Jan. 12 2011 12:00 AM

Kondonassis, LSO mix show and substance

On a hot afternoon last August, I stopped into a juice bar for a smoothie. Mango, pineapple, strawberry — it was sweet as a milkshake, only better. As I gulped it down, I saw a strange smile on the server’s face.

“You’d never know there was kale in it,” she said.

“Pfffah — hey,” I thought. But it was too late to spew. I was healthier and couldn’t take it back.

After Saturday’s Lansing Symphony concert, I pictured maestro Timothy Muffitt, kicking back with his own drink of choice, wearing that same grin on his face.

Over the past five years, Muffitt has excelled at keeping butts in seats while stretching the brains above them. With each subscription concert, he has found a way to expand Lansing’s classical music experience without sending the squeamish into the streets screaming for Andre Rieu.

Saturday night, he took the art of the gentle push to new heights with a breathtaking reading of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s spiky, mysterious harp concerto.

Despite the in-and-out Latin rhythms and chameleon-like flushes of orchestral color, this was a study in nervous tension and profound silences — maybe the most dissonant, unorthodox and challenging music in Muffitt’s five-year tenure as music director, Bartok included.

To help him put it over, the maestro enlisted another deceptively pleasing envelope-pusher, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis.

From the first bars, harpist and orchestra interlocked like the thorax and abdomen of a wasp, whipping through wicked cross-rhythms and sudden turnarounds with hymenopteran timing.

Their destination wasn’t a garden, however, but a post-modern cityscape of back alleys and neon towers, a dense hive of humanity where a tango, a tryst or a knife fight could break out any second.

It’s exhilarating to hear classical music reach past the neatly tucked corners of Mozart and into the chaotic pulsations of real life. This was precision-tooled, carefully choreographed disorder, not far from the world of Charles Ives. When a man laughed loudly in the Wharton Center lobby during the first movement, the outburst mixed right in with the concerto’s incipient madness.

People think of a harpist flinging pretty notes like strings of pearls, but, to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in “Reservoir Dogs,” that was some other harpist on some other job.

Crouched in a red zone of concentration, Kondonassis played with the authority and focus of an oracle, giving every note an almost unbearable weight. Her interaction with the orchestra rippled with a protean sensitivity worlds away from the usual soloist-versus-symphony huffing and puffing.

One minute she was trading tuh-booms with the timpani; the next minute her terse statements dissolved in woodwind mist. In the second movement, she sustained a noble melody fit for a trumpet. She bandied plinks and doinks with a small army of percussionists like a grandmaster playing chess with several opponents at once.

Here and throughout the concerto, Kondonassis seemed to embody the human search for meaning. The orchestral tumult didn’t make it easy, but even when she was left alone, she had to fight herself. After all, this is an age of neuroses.

When Kondonassis finally got to play glissandos in the third movement, they were dissonant and aggressive, like voices that wouldn’t get out of her head. Her right hand kept on circling like a buzzard, daring her left hand to focus and finish playing. Finally, the tumult subsided to let Kondonassis seek the truth by herself, and the quiet in the hall was almost stifling. The concerto was completely successful, as technical achievement, philosophy, psychodrama and sonic tonic.

After the break, Kondonassis and the symphony came back to blend a real smoothie of a piece, a wistful and sparkling set of dances by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. After the astringent Ginastera, Debussy gave Kondonassis the chance to massage a more conventional grace and beauty from her instrument, but she didn’t dial down her discipline and precision. After a standing ovation, Kondonassis followed with a spellbinding solo encore: “Chanson dans la nuit” by Carlos Salzedo.

After the delicate dance with Kondonassis was done, Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the evening’s finale, gave Muffitt and the orchestra a chance to overwhelm by sheer force. The descent into the Roman catacombs, with low horns and vibrating gongs, brought up goosebumps, aided further by the sub-woofing vibrations of an electronic organ. In the dreamy pastoral bit that followed, Emmanuel Toledo, the symphony’s new principal clarinetist, played a long, heartbreaking solo with precision and heart.

But who ever ended a symphony concert with a dreamy clarinet solo? No, the hammer must come down, and down it came. The finale was written to evoke Roman legions as they march from the far distance, swirled in the rosy mist of dawn, to stomp your face. Muffitt and crew turned this nasty prospect into masochist heaven, wrapped in a nimbus of symphonic glory. No juggernaut was ever so much fun, right down to the auxiliary legions of flugelhorns and euphoniums blasting away from the wings.

Besides —after drinking down that Ginastera, kale and all, we were strong enough to take any pounding.