March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony Orchestra pulls out the stops in new season

Sunday, May 1 -- Steady on the podium, gentle in person, Lansing Symphony
maestro Timothy Muffitt is the last person you’d cast as a mad organist.

But Muffitt and his legions are sounding mighty chords in
next year’s season, which was announced today.

For the first time in Muffitt’s six-year tenure as music
director, the orchestra will unleash a tower of sound from Austrian
arch-Romantic Anton Bruckner (4th
Symphony, Nov. 5) and a full blast
of genius from Russian Igor Stravinsky (“Petrouchka,” May 10).

For a grace note amid the tumult, a pops concert Oct. 21
will give East Lansing jazz vocalist Sunny Wilkinson a long-awaited chance to
romp through the American songbook with Muffitt and a full symphony orchestra.

The subscription series is just about as meaty as they come.
Call it a crescendo, or a twist of the ratchet, but Muffitt is pushing the
envelope again.

“Every season is an opportunity for growth for everyone —
for the audience the orchestra, for myself, ” he said.

Fresh music from living composers, Muffitt said, will be a
part of that growth. The season will open Sept. 16 with tintinnabulations few
people in Lansing have heard: “Blue Cathedral,” a delicate tone poem by
brilliant American composer and Pulitzer Prize laureate Jennifer Higdon. On
Feb. 24, another above-ground composer, American neo-dazzler Bruce Broughton,
weighs in with something completely different — a tuba concerto, with Lansing
Symphony tuba man Phil Sinder soloing.

“When was the last time you heard a tuba concerto?” Muffitt

When Muffitt and Sinder conspired to uncork Broughton’s
colorful, bumptious brass blowout on unsuspecting locals, they passed up the
usual place for tubas and orchestras to meet, a (relatively) famous concerto by
Ralph Vaughan Williams.

“We wanted to go in a different direction,” Muffitt said.
“Let’s see how composers today are thinking about this instrument.”

What tops a tuba? Every night in the six-concert MasterWorks
series has a huge, pull-out-the-stops centerpiece, beginning, appropriately,
with the “Organ Symphony” of Camille Saint-Saens (Sept. 16). After that, it
only gets bigger, with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Nov. 5), with its vast,
cathedral-like spaces and blinding beams of brass.

“I think the Lansing Symphony is ready to grab ahold of this
piece and sink our teeth into it,” he said. “You can’t program Bruckner with
just any orchestra and just any brass section, and we clearly have the right
people in the right places.”

The juggernauts roll on with the original Big Statement,
Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (Jan. 7), Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (Feb.
24) and the mightiest of all piano concertos, Brahms’ Second, with French star
Phillipe Bianconi soloing (March 10).

Even the season’s “lesser” stuff, like Aaron Copland’s
Appalachian Spring (Feb. 24), Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Sept. 16) and
Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (March 10), are substantial enough to
anchor most subscription concerts.

When putting the season together, Muffitt said, he didn’t
have an over-arching theme in mind. He was too busy with the symphony
conductor’s eternal conundrum: how to shove the square peg of freshness into
the well-worn circle of familiarity.

“We want to make each night special and unique, even for
people who have been going to concerts their whole lives,” Muffitt said.

Looking back, Muffitt realized that two threads run through
the year. For one thing, Saint-Saens, Bruckner and Franck were all organists.

“I can hear the organist’s temperament in their music,”
Muffitt said.

Besides the “Organ” Symphony, Saint-Saens is also
represented next season in the Cello Concerto No. 1, with Okemos native Felix
Wang soloing (Jan. 7).

Muffitt also sees a strong French influence running through
the season. Four concerts have French curves on the menu (Saint-Saens, Franck,
Debussy and Ravel). Give Beethoven, with his heart-on-sleeve passion for the
French Revolution, an honorary tricolor.

Muffitt wove all these themes together, and then some, with
the season closer May 10.

Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Stravinsky’s
“Petrouchka” make a nice fairy-tale pair, but the affinity is even more
organic. In fact, it’s pure math, with a French composer, Ravel, as the
numerator, the Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”)
as the denominator, and the ultimate cosmopolitan, Stravinsky, on the other
side of the equal sign.

“The equation that led to Stravinsky’s style was the
blending of French and Russian music,” Muffitt explained.

It felt right to mix French and Russian music that way.”

Thundering away with Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner is nice
work if you can get it, but Muffitt’s baritone voice acquires a fond pianissimo
when he talks about the pops concert with Sunny Wilkinson.

“Here’s an extraordinary talent, and we wanted to feature
her here on her home turf,” Muffitt said. “She’s the real deal in the world of
jazz singers.”

Muffit relishes the chance to import an international star
like French pianist Phillipe Bianconi (the Brahms guy), but he really loves the
idea of giving Wilkinson’s sunny muse an orchestral field of clover, right in
her own backyard.

“How exciting to say we can create something like this right
here, at home,” he said.