Friday’s Lansing Symphony season finale was grand, heavy and lush with purple velvet folds from end to end. There was no trifling with hors d’oeuvres or palate cleansers in this banquet.
Even the night’s opener was more absorbing and substantial than any overture you could name. “Trace,” by MSU faculty composer Zhou Tian, was a dense, multilayered tapestry of memories and images meant to evoke ancient places and ways of life bulldozed under China’s relentless industrialization. Before he gave the first downstroke, Maestro Timothy Muffitt brought Tian onstage to explain what’s in the music, including memories of a 2,000-year-old wall in his home village that was lost to modernity.
It sounds like elegiac stuff, more suitable for the end of an evening than the beginning, but the dominant mood was celebration. A kaleidoscopic series of carnival outbursts and dance patterns suggested a limitless mosaic of life. The orchestra negotiated a complicated series of twists, turns and shifts in mood with a quiet grace that gave Tian’s vibrant style an amber glow. Fleeting episodes featured an intricate battery of percussion and a butterfly cloud of woodwinds that flickered distinctly and memorably, despite the bigger forces surging around them. (All three pieces Friday called for an extra large orchestra.)
For many folks, the main event of the night was Rachmaninoff ’s Second Piano Concerto, an even more expansive canvas. Young pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, a last hour substitute for the injured Daniel Wuu, was a crowd pleaser but not a showboater. He was relaxed, but dead serious, laser focused and utterly without pretension. (When the epic concerto was over, he sprang up and hugged Muffitt like a victorious soccer goalie.)
He played with a tensile legato line that pulled you along, like a thin but un-snappable fishing line Hemingway would have used to catch a monster marlin. Like Hemingway, Sanchez-Warner is a master angler. He knew when to bide his time, letting the music unspool on the axis of its own logic, and when to reel you in with a sudden flare-up of heartbreaking emotion.
Featuring so young a soloist has the added benefit of bringing out the Byronic, brooding, rebellious side of Rachmaninoff ’s music.
At the same time, Sanchez-Warner and Muffitt took pains to bring out the often-overlooked classical, if not downright Baroque, pedigree, of the music, its craftsmanship and counterpoint. When a fugue broke out, every meshing gear was satisfyingly evident.
This concerto is mainly about the feels, as they say these days, but it must have taken a lot of disciplined work to conjure so much feeling. The grand sweep of this performance gave me a vision of two massive wings, the violins on one side and low strings cellos and basses on the other. But if you were a hunter, and for some perverse reason you wanted to kill this music, your best bet would have been to aim at the viola section, the beating heart at the center of a great, integral organism heard at peak performance and synchronization Friday.
“Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Modest Mussorgsky, took the audience from Rachmaninoff ’s enameled, St. Petersburg version of Russia to the splintery, forested heart of old Muscovy — from fine frosted pastry to rich black bread. Saxophonist Joseph Luloff and euphonium-ist (could that be right?) Remus Webb contributed solos that unfolded so deeply and expressively you sank into them like a bee in a barrel of honey. By now, the orchestra was reveling in its own ravishment and Muffitt seemed determined not to rush them. On the contrary, he set his shoulders against the headlong momentum, determined to relish every second before the music, and the season, came to an end. He made the witch’s ride even more terrifying by leaving space for the bass drum to resound and those crazy octave leaps to zigzag like lightning, leaving electric after-image in your mind.
The finale depicting the great gate of Kiev was daringly drawn out until it almost collapsed of its own weight, but it stayed up — an impossibly high tower clanging with bells and grabbing angels out of the sky.