Sept. 16 2009 12:00 AM

Symphony charges into ring with Spanish season opener

There was a close brush with banality in the symphonic plaza de toros Saturday night, but in the end, the matador kept the upper hand.

It was touch and go for a while. The Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert was billed as a full-blown subscription night, but came within a bull’s snort of a lightweight evening at pops.

The evening, and season, opener was “Espana,” a tacky tortilla of cornball melody and refried overemphasis that should have been scraped off the plate and fed to the alley cats decades ago.

The orchestra sounded fabulous, with nary a throat-clearing or hint of getting up to speed after the summer break. Only last week they were holding auditions for new players. Already, they were integrated as a fist. Who wanted to see them come out of the corner slumming?

But the orchestral matador, maestro Timothy Muffitt, had a plan. Eight minutes into the evening, the real purpose of this Spanish-themed evening became clear. (Selling tickets was, presumably, only a happy by-product.) The clueless composer of “Espana,” Emmanuel Chabrier, was French! Evidently “Espana” was an example of how not to do Spain, helpfully provided for contrast.

It was easy to interpret Muffitt’s plan that way, because the core of the concert delivered the real deal — textured, moody and crepuscular. Picking up at the same high level of music-making where they left off last year, Muffitt and the band ably plumbed the complex moods of underrated Spanish master Manuel de Falla.

A constantly shifting soundscape of shadows and glimmerings, cool black lace and hot orange sun, filled the Wharton Center, as the orchestra drifted into an absorbing pair of half-hour works, “The Three-Cornered Hat” and “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”

For “Nights,” guest pianist Christopher O’Riley added his liquid, supple keyboard work, playing picador pianist to Muffitt’s matador.

O’Riley, a star pianist and public radio personality, is one of the highest-profile soloists the symphony has snagged in years. He could easily have unbalanced the music, but he wove in and out of the orchestra’s dark brocade like a silver ribbon.

However, when the sangria buzz of Falla’s heady impressionism began to fade, a question was left hanging in the air. By holding back the star wattage and melding with the orchestra, O’Riley hadn’t gotten a chance to stretch out. Why invite a top seven-course chef to your banquet just to drizzle Romesco sauce on the escargot?

Encouraged by Muffitt, O’Riley made up the deficit by wheeling out the pastry tray and playing two spectacular solo encores. A sigh of delight filled the hall when the trench-coated soloist stepped to the edge of the stage and announced, “And now for something completely different.”

He tumbled into a whirling take on “You,” one of his most winning tran scriptions from the English rock band Radiohead. The simple melody, lavished with velvety arpeggios and left-hand thunder, seemed to wow the older skeptics in the audience. A large patch of students in the back rows perked up considerably. O’Riley followed Radiohead with French impressionist Claude Debussy’s “Goldfish,” a tour de force of turbulent cross-currents and fizzing bubbles.

Thus, O’Riley made everybody who came to see O’Riley happy, and also set up the final work on the slate, French composer Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.”

In Muffitt’s plan, this second French take on Spain was meant to bookend the evening’s opener, but viva la difference. If the Chabrier was merely banal, “Bolero” was the tower of banal — a single melody played over and over, bigger and bigger, by different players and sections of the orchestra, until the persistence, audacity and power of the music pushed the needle into the ecstasy zone and forced the audience to its feet with a wild standing ovation.

In the early going of “Bolero,” a series of woodwind soloists took star turns (saxophonist Joe Luloff added just the right touch of vinegar), but “Bolero” is a showpiece for the collective, a slow steamroller that Muffitt drove to kill.

The gradual change in the maestro’s podium stance said it all. He began the music standing stock still, barely ticktocking his arm as the famous, wall-towall snare drum roll rattled into range of audibility. Muffitt slowly worked his way up the frenzy index until his feet were in a different Zip code than his head, the better to whip up the seven seas and the four winds.

True to Ravel’s nutty experiment, the sonic canvas just kept opening up wider and wider, like a movie screen expanding from Panavision to Cinemascope to Cinerama to A-poc-o-Vision.

So what if “Bolero” is a great big bluster? You can’t argue with the precision and fury Muffitt tapped to make it inflate and blow up so spectacularly. That’s how Muffitt seems to approach all music, worthy or not, and that’s how to do Spain. Kill the bull.