May 10 2018 10:03 AM

Lansing Symphony brings in last-minute pianist for finale


For over a century, the Russians have been hacking like mad into American orchestra concerts, but don’t expect any investigations. We like it that way.

Two long pulls of vodka, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” will bring the Lansing Symphony’s 2017-18 season to a banging, bell-ringing close Friday, just like the Great Gate of Kiev.

Every two years, the LSO lassos one of the world’s most promising young pianists as part of a long-standing agreement with the biannual Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo.

In a sudden twist, this year’s Gilmore Young Artist, Elliot Wuu, had to withdraw from his scheduled Lansing gig. The 2014 Gilmore Young Artist, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, agreed to step in on less than two weeks’ notice, but he appears to be up to the job.

Sanchez Werner is only 19, but the New York native and super-precocious Juilliard graduate has already been an international phenomenon for years. He has played humanitarian gigs in Rwanda and Iraq, the latter with the Iraqi National Symphony — the first American to do so. (By coincidence, Sanchez Werner’s conductor in Iraq, Karim Wasfi, visited Lansing last week.) Sanchez Werner also performed at President Barack Obama’s 2013 Inauguration Concert. True to form, he’ll arrive to Lansing fresh from a tour of Europe and Abu Dhabi.

If you want to perk up the Rachmaninoff Second, one of the most familiar works in the repertoire, there’s no better way than to bring in a remarkable young artist who hasn’t had time to get jaded over it, but seems able to tackle anything in the repertoire, from Beethoven to the thorniest thickets of Charles Ives.

The concerto itself was a dramatic comeback from depression and writer’s block that deflated Rachmaninoff after critics savaged his first symphony. A visit to Leo Tolstoy didn’t help — the great writer told Rachmaninoff his music wasn’t necessary to the world. Nice man.

It took years of therapy, including hypnosis, for Rachmaninoff to re-inflate. He dedicated the concerto to his therapist-physician, Nikolai Dahl.

This is the concerto you know even if you think you don’t. A languorous tune in the slow movement got a lot of play in the 1970s in a weepy pop dirge, “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen. Two 1940s Frank Sinatra tunes (“Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “I Think of You”) were cloned from the concerto’s waxy vines of melody. Pop artists still steal from it now and then.

Balancing the familiar concerto Friday night is a new piece by Chinese-born composer Zhou Tian, who joined the MSU faculty in 2016.

“Trace” is a tragic reimagining of the old cities and traditional ways of life wiped out by the rapid industrialization that has swept China in the past 20 years. Among these lost places is a 2,000-year-old city wall that once sheltered Tian’s hometown of Hangzhou.

Tian uses changes in key to suggest time travel as the music drifts into the past, swelling to mighty proportions and enlivened by a traditional Chinese tune before dissolving into memory.

LSO conductor Timothy Muffitt called Tian a “fresh voice in music.”

“Last year he sent me samples of his music and I find it to be really engaging and spiritual and colorful,” Muffitt said. “He descends from the line of Debussy and Ravel, not that his music sounds like that, but it’s that kind of vivid color and powerful sense of atmosphere.”

The evening (and season) closer, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is a brilliantly paced series of vignettes, based on a series of paintings ranging in mood from shock (the ride of the witch Baba Yaga) to schtick (stereotypically chattering marketplace women and quaint old Jews) to sheer spectacle (the great gate of Kiev and the “Boris Godunov”-like ceremony surrounding it). But pictures are hardly the point. Muffitt and the crew will have a chance to shoot off all the sonic fireworks on its barge before the summer break.


Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, piano 8 p.m. Friday, May 11 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $20-55

lansingsymphony.org