March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Wharton’s performing arts series blends flash and substance

Pull the modest levers within your reach and big things roll
your way — with a little luck.

That’s how Michigan State University’s Wharton Center pieced
together a big-city performing arts series in a middle-sized market for
2011-2012, drawing big names like Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis and the Vienna
Symphony to the capital area.

Wharton doesn’t have the cultural heft of Ann Arbor’s
University Music Society, but it has its own Spartan assets, including MSU’s
strong college of music, a supportive community and a savvy impresario in
executive director Michael Brand.

It doesn’t hurt to be near big markets like Chicago and
Cleveland, either, according to Brand.

Walking the line between showbiz and substance, the series
balances titans like Bennett and Marsalis with titillations like the sexy
ballet “Moulin Rouge” and 22-year-old classical hotties, the Naughton twins.

Among the secondary themes running through the new season
are Wharton’s strengthened commitment to dance and theater, the resumption of
the Worldview Lecture series and a stepped-up effort to put visiting stars to
work at MSU in residencies and workshops.

Wharton snagged the dean of American vocalists, Bennett
(Oct. 28), by piggy-backing on a nearby date, according to Brand.

“We paired with Cleveland,” Brand said. “Sheer luck.”

But Bennett has a history with the Wharton Center. He
performed there in 1985 and returned in 2001 to deliver his trademark heartfelt
stroll through the American songbook.

At 84, Bennett keeps on redefining the idea of a singer’s
prime. He was already a legend (and Frank Sinatra’s favorite singer) by the
1960s, but he’s won 13 of his 15 Grammy Awards since his generation-spanning
comeback performance on “MTV Unplugged” in 1995. Bennett ended his jazzy 2001
Wharton show by pulling the plug from his mike and flattening the rearmost rows
with near-operatic force.

The other major jazz star on Wharton’s slate is
trumpeter-composer-bandleader-educator Marsalis, who brings his Jazz at Lincoln
Center Orchestra Sept. 22. Marsalis has plenty of connections with MSU through
his old Lincoln Center bandmate, MSU jazz studies chief Rodney Whitaker.

While in town, Marsalis will conduct a master class — a
theme the Wharton Center and MSU want to develop further in coming years,
according to Brand.

The third pillar in Wharton’s jazz series is the charismatic
and powerful singer Simone, daughter of legendary jazz vocalist Nina Simone,
coming Feb. 16. An unabashed keeper of her mother’s flame, Simone also has a
great sense of humor: she has compared her bond with her famous mother to that
of Captain Kirk with himself, before and after he’s used the transporter. With
a 19-piece big band, she’ll perform her mother’s original charts.

Wharton’s jazz series officially concludes when Frank
Sinatra clone Steve Lippia brings a big band for a tribute show, “Simply
Sinatra” on April 19, 2012, but that may not be all for Wharton where jazz is
concerned. Sometime during the season, Brand expects to host young jazz piano
star Taylor Eigsti, who is slated to headline the East Lansing Jazz Festival in
summer 2012.

“He’s not part of the season, but we’re going to toss him in
there,” Brand said.

On the classical side, the Wharton scored a high-level
twofer with the Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields April 21,
2012, directed by superstar violinist Joshua Bell.

The Academy/Bell tour, highlighting Bell on the Beethoven
violin concerto, was three years in the planning. Wharton snagged a spot on the
tour two years ago, Brand said.

As a trumpet player and orchestral musician from way back,
Brand speaks the lingo. “They’ll have a Noah’s Ark gig in the winds — two
horns, two flutes, two trumpets — to play the Beethoven,” he said. “And that
string section is just exemplary.”

The Academy is a world-renowned chamber orchestra, but an
even bigger army, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, comes to Wharton Nov. 6,
thanks to the Austrian government and some creative scheduling.

“They are rehearsing in Chicago, coming to East Lansing
Sunday, then returning to Chicago to play Symphony Hall,” Brand said. The
Eroica Trio will join the Viennese to play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

Brand freely admitted that a Prussian invasion that massive
is beyond Wharton’s financial powers. The symphony’s two-and-a-half-week North
American tour is backed by the Austrian government.

The multi-dimensional charms of the Naughton sisters,
Christina & Michelle, waft through the Great Hall on March 16, 2012.

In the cultural twilight of old white guys, gorgeous,
22-year-old identical twins are the kind of classical act that makes
impresarios light up.

“They’re going to be huge,” Brand said. “They just got a big
Sony contract. They just did the Milwaukee Symphony, they always to Philly and
they’re going to do a premiere with the New York Philharmonic soon. All the
biggies are using them.”

They’re the latest in a series of glossy male fantasies
tucked into squarebound classics (remember Lara St. John wearing only a
violin?) but wait — they dig into meaty repertoire like “Contrapunctus #9” from
Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” and Maurice Ravel’s cataclysmic “La Valse,” and
critics have described a telepathic rapport you would expect out of a
collaboration that started in the womb.

Two less flashy but strong dates round out Wharton’s
classical series next season. The Empire Brass, a spit-polish-and-blat dream
quintet culled from top American orchestras, will do a Christmas program Dec. 1
with Elisabeth von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and Baron von Trapp of “The
Sound of Music” fame. Acclaimed guitarist Sharon Isbin, who scored big at
Wharton a decade ago, will perform March 18, 2012 and conduct a master class
during her stay.

Bringing more theater to Wharton has long been a priority
for Brand. “We’re trying to develop the spoken word more,” he said. But it
hasn’t been easy for Brand to find the right mix of quality, accessibility and

Brand hopes the nimble and exuberant Aquila Theatre, a
troupe of American Brits who work out of New York, will fill the bill. They’ll perform
Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Feb. 24 and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being
Earnest” Feb. 25.

Lavishly praised in the New Yorker and The New York Times,
Aquila is known for creative staging, innovative technology and a sensitivity
toward modern audiences. (They worked The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” into
Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and dropped Homer’s “Iliad” into World
War II.)

They’re big on education, too. They’ll do anything and go
anywhere, from the ancient stadium at Delphi — the real one, not the township —
to a middle school to the White House to win new audiences for the classics.
Brand said they’ll do a residency at MSU while they’re here.

Brand wants to go further in theater. This summer, he said,
Wharton will talk to Ontario’s Stratford Theatre about a possible

“They’re interested in transferring something [to Wharton],
but we just don’t know what yet,” Brand said.

For a different style of spoken word, Wharton has renewed
the Worldview Lecture series after a one-year hiatus. Deans from three MSU
colleges picked the speakers to dovetail with their curricula. Robert
Sternberg, an expert on intelligence and creativity, will speak Nov. 16. Steve
Curwood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and host of NPR’s environmental
program “Life on Earth,” will talk about the economic, social and national
security benefits of facing up to global warming Feb. 27. Travel and adventure
writer Doug Stanton, author of bestsellers on the war in Afghanistan, visits
March 19.

A different kind of language — body language — will
liberally punctuate Wharton’s schedule next season. The dance card runs from Spanish
spice to Russian ice to New York rye and beyond. Compaia Flamenca Jos Porcel
ignites “Gypsy Fire” Nov. 15; Moscow Festival Ballet dredges “Swan Lake” Jan.
20; and, to sprinkle ants in your tights, the playful Les Ballets Trockadero de
Monte Carlo comes Feb. 18, 2012. Brand is such a big fan of “The Trocks,” a New
York-based mashup of high culture and low parody, he asked the management to
reroute the tour to get them.

Even in such colorful company, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet may
make the biggest dance splash at Wharton next season, with an extravaganza
inspired by film visionary Baz Luhrman’s world, “Moulin Rouge – The Ballet,” on
March 14.

Brand said the “super-sexy” ballet sold out the 4800-seat
Northrop theatre at the University of Minnesota last year, drawing young

“It’s a period piece, like the Baz movie,” Brand said. Like
the Naughton twins, “Moulin Rouge” is likely to stimulate more than one area of
the brain.

“Romantic, colorful — it’s just hot,” Brand said. “We’ve
been waiting for that.”

Finally, a combined World Music & Dance series consists
of a streamlined, revamped “Riverdance” March 23-24, 2012 and two major
performing troupes from the Far East.

The big one here is the National Acrobats of the People’s
Republic of China, a huge troupe that rarely tours, coming Oct. 27.

Brand said he hopes nobody falls off the stage.

“This is the big national company of China,” he declared.
“Other groups like the Shanghai Acrobats come from the school they run.” Expect
the Great Hall to smell enticing that night, because the troupe will prepare
its own food backstage.

A no less athletic, but more percussive, troupe is Yamato,
the Drummers of Japan, set to rock the house Nov. 4. What’s the difference
between Kodo, the Japanese drum troupe familiar to local audiences, and Yamato?
Ask an impresario and you get an impresario’s answer.

“These guys are a little easier to deal with, loading in
wise and stuff,” Brand said. “The other one is more of a religious focus, they
have to do their thing, meditate. These guys know how to tour. They meditate
when the gig’s over.”