May 17 2010 12:00 AM

Muffitt happy to stay on Lansing Symphony podium for three more years

    It’s hard to hold a high note, but the Lansing Symphony is
    about to try. With attendance spiking improbably upward and performance levels
    at a widely recognized high, the organization announced last week that maestro
    Tim Muffitt has signed a new three-year contract.

    The deal will keep Muffitt’s shoes on the podium through the
    2012-2013 season, but no glue was needed. The maestro said the decision was a
    “no-brainer” for several reasons, some of them personal.

    On a weekday afternoon, you might run into Muffitt
    shepherding his kids — Vincent, 13, and Clara, 10 — into the East Lansing
    Library, or spot them frolicking in a park or nature trail in the area.

    “My children are thriving in the great schools here,” he
    said. “It’s a fabulous place to raise kids. They love it here. I’m happy to be
    here for their benefit, and I’m happy to be here as an artist.”

    Muffitt spends about three-fourths of his time in East
    Lansing and about one week a month in Baton Rouge, La., where he is music director
    of the Baton Rouge Symphony.

    In a dark time for arts organizations, the Lansing Symphony
    is floating in a weird bubble of success. Single ticket sales for the 2009-2010
    season, which ended last month, were up 31 percent from the last season, while
    subscription sales went up 3 percent, according to executive director Courtney
    Millbrook. Since Muffitt started as music director in fall 2006, ticket sales
    have gone up 50 percent.

    muffitt2big.jpg“We’re bucking the national trend by huge degrees,” Muffitt
    said. “We have seen remarkable response from the audience.”

    Paid attendance at classical music events in the United
    States declined 8 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to a December 2009 report
    released by the League of American Orchestras.

    Muffitt deflected the credit. “This is clearly a community
    that values the arts and takes great pride in its hometown organizations, and
    they show it.”

    The maestro singled out Courtney Millbrook, now finishing
    her first season as the symphony’s general manager, as a major new asset and
    another reason he decided to stay.

    “I feel like with every passing day, we are coming more in
    focus as an organization,” Muffitt said.

    Muffitt’s paean to the musicians was even more effusive.

    “I love the musicians of the Lansing Symphony and look
    forward to every minute we spend together,” he said.

    For their part, the orchestra’s musicians voted last month
    to extend their labor agreement with the symphony for another year.

    After only four years as maestro, Muffitt has already been
    drafted into service as the face of Lansing. In a promotional film
    produced last fall by the Lansing Economic Development Corporation, a series of
    local artists are asked whether there is art, ballet and drama in the capitol
    city. They all show their stuff and answer, “Yes, in Lansing.” At the end of
    the film, a question appears on the screen: “But is there passion?” Muffitt
    brings down the hammer with a fierce scowl, as the symphony bangs out the final
    chords to “Mars” from “The Planets.” The rest is silence.

    Millbrook joked that after seeing the film, people are
    surprised at how laid back Muffitt is.

    “He knows how to make this music, this experience, down to
    earth and enjoyable, still with this amazing artistic quality,” Millbrook said.

    Beginning in March, Muffitt is applying this skill to his
    latest mania: Facebook. He’s embracing his new platform with the zeal of the
    late convert.

    “It’s forcing me to reach into the cobwebs of my brain and
    think about things I haven’t considered since grad school,” he said.

    Muffitt’s thoughtful posts connect a lot of musical dots,
    from Sting’s CD of Renaissance lute music to Verdi’s operas, New Orleans jazz
    and the call of the wood thrush.

    “I’m having so much fun,” he said. “My target is to come up
    with one little tidbit a day that will spur some curiosity.”

    Before last Tuesday’s season closer, Muffitt invited the
    audience to a lobby party marking the symphony’s 80th year and stuck
    around to bask in the glow.

    “Whether it’s speaking to school groups or the Rotary Club
    or what have you, he’s engaged in the community,” Millbrook said. “He doesn’t
    go off stage and duck out the back door.”

    The lobby hang followed a thunderous standing ovation from a
    full house, freshly rocked by Beethoven’s Fifth. Millbrook said fans and
    musicians came up to her all night to tell her how great things were going.

    “It’s a great time,” Millbrook said. “It’s a thrill to have
    him commit to another three years.”

    Muffitt expects to be around longer than that. He has
    already planned out the next eight years of repertoire for the Lansing

    “That’s how you need to think as a music director,” he said. “In
    order to put a truly balanced offering out there, you’ve got to take the bird’s-eye

    For Muffitt, the symphony’s success ties in with a general
    buzz about culture in Lansing that includes downtown economic development,
    MSU’s new Broad Art Museum, burgeoning music festivals and more.

    “Why shouldn’t it happen here?” he asked. “We have terrific
    schools, a spectacular natural environment and an educated and curious
    populace. Those are three really strong ingredients for a thriving community.”

    But one piece has yet to fall into place.

    Before Muffitt leaves the scene, he’d like to see a
    long-awaited downtown performing arts center built.

    “The Wharton Center is a great place to do concerts, but I
    do feel that our state capitol needs a concert hall downtown,” he said. “It’s a
    real investment in our future. Our job is to bring people into the state, to
    attract new businesses to Michigan, and quality of life issues are the things
    that will do that.”