Nov. 2 2016 12:10 AM

Orchestra, choir, soloists gear up for Beethoven’s mighty Nint

As mezzo-soprano soloist in the “Ode to Joy,” the delirious climax of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Jazimina MacNeil will be one-fourth of a tiny but critical nucleus in a vast choral and symphonic universe.

With the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and three combined choruses churning fulltilt behind her, Mac- Neil plans to keep the joy intimate and “do chamber music” with her vocal quartet mates Friday.

“I know them all well,” MacNeil said. “They’re fantastic singers. Top-notch.”

MacNeil will be in familiar company — baritone Jonathan Beyer, tenor Dominic Armstrong and soprano Raquel Gonzales — but she didn’t know that until we talked Monday.

“Oh my God, this is going to be so much fun! This is great,” she said.

Didn’t she know? “When I was invited, I didn’t ask about the other soloists, and I’m not active on Facebook,” she explained.

Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt said the music is “very demanding technically and in terms of physical stamina, but everyone’s always up for it.”

“I’ve never had a problem getting someone excited about doing this piece,” Muffitt said.

All four soloists are young-ish rising opera stars, and all of them have studied with Curtis Institute voice instructor Marlena Malas. Muffitt works with Malas in the summer opera program at New York’s Chautauqua Institute.

“It’s important you have four soloists who are roughly at the same part of their career, who approach singing in a similar way,” Muffitt said.

As a child, MacNeil played a Celtic harp made by her grandfather and has been making music ever since. A summer pass to the Boston Symphony’s summer Tanglewood Institute program changed her life when she was in high school.

“I got to hear incredible concerts every single night for six weeks,” she said. “I realized I wanted to be on Team Music. It’s the most beautiful and noble thing humans can do. I was completely hooked from then on.”

She’s starred in operas by Mozart, Handel, Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill (“The Seven Deadly Sins”), as well as Pulitzer-winning composer Steven Stucky’s oddball opera, “The Classical Style,” in which famous composers return to Earth in 2015 to see what has happened to their music.

In the latter, MacNeil played multiple roles, including the composer Robert Schumann and the human personification of a chord, Subdominant, who gets to meet Beethoven and Schubert in a bar.

“We asked them questions about sonata form, and they were not very helpful to us,” MacNeil said.

For MacNeil, singing Beethoven’s Ninth is very different from opera, with its trappings of costumes, scenery and lighting and the artifice of a character.

“When I’m doing concert work, I feel more like a prism,” MacNeil said. “My job is to be open to the music and words that are inspiring me, to let them flow out without an agenda, to be out of the way so the audience can have their experience.”

For Muffitt, the big task set by the Ninth is wrangling the “headlong, forward thrust” of the first three movements on the way to the cathartic “Ode to Joy.”

“It’s as if the first three movements were just one big intake of breath for the last movement,” Muffitt said. “It’s important to keep the line taut, so we don’t ever slacken the energy or slacken the flow.”

That will be a challenge in the lovely, limpid slow movement, which almost brings the whole juggernaut to a halt.

“It’s placid, but there’s a spinning current underneath it,” Muffitt said.

What goes through a singer’s mind during the long wait for the vocal finale?

“It’s daunting to sit and be passive for a long time before singing, but I’ve worked hard on that,” MacNeil said.

She uses the Alexander Technique, a mix of alert posture and mental discipline by which the chair becomes a recharging station and the singer’s legs pour into the floor in a visualized stream of energy.

“We work on techniques of sitting in a way that I don’t need to be worried, or anxious, or spinning around in my mind,” MacNeil said, “I can just be enjoying the glorious music that’s happening — that I will be joining.”

To match the mountain of Beethoven’s Ninth, Muffitt picked a couple of rugged musical foothills, rather than contrasting valleys.

“I wanted it to be a joyous program,” he said. “All three pieces are joyful works.”

John Corigliano’s “Gazebo Dances” has moments of melancholy and wistfulness, but Muffitt called it “joyous music, summer music.”

There’s a sophisticated reason and a notso-sophisticated reason the maestro will open the evening with “Zadok the Priest,” a rousing British coronation anthem by Georg Frideric Handel.

The sophisticated reason is that it’s a rare chance to pair Handel with late Beethoven.

“At this point in Beethoven’s career, he was looking back,” Muffitt said. “We see a lot of Handel’s influence, in the contrapuntal writing and just the spirit of it.”

Besides, Muffitt said, “I already had the chorus in the house. You’re not going to bring a chorus in to sing five minutes of music.”


Masterworks 2: Beethoven’s 9th
Lansing Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4
$20-50
Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com

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