Jan. 21 2009 12:00 AM

Symphony bellies up to the Bartok


When winter hits the pits, Scandinavians reach for the primal “reset” button: a long, hot sauna followed by a plunge in the nearest fjord.

The Lansing Symphony Orchestra will reverse the treatment Saturday, pairing Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s invigorating Piano Concerto with the prickly, hothouse “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bela Bartok.

There’s little danger the musicians will phone this gig in. The Bartok is one of the touchstones of 20th century music, fiendishly tough to play, yet lovingly devoured by stimulus-starved musicians. It’s a tricky job in Chicago or Vienna, let alone Lansing, and a bold step for the home team. “We’re very proud of where we’ve been going artistically, and this is a big statement,” symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt declared.

The Grieg is more familiar, but a wild card soloist, 21-year-old piano dynamo Adam Golka, ought to keep things on edge.

The last time Muffitt conducted the Grieg concerto, piano god Van Cliburn threw the maestro for a loop. “He brought the most unusual interpretation I’ve ever heard,” Muffitt said. “It was remarkably different from the mainstream.”

Muffitt expects Golka to bring his own distinctive fireworks. “You always have the energy the soloist brings, and you feed off that collaboration,” Muffitt said. “And Adam is just outrageous.”

Even at Golka’s tender age, he already has a decade of experience with the Grieg concerto. He played it for the first time at 11. “It’s one of the most unusual and freshest of all the piano concertos,” Golka said. “You can feel the crisp Scandinavian air in every line.”

The concerto’s famous opening — rumble, BOM-bada-BING-bada-BOM — is familiar to almost everyone, whether straight or in parody form. Golka doesn’t shrink from the chills and thrills, but he really sinks his fingers into the second, slow movement. “It’s an absolute dream, with that chorale in the strings and the piano entering like a bird call from far away in the mountains,” he mused.

Obviously, Golka is not your average Texas boy. He was born and raised in Houston by Polish immigrant parents.
His mother is a pianist, his father is a piano technician and one of his brothers is Tomasz Golka, award-winning young conductor of the Lubbock and Williamsport orchestras. (Another brother, evidently the black sheep, became a real estate developer.)

Golka started on piano and violin at age 4. “Nobody asked me whether I wanted to or not,” he said, without regret in his voice. “I suppose I missed something in my childhood, but I like my life now.”

He moved to Fort Worth at 15 to study with his mentor, Jose Fegahali. (Golka has high-powered pedagogues behind him: he now studies with Feghali and piano legend Leon Fleisher.)

His classmates were in their 20s or early 30s, most of them stellar foreign students from Russia and China. “So I’m used to being put in positions where I have to behave more maturely than I actually am,” he joked.

Golka’s wry humor does find an outlet now and again, most notably in an over-thetop, Lisztian transcription of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” available on YouTube. “For the past eight years, I feel like I haven’t been able to go around playing that in other states beside Texas,” he cracked. “Maybe now I can start playing it again.”

Most discussions of Saturday’s monsterwork, “Concerto for Orchestra,” begin with the odd title. A concerto usually features one soloist, with the orchestra pretty much carrying water. To Muffitt, Bartok’s masterpiece puts the full press on every section, and it doesn’t stop there. “If you look at the sheer level of virtuosity that’s required of every single person, it’s a concerto for the whole orchestra, all at once,” Muffitt said.

The work is enveloped in intricate layers of Bartokian symmetry, centered on a middle movement Muffitt called “a magnificent, heart-wrenching 20th-century elegy.” There are artful interludes before and after the elegy, one of them a “game of pairs” layering one duet on top of another.

“The last movement is just full-throttle exhilaration,” Muffitt said.

It all has to come together on the usual four-days’ rehearsal, but Muffitt isn’t fazed. “Musicians everywhere are always chomping at the bit to play a piece like this,” he said. “Their enthusiasm will carry it through.”

Muffitt said Saturday’s curtain raiser, Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italiane,” neatly follows up on the same composer’s “Nutcracker,” which is probably still reverberating in many sugarplum-addled minds. “He was great at characterizing cultures and people,” Muffitt said, referring to the “Nutcracker’s” lush, eastern colors. “And that’s just what he does here, for Italian culture — and on a grand scale.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

With Adam Golka, piano 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $10-$43 (517) 487-5001