Jan. 25 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony conquers three worlds

A great general and a successful army must become one with
the terrain. Julius Caesar said that. Or was it Julia Child? Never mind — the
rule holds true whether you’re bludgeoning Gauls or whisking omelets.

Applying the same principle, the Lansing Symphony came up
with one of its most successful nights in memory Saturday night. Thanks to
killer chameleon skills, maestro Timothy Muffitt and the band whipped a packed
Wharton Center into a froth while conquering three wildly different
musical territories.

The evening climaxed in a noble, gorgeous performance of
Brahms’ Double Concerto that may endure as one of the Lansing Symphony’s decade

The music began at the threshold of audibility, as a volley
of pizzicato violin flutters slipped the audience into the fairytale Forest of

Everybody knows Felix Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s
“Midsummer Night’s Dream” — it’s got the “Wedding March,” for God’s sake — but
it takes a live performance to bring out the music’s strong side. With the
Lansing Symphony’s ringing brass and ever-more-muscular strings  — have they been
working out? — Mendelssohn sounded a lot like Beethoven, only without the
obsessions and bad breath.

The set-up on stage for the next piece of music got the lady
behind me excited. “Oh, boy, more French horns,” she said.

Yes, ma’am, more horns. With shocking force, Muffitt plowed
into “Don Juan,” Richard Strauss’ tone poem about the swaggering womanizer who
ends up in Hell.

Suddenly, the forest of Arden became the battle of the
Ardennes. Huge blasts of brass wiped across the hall.

You wanted it to go on forever, and thankfully, it did.
Brevity wasn’t Strauss’s strong point.

At length, the fun ended, Don Juan dropped into the fire,
and it was finally time for guest soloists Ilya Kaler on violin and Amit Peled
on cello to join with the orchestra to play Brahms.

When it came to stage presence, the two soloists could
hardly be more different. Brooding on his little plywood platform, Peled was a big,
dark attention magnet. Skirting the edge of parody, he whipped back his curls
and dug into the cello with a relentless air of drama, as if he was doing brain
surgery on the Pope. Kaler, by contrast, stood to one side, body curved like
one parenthesis, completely devoted to the score, letting his eyebrows do all
the emoting.

Musically, the two were one. Peled and Kaler play in a trio
of their own, and it showed. You could almost see their neurons jump each
other’s synapses as they glanced at one another. They finished each other’s
phrases, building and receding like breakers crashing on the orchestral rocks.
Every time Peled started a surge on cello, rolling low and green, Kaler’s
violin curled it into a silvery crest. When the foam dissolved, both players
lowered their bows, letting the symphonic crags loom until the next wave.

The two soloists played fine old Guarneri instruments, each
with a tone dark as 85 percent cocoa and creamy as walrus milk. Shrillness was
out of the question. The instruments themselves are related: Grandpa Guarneri
made the cello in 1689 and his grandson made the violin. Sure enough, there was
a deeply pleasing resemblance in the tone, like a dimpled smile passed across
generations, knitting a tight performance tighter.

All night, the orchestra kept on changing its colors and
stripes, becoming one with the terrain. For the Mendelssohn, the sound was
gauzy and textured. The adventures of Don Juan were slammed out in thick black
lines and comic-book primary colors.

Now, for Brahms, the orchestra needed to match the soloists’
rich, dark tones and fine-grained strength.

No problem, they seemed to think: You guys have Guarneri
fiddles, we’ll be a Guarneri orchestra! Opening up a completely different can
of sound, the orchestra took that truffle-cream Guarneri tone and painted a
sonic picture of indescribable nobility and grandeur.

One of the evening’s deepest pleasures was the complete (and
rare) blend of chamber-music intimacy with orchestral thunder. Brahms’ music,
defying all boundaries of concerto, symphony, and chamber trio, was the perfect
vehicle for this sublime communion. The third person in this trio just happened
to have a hundred heads.