Nov. 5 2008 12:00 AM

American themes billow symphony’s sails


With a historic election a few days away and the bee of democracy already buzzing in everyone’s stomach, the Lansing Symphony worked up the goose bumps and pumped up the lump in the throat Saturday with a grand and bittersweet night of American music.

Despite the throngs of singers and musicians on stage, this was no blast of cheap Americana, but a profound program that artfully navigated the clashing currents of American life. The range of material, from Revolutionary-era hymns of William Billings to Hebraic-Broadway blasts of Leonard Bernstein, gave the night an epic feel. There were texts and music evoking riverboats and trains, soldiers and preachers, high hopes and straight talk, Shakers and dodgers, Jesus and Jews, all inviting the audience to revel in the horseplay of harmonies and contradictions, American style.

If the night had a hero, it was Michigan State University baritone Rod Nelman, who uses his uvula like Paul Bunyan swings an axe. When Nelman threw himself into Aaron Copland’s vigorous setting of “The Boatmen’s Dance,” heaving the word “O-o-o-hiiooo” into the air like a sky-splitting hoot from a steamboat, the Wharton Center crowd looked ready to write him in for president. Nelman anchored the night with his big, lovable voice and engaging stage presence. He took turns with the choir singing a generous set from Copland’s “Old American Songs,” including “The Dodger,” a charming solo con-man turn, and a thundering “Zion’s Walls” from all the male voices.

In “The Little Horses,” a feature for women’s voices, and the well-known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” the choirs never focused into a single voice, but all forces regrouped with a vengeance to slam the finale, “Ching-A-Ring Chaw,” as one. It sounds like cornball stuff, but Copland isn’t a purveyor of sweetness alone — he’s more like ethanol, fraught with latent combustion. David Rayl, MSU choral director and the guest conductor for the evening, made sure the splashy, confident bits were properly tempered by good old American ambiguity. In “Shall We Gather at the River,” Rayl and crew wrapped a righteous plea for immortality in chilling orchestral undertows and eddies.

The evening’s opener, William Schuman’s “New England Triptych,” established the theme of American ambivalence, especially with the choir on hand to sing the orchestral music’s original source material by Billings. It was thrilling to hear Billings’ hymns, stiff and righteous as embroidered Bible verses in frames, suddenly open up into Schuman’s wide orchestral tapestries.

Every detail was woven with care, from timpani forebodings (and Lansing Symphony timpanist Mark Johnson can forebode with the best of them) and drifting violins to refracted brass passages that stirred visions of autumn leaves, church steeples and cemetery stones. Like a hardy New Englander, the music glowed with a weathered pride of place, but in the second movement, “When Jesus Wept,” a snare drum gently tolled out the price of democracy.

If you’re stacking up a night of American contradictions, you can’t go higher than Bernstein. In “Chichester Psalms,” Saturday night’s closer, Bernstein mixed exuberant musicaltheater tropes out of “West Side Story” with ancient modes and clanging tones meant to evoke the Old Testament.

Saturday’s performance was a blur of great moments, from the effervescent, banging opening bars to the strangely exotic lull, like a South Sea breeze, at the end. In the second movement, the evening’s second vocal soloist stepped into the spotlight. Abhijit Raj Das, a 12year-old treble from Kinawa Middle School, has a bewitching way of settling slowly on each note like a dove in a high nest. If he had dug deeper into the soul of the text and worried less about his diction, his moments on stage with two accompanying harps might have been dangerously transcendent. As it was, the audience was delighted with him, only partly out of relief that he made it through without a mistake — no small blessing.

For all the bells and whistles in the “Psalms,” the most memorable bit came at the beginning of the third movement, when the strings put on their spelunking helmets and climbed into a long, dark passage that folded into itself like the brow of God. When moments like this go by, you have to pinch yourself to appreciate the high level of repertoire, and execution this town is getting used to. Until quite recently, the violins used to be the section you worried about in the Lansing Symphony, but now — not so much.