March 26 2009 12:00 AM

Muffitt milks a creamy concert with rare encore

There’s a smug glow in your eye when you’re belly-rubbing your dog into oblivion. Similar looks are sometimes seen in the bedroom. “See what I can do to you,” the look says.

Maestro Timothy Muffitt can be forgiven for exhibiting that look after the Lansing Symphony and two guest trumpeters kicked out a spectacular double concerto to bring Friday’s concert to a finish.

Trumpets weren’t the only thing that came in twos that night. For the first time in Muffitt’s three-year tenure in Lansing, he repeated the last few minutes of a serious work, just for kicks. The climax of Stephen Paulus’ double concerto, with both trumpeters and an extra big symphony spiraling into the stratosphere, was too sweet a ride to ditch.

One-more-time indulgences worked great for Count Basie and “April in Paris,” but they’re rare in the classical world. Critics rolled their eyes when Leonard Bernstein used to reprise his orgasmic presto from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony. (Audiences loved it.)

Until Friday, it was hard to picture Muffitt, with his sequoia-like dignity, giving in to his inner Rockette, but this was new, serious and crowd-pleasing music — an extremely rare hat trick in any symphony hall.

The freshness of the high-energy concerto, premiered in 2003, seemed to have the audience on a nitrous oxide high. Minutes before the end, guest trumpeters Rex Richardson and Vincent DeMartino blew themselves argyle in the face with an improvised high-note joust, egged on by a thundering battery of percussion.

The two-ness of the soloists threw an intriguing wild card into the deal.

At first, the trumpeters’ role was less instrumental than elemental. As the concerto built slowly into a Himalayan range of sunrise chords, the trumpeters fired sharp phrases into the valley, like hawks calling from neighboring crags.

Suddenly, they took flight, pouring out extended, high tones of breathtaking beauty, often together, sometimes diverging into harmony.

pulsations and surges kept on mounting and receding, climbing higher
each time, until the mad improvisation section was over and Muffitt
moved in for the kill. Unnoticed amid the tumult, extra horn players
snuck into the wings to build up a surround-sound effect. After two
standingovation callbacks, nobody was leaving the Wharton Center. Grins
were everywhere. Something out of the ordinary seemed called

When the last ovation began to recede, Muffitt waved at his
wingmen not to leave their posts.

“I need you, too,” he called

It was fun to hear his voice from the podium, and even more fun to
see his posture during the trumpet battle — hands behind his back,
resting on the rails of his podium, moving his rear end up and down.

Even Muffitt came in twos. He was beside himself with exhilaration.

was enjoying his job a little more than usual, for several reasons.
With two trumpets on solo duty, balance wasn’t a concern. Muffitt could
let the orchestra go nuts, knowing that everyone would still hear
DeMartino and Richardson just fine.

Best of all, the music was wowing
everybody, from subscription blue-hairs to college kids on reluctant
assignment, and the orchestra was clearly grooving on the feedback
loop. The barrier between musicians and listeners evaporated because of
real communion, not some awkward on-stage repartee.

So give
Muffitt his fun. He has proven his seriousness and high musicianship
over and over. Before the trumpet concerto Friday, he led a masterful
performance of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony that relied entirely
on craftsmanship and heart — no bifurcated soloists, no novelty factor,
no augmented percussion, just seamless, organic transitions and superb
section work from everybody. At the next subscription concert, he’ll
head back to the mines with his biggest challenge to Lansing’s
orchestra yet — Mahler’s mighty Fifth Symphony.

There’s a snob
classical-music prejudice that if people enjoy something too much too
fast, it must be second-rate. Friday’s big fun was a powerful
counter-argument. At the apogee of the Muffitt era, only my thesaurus,
greased and creased with the search for new superlatives, is suffering.
Face it — we’re in the m.f. (that’s mezzoforte) golden age of the
Lansing Symphony. With each performance, the orchestra seems to surpass
itself in excitement, precision and power. If it gives, and gets, some
instant gratification along the way, that can’t be helped.

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