The schedule features the return of Tony Bennett, jazz, theater and identical-twin pianists

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, Brand said. 

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, Tony Bennett (Oct. 28), by piggy-backing on a nearby date.

“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

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 Sinatra devotee Steve Lippia brings a big band for a
tribute show, “Simply Sinatra” on April 19, 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 on April 21, 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

“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.

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 do Philly and they’re going to do a premiere with
the New York Philharmonic soon. All the biggies are using them.”

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, 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 affordability.

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” on Feb. 24,
and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” on 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 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.

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. Compañia Flamenca José 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, a
New York-based mashup of high culture and low parody,  comes in Feb. 18.

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
“Moulin Rouge — The Ballet,” on March 14. Brand said the “super-sexy”
ballet sold out the 4,800-seat Northrop theatre at the University of
Minnesota last year, drawing young audiences.

“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, 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.

“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.”

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