March 22 2018 10:15 AM

Hong Hong takes center stage at Lansing Symphony

Hong Hong is one of the most watchable musicians in the Lansing Symphony. When he takes a solo, he channels a dark, liquid tone from a trance-like zone only he can reach. As section leader, he pulls at the oars like Agamemnon when the ship goes into ramming speed.

After seven years with the orchestra, four of them as principal cellist, Hong will get his first solo spotlight Saturday, playing the first cello concerto by Camille Saint-Saens.

“I hear so many comments from audience members who really enjoy him as a musician,” LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt said.

“He’s a very strong musical personality and something of an audience favorite.”

Hong seems game for anything. He was yanked onto the Scottish highlands for a stomping 2016 LSO encore by guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine and Scottish fiddler Tim McDonald. While the two fiddlers jigged and reeled, Hong set them up with a resonant drone and earthy harmonies.

“We only had one rehearsal, about 10 or 15 minutes, then we went onstage,” Hong recalled. “It was really cool. It was my first time doing that kind of music and I hope I get another chance.”

Hong hails from the tiny island of Gulangyu, a dot on the map that’s barely 500 acres in size but is so rich in beautiful architecture and natural beauty it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“It’s like a smaller version of Mackinac Island,” Hong said. “There are no motor vehicles and everybody gets around by walking.”

Even bicycles aren’t allowed in the island’s narrow streets.

Gulangyu also has China’s only piano museum, and the most pianos per capita of any place in China — hence its nickname, “Piano Island.” Several of China’s foremost classical musicians hail from there.

So it’s no surprise that Hong started on piano, but that doesn’t make you stand out much on Piano Island. At the relatively late age of 13, a teacher suggested he take up the cello.

“I had no idea about the cello at first,” Hong said. “But I loved it better than the piano.”

When asked to name a favorite cellist, Hong bypasses legends like Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma and instantly names his MSU professor, Suren Bagratuni. Hong has been studying with Bagratuni at MSU since 2012, after studying in Singapore and at the Peabody Institute near Baltimore.

“I was shy at first and he gave me confidence,” Hong said. “You have to enjoy the music, don’t think too much.”

When Hong’s MSU studies are over, he’ll probably gravitate to greener lands, but for now, he’s savoring the best of Lansing, which he called a “second home.” He loves the Old Town restaurant Meat and enjoys trips to northern Michigan and Chicago whenever possible.

“It’s an excellent orchestra,” Hong said.

“Timothy Muffitt has brought it to a higher ground. Everyone prepares before the rehearsal and that makes it a good atmosphere, very happy.”

A hypnotic, tender solo in Stravinsky’s “Firebird” in 2015 is one of many memorable Hong Hong moments over the years. He had a ball playing the “William Tell” Overture in his first year. “I got a very big solo, unforgettable,” he said with a laugh.

Besides his piano-playing father, his mother is a singer and his wife is an organist and pianist. They play together at home and perform onstage together. Hong’s classical tastes lean toward meaty stuff like Prokofiev and Brahms, but he loves pop and jazz too.

The Saint-Saens concerto means a lot to Hong. It was the first concerto he learned, as a teenager, and his audition piece to get into MSU.

“It’s very interesting,” he said. “The second movement is really lovely, but the whole concerto is really one movement. I can’t wait. I’m a little nervous and very excited.”

Saturday’s closer is the joyful, brisk Symphony No. 3 by Finnish master Jean Sibelius, but the opener will be a bittersweet moment for Lansing-area music lovers. It’s a rare treat to hear the lyrical music of James Niblock, who was head of MSU’s music department in the 1950s through the ‘70s and concertmaster of the LSO for 15 years. Saturday’s performance of Niblock’s “Three American Dances” was intended to cap a celebration of Niblock’s 100th birthday, which he marked last fall, with the composer in attendance. But Niblock died at his East Lansing home Jan. 3, so the performance will serve as both memorial and celebration.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Hong Hong, cellist 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall