Sept. 14 2011 12:00 AM

Symphony opener brings back violinist Giora Schmidt

In March of last year, Lansing Symphony
maestro Timothy Muffitt and 29-year-old violinist Giora Schmidt ladled
out the purest, hottest alloy of symphony and soloist heard around here
in years --and that’s saying a lot in a drop forge town like Lansing.

In March 2010, Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt
and 29-year-old violinist Giora Schmidt ladled out the purest, hottest
alloy of symphony and soloist heard around here in years. And that’s
saying a lot in a drop forge town like Lansing.

Now it can be told: Schmidt, who returns
to help the symphony kick of its 2011-2012 season Friday, was playing
while seriously jet-lagged, having just flown in from Tel Aviv.

“I was kind of upside down,” Schmidt said.

“That’s amazing,” Muffitt said, when told of this last week.

Several years ago, no less an authority than Itzhak
Perlman told Muffitt that Schmidt would fill Perlman’s shoes someday.
Since then, the Israeli-American virtuoso has torn a swath through the
classical world by mixing creamy old-school tone with crunchy
21st-century social media. He avidly uses Facebook to air his endless
enthusiasms as violinist, teacher, and “classical geek.”

Even with jet lag, Schmidt found Lansing simpatico. “I
was thrilled with the quality of the orchestra,” Schmidt said. “Tim
Muffitt and I really hit it off.”

Their tight musical clinch was pretty much sub-verbal. 

“We did it without a lot of discussion, which is how you
know things are going well,” Schmidt said. “It’s a kinetic musical
energy, and everybody rides the wave.”

“I felt like we were on the same artistic wavelength from ‘Hello,’” Muffitt returned.

This Friday, Muffitt and Schmidt will kick back and pour
themselves another ingot, much bigger than the last year’s Samuel
Barber concerto.

The Beethoven violin concerto, centerpiece of the Lansing
Symphony’s season opener, is the summit of the violin-and-orchestra

“It’s certainly one of the two greatest ever written — and I don’t know what the other one is,” Muffitt cracked.

Then again, there’s nothing light on the menu Friday. The
unorthodox evening opener is “Blue Cathedral,” a sweeping tone poem by
popular Brooklyn composer Jennifer Higdon. The evening will close with
the monster “Organ Symphony” by French master Camille Saint-Saens.

The primal, cut-the-bull beauty of the Beethoven concerto isn’t fodder for extroverts, but mincing around isn’t Schmidt’s thing.

“I have to watch myself that I don’t get swept away by
the simplicity and beauty of what Beethoven wrote,” Schmidt said. “You
listen to it and say, ‘How in the hell?’ And he wrote in the simplest
keys, G major and D major.” Schmidt called them “the nightmare keys”
because the violinist has “nowhere to hide.”

Muffitt said the Beethoven’s concerto, like last year’s Barber, plays to Schmidt’s strengths.

“The lyricism – so much of it requires exquisitely
beautiful playing,” Muffitt said. “Every single note was luscious. I
can’t wait to do this with him.”

But Schmidt said he finds Beethoven’s simple harmonies and Eden-naked melodies harder to play than “hard” music.

“It’s like walking on glass,” Schmidt said. “You have to
restrict yourself while trying to execute a phrase that sounds like
it’s written by the hand of God.”

Schmidt is thankful for any music, Beethoven or not, that rescues the violin from dog-and-pony theatrics.

“There’s a lot of virtuosic, knuckle-busting repertoire
where you can stand there and show off,” he said. “After a while, it’s
like too much peanut butter. You get a stomach ache.”

When the Beethoven is over, he wants the “oohs” and
“aahs” aimed at the music, not him. “The nicest thing to hear after a
performance is ‘We almost didn’t notice you there.’”

Muffitt finds that Schmidt and his famous teacher, Perlman, share a “focused, expressive emotional intensity.”

“(Perlman) is not one for wild rubato or extremes of
anything, just pure, focused, exquisite beauty, and the same can be
said for Giora,” Muffitt said.

In classical music these days, if you don’t come down
from the pedestal, you’re dead in the water. Schmidt deftly juggles the
old-school rigor of his teachers, including Perlman and legendary
Juilliard violin guru Dorothy DeLay, with the loosey-goosey chatter
chamber of social media. His Facebook page includes retro, formal
black-and-white portraits a la Jascha Heifetz (see the master scowl
with intensity!) and shirt-sleeved, impromptu YouTube lessons, with
generous “LOLs” sprinkled all over.

 “You don’t
build audiences by standing behind a glass wall and saying ‘I’m
great,’” Schmidt said. “Everybody’s great now. There are a lot of
fabulous performers. Where people differ is how they connect with
people on a personal level.”

On Friday, Muffitt will balance the purity of Beethoven
with a ripe, massive extravaganza by French composer Camille
Saint-Saëns, the “Organ” symphony.

The organ part is memorable — it’s hard to forget any
sensory input that makes your chest cavity throb — but Muffitt is
always looking for the multi-layered experience.

When it comes to blending sounds, Muffitt finds
Saint-Saëns a refined artist, a precursor to impressionists like Faure
and Debussy.

“It’s not all the trumpets, tympani and pipe organ
blaring at the end, it’s everything in the middle,” Muffitt said.
“There are so many moments where I would challenge the audience to
identify what instruments are playing. You get a composite color that’s
almost unidentifiable, a unique musical color.”

The evening’s opener is Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue
Cathedral,” one of the few newer works that have made it into regular
rotation in orchestras across the nation. 

“Jennifer is one of our most important composers living today,” Muffitt said. “Her music is everywhere.”

Higdon, like Saint-Saëns, is a whiz at mixing colors.
“Cathedral” starts with mysterious chimes that expand and accelerate
into grand, epic-movie-style gestures, passing through phases of
spirituality and awe.

“It’s not your usual shock-and-awe curtain raiser,” Muffitt said. “But audiences love it. It reaches you on many levels.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Giora Schmidt, violin. Wharton Center. 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16. $15-45 (517) 481-5007

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