Saturday, the Lansing Symphony took a break from the epic works it often tackles and gave exquisite, fine-grained, deeply pleasing performances of small- to medium-sized works.
The night began with three solidly built miniatures by James Niblock, head of MSU’s music department and concertmaster of the Lansing Symphony some 50 years ago. Niblock reached his 100th birthday last fall — the occasion for Saturday’s performance — but died earlier this year. Far from fading, the colors of melancholy and joy Niblock dyed into the fabric of the music decades ago were only deepened by the thought of the empty chair in the hall.
The music came straight from the sad, noble, ultimately optimistic mid-20th century American muse familiar from the works of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Niblock’s teacher, Roy Harris.
A series of quiet canons and fugues stood out, almost like orations, each voice clear and distinct, as if laying out an ideal musical vision of democracy.
It’s hard to believe the American sound ever embodied so much reflection, tenderness and promise.
For the evening’s solo turn, the LSO’s principal cellist, Hong Hong, seized and held the sweet spot where premeditated action meets inspiration in Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 1. He took up a black brush and painted a bold, continuous line of ink, now straight and long, now sinuous, now circling into a dark and gorgeous melody.
The cream center of the concerto is an unexpected minuet, a delicate dance played by muted strings as the cellist alternately supports and joins in. The shift from the usual romantic storms to dollhouse scale was deeply affecting.
The evening’s closer, the Symphony No. 3 of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, contained another cream center — a dance melody with an ancient air, played at first by the flutes, then by muted strings.
Every note sounded rounded and soft yet weighted to the ground — hard work, no doubt, but it didn’t show. The most ancient-sounding passages burned with a dark, hushed radiance, the aural equivalent of stained glass.
Sometimes the melody rested, like a moth on a tobacco flower at dusk, before taking wing again. The mellow softness of those half-second pauses surely added a few minutes to everyone’s life. Take that, second law of thermodynamics.
The strings, woodwinds and brass locked into each other’s arms tightly, warmly and seamlessly.
The finale involved a resumption of scurrying, gradually taken over by a stiff-backed fanfare with a chorale so catchy you could sing the words “Camel cigarettes” to it.
For the fist time, the Cornometer started to stir, but the orchestra was so deep in the zone by now it almost didn’t matter which brand of cigarettes was being advertised. Everybody needed one after the golden, sonorous, final chord.