven’s. Suffice it to say that by this time, the initial wariness between Denk and the orchestra was a distant memory and they were finishing each other’s sentences like an old married couple.

For an encore, Denk doubled the intensity, at a fraction of the volume, with an almost painfully sensitive reading of Bach’s 14th Goldberg Variation that took the audience back to the well of pure music.

The evening’s original idea, before Denk threw his Beethoven curveball, was to showcase Impressionist composers. Two of them, Manuel de Falla and Maruice Ravel, were scratched from the scorecard and lost their chance to make an impression, but the watery bits of the program — “La Mer,” by Debussy, and “The Fountains of Rome,” by Respighi — churned and crashed in vivid, multi-dimensional power.

Maybe it’s early to make such declarations, but the Lansing Symphony seems to be stepping up an already impressive game. From massive surges and swells to quiet passages that rippled in half-light of dawn, the orchestra cast a luscious spell, playing as one person from the twinkle of harps to the noble gleam of brass players. It probably didn’t hurt that by this time, the audience was full to satiety of the formality of Beethoven and the analytical mind of Denk and was ready for a thorough, sexy, “La Dolce Vita”-style drenching.

Spies in the audience told me Denk stuck around to listen to the rest of the concert — a classy thing to do. It’s almost as if Denk, Muffitt and crew had planned the whole thing all along.

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