March 24 2011 12:00 AM

Lansing’s Melissa White tops varied LSO program


For Melissa White, headlining Saturday’s Lansing Symphony concert doesn’t mean hotel food and hangers you can’t pull off the rack.

Born and raised in Lansing, the peripatetic violinist can look forward to home-cooked meals with her mom and dad and a sleepover with her sister.

White’s sister favors hip hop over Haydn, but they work it out.

“If she gets to the radio first, I go a little crazy after about 10 minutes,” White said. “So we compromise.”

White won’t have to compromise at the Wharton Center Saturday when she plays the fizzy Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the sunniest part of a concert that will plumb the depths of Haydn and Wagner.

Taking art to the people is a mission White takes seriously.

In 2006, she teamed with three other firstprize winners of the annual Sphinx competition to form the Harlem Quartet.

Sphinx, a nationwide organization, brings classical music to African-American and Latino communities.

“We don’t really do well if we’re bored, so we make our presentations new and exciting for us, too,” she said. “It’s an un-show.”

A passionate, young, multi-ethnic quartet — especially one that looks like it’s having fun — makes a good case for the classics, especially in urban schools.

“When we go into schools that don’t have music programs, we are literally introducing violin, viola and cello to students,” White said.

To demystify the music, the quartet might divide a class into teams and ask them to guess which instrument will go the lowest.

“They’re really young, so they don’t know the bigger one will go lower,” White said.

“We start with something catchy, and their eyes get big. When we get to playing something traditional, like the slow movement from the Borodin Second String Quartet, it blows their minds.”

While in Lansing, White will teach and talk to Lansing-area students at Pleasant View Middle School, Pattengill Middle School and Everett High School, and conduct a free public master class at the Michigan State University Community Music School.

White started asking her mother for a violin at 4 years old, about three minutes after seeing Itzhak Perlman play one on “Sesame Street.”

“She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no,” White recalled.

She begged for two years, drafting Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy into service.

At 6, she got her first violin and immediately started studying at MSU’s Community School. In her late teens, she studied privately in Chicago. She marvels at how her mom managed to shuttle her back and forth each weekend.

Since White graduated from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, the Harlem Quartet has grown into a full-time mission for her. After a successful debut at Carnegie Hall in October 2006, the quartet’s skill, gusto and engaging presence have earned them prime recording gigs.

The quartet is in a student residency at the New England Conservatory, but White hopes they’ll soon snag a faculty residency at a major university.

“That will allow me to be more homebound and I can start thinking about a family,” she said.

White has played the Mendelssohn concerto before, but Saturday’s concert is a chance for her to really make it her own.

“I can do it the way I want to do it, not how my teacher wants me to do it,” White said.

The romantic brio of Mendelssohn suits White’s nimble style and high enthusiasm, but the rest of the concert will paddle into stormier waters.

In maestro Timothy Muffitt’s view, playing sumptuous symphonic swaths of Wagner’s colossal “Ring” cycle is almost like running a utility into town.

“If we don’t do excerpts from Wagner’s great operas in orchestral concerts, how will the Lansing community ever hear this live?” Muffitt asked.

“Nobody ever wrote ecstasy into music the way Wagner did. This isn’t just the ‘Flying Dutchman’ overture. We’ve dug into the heart and soul of the ‘Ring’ cycle here.”

The LSO has already tackled the other late-Romantic monster, Gustav Mahler, but Wagner is a different kind of behemoth.

“Mahler’s roots were in nature and in a certain folk-ness, music of the people,” Muffitt said. “Wagner’s music comes from mythology, very high-minded, lofty.”

Instead of contrasting the composers, Muffitt programmed ultra-classicist Haydn with ultra-romantic Wagner to show how closely related they are.

Muffitt finds “a real turbulence” in Haydn’s 40th Symphony (“La Passione”) that preshadows Wagner, albeit through the intermediate link of Haydn’s most famous student, Beethoven.

“Even the minuet is in dark and brooding F minor,” he said. “It’s full of angular lines and turbulent, syncopated rhythms. There’s an incredible energy to it.”

On paper, there’s no Beethoven on Saturday’s slate, but if you step back and look at the negative space, he looms.

“He’s got a connection to everything in this program,” Muffitt said.

Haydn and Wagner excelled at building small musical motifs into huge worlds of sound. Haydn imparted the skill to Beethoven.

It was Wagner who blew the method up to operatic proportions to build his “Ring” universe, giving a distinct motif to each character.

Even Felix Mendelssohn, was trying to “pick up the pieces after Beethoven” by crafting his own romantic style, in Muffitt’s view.

“It was not a straight shot,” Muffitt said. “Beethoven took music to a dead end, in a way. Nobody was going to pick up where he left off. You had to work back up and find an exit ramp.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Melissa White, violin
8 p.m. Saturday, March 26 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $12-$45 (517) 487-5001