April 20 2011 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony brings down the curtain on season with triumphant double dip


Symphonic music is all about
sophistication, poise and polish, right? Wrong! Get too full of yourself
on the concert stage and Bugs Bunny will bang the bandshell with a
giant hammer until you vibrate, or make you hold a note until your face
turns plaid. The Three Stooges will flick grapes down your throat, fill
your piano with cats, sprinkle ants on your bosom and saw your cello in

If you’re more stuck on yourself than the music, you deserve it.

Anton Nel, the Lansing Symphony’s
live-wire piano soloist at Saturday’s season closer, understands this,
and so does maestro Timothy Muffitt.

Total, self-abnegating absorption in
great music can bring forth miracles, and that’s what happened at the
symphony’s season closer Saturday.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen a soloist
throw himself into his work with as much energy, precision and gusto as
Nel threw himself into two difficult concertos by Maurice Ravel.

He wasn’t a potential target for Bugs Bunny — he was Bugs Bunny: quick, nimble, tireless, full of high fun and utterly in command.

It wasn’t just Nel, either. During a big
moment in Ravel’s stormy Concerto for the Left Hand, a front-row
violinist leaned into a note, eyes shut with ecstasy, and recoiled so
hard she nearly head-butted the violinist behind her.

Even the relatively light curtain-raiser,
George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” got a grand, Hollywood-style
reading that came at you in layers and layers, building up surprising
force. It was the first time I’ve ever gotten goosebumps from an
overture — a good omen.

But the meat of the program was the
unusual Ravel pairing. It’s rare for a soloist to play two major works
in one night, but the two concertos made a perfect contrast. The G Major
concerto (the one for two hands) is an urbane, bustling affair,
beginning with a manic-depressive kaleidoscope of melodies and gestures.
At first, the pseudo-jazz energy sounded more like Gershwin than the
real Gershwin (a neat bit of sequencing on Muffitt’s part). But flaccid
interludes inexplicably interrupted the razzle-dazzle. This is cubist
music with its own trans-logical logic, and Muffitt focused and
dissipated the energy with timing so brilliant it bordered on sleight of

Following an emotional narrative only a
genius like Ravel could put over, the first movement’s odd circus sets
the stage for one of the most beautiful and moving slow movements ever

Nel played alone for about five pregnant
minutes, focusing as if his life depended on each note. He slowly let
the melody down, down, like a bucket into the deepest well of memory and
mortality. The delicate moment when the orchestra finally enters was
pure magic. Richard Sherman took up a note from Nel, as gently as if he
were picking up an infant, handed it to oboist Jan Eberle next to him,
who passed it to Gretchen Morse on English horn.

Underneath this quietly miraculous triple
play, the violins started to swell like a spring breeze, and
unutterable wonderment was underway. It sounded like the stream of time
itself, an autumnal creek where moments float away like curled leaves,
beautiful and sad. Somehow, Nel made the piano sound liquid, as if he
were dipping the keyboard into that same stream.

But you can only dwell on mortality for
so long. When the last movement snapped back to the razzle-dazzle, Nel’s
performance never flagged. 

If the first concerto was
manic-depressive, the night’s second helping of Nel and Ravel was
volcanic-impressive. The Concerto for the Left Hand had half the
appendages, but whipped up twice the sound. It rose inexorably from of a
murky blur of low instruments —bassoons, basses, gongs — into a
towering wall of sound.

Written for a pianist who lost his right
arm in World War I, the concerto is a breathtaking assertion of the
human will to survive and flourish, and a passionate rebuke to the
horrors of war. “See,” it seems to cry. “We can do this as well!”

Grasping the side of the piano with his
right hand at times, Nel discharged the tenderness and grandeur of a
whole human being, the whole human race, through his left hand. 

The evening’s closer, Gershwin’s “An
American In Paris,” made a fine dessert, although it sounded a bit banal
after the sublime double dip of Ravel. But Gershwin’s whoops, honks and
sassy smeared notes were all deployed with panache and even some
crudity, and that’s what being an American in Paris is all about. 

Throughout the season, but especially
Saturday night, Muffitt and the troops showed that great symphonic
music, is the opposite of posturing and self-regard. It’s soldiering for
peace, total immersion in terror and beauty, absolute surrender to
creative tumult.

Leave the preening and posing to Spinal Tap. If you can’t geek out to classical music, what’s the point?