Sept. 19 2011 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony Orchestra's new season starts with an often-spellbinding concert with guest violinist Giora Schmidt

Monday, Sept. 19 — It’s the first concert of the new season. You might expect cobwebs. You might expect the orchestra to be like the students at Michigan State University: willing to play, but wishing summer had been just a bit longer.
There may have been a couple cobwebs still left in the corners, but Lansing Symphony’s opening performance Friday night made one thing clear: The symphony is ready for action.
Muffitt’s first concert blended the well-known greatness of Beethoven and Saint-Saens with a touch of the new by kicking off the program with Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and her 2000 hit “Blue Cathedral.”
Mixing the unusual with the familiar, Higdon combines unique instrumentation with a relaxing, calming style, creating a work that brings you in at the beginning, hooks you quickly and takes you on a wild ride before releasing you at the end. The relaxing interplay of soloists and orchestra laid the foundation of the cathedral and encouraged you to stay and look around. The explosive sound of the brass fanfare in the middle filled the Wharton Center with sound, a different style from the start to be sure, but no less entrancing.
But the end is where the feeling of awe took hold, as one by one select musicians throughout the orchestra began to shake Chinese reflex bells, fist-sized bells that quietly shimmered in the background until their volume overtook the remaining traditional players. Eight musicians played crystal goblets filled with water by running their fingers around the rims of the glasses, creating an ethereal drone to complement the shimmering of the bells. The piano hit a few notes as the piece drew to a close, adding pitch to the soothing combination of bells and drone. When the piece ended, the audience sat mesmerized, afraid to clap and break the spell until the maestro’s arms finally fell, releasing both the musicians and the attendees.
Higdon’s mesmerizing spell was nothing compared to the attention violinist Giora Schmidt commanded during his rendition of the Beethoven violin concerto. He stood nonchalantly on stage as the orchestra began its introduction, eyes closed, humming and swaying along with the music. However, when he raised his violin and drew his bow, his sound — like the bells in the Higdon piece — floated over the orchestra with crystal precision, drawing the audience in.
One craved the brief moments when Schmidt played alone on the stage, not because the orchestra was bad — they weren’t — but because Schmidt was that captivating. His deep, rich tone, heavy with vibrato makes him the only thing you want to hear, and nobody dared to break his enchantment between movements.
Nobody could question the soloist’s skill as he began the final cadenza. The flying fingers, the crisp tone, the sultry slides would have been enough to draw anyone in. He was so charismatic that the listener would never know how hard the work really was. Yet he played with such feeling and such depth that it was impossible not to fall under his spell.
The final gem of Friday’s performance was the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3, the so-called “organ symphony.” The violins had some minor intonation problems in the first movement (the cobwebs of summer slowly being brushed aside) but all discomfort was forgotten when the organ made its first entrance in the second movement.
Although there were no pipes to be seen since the symphony used a digital organ, the air still shook with the vibrations from the organ’s chords. Muffitt conducted the second movement beautifully, making full use of rubato in the absolutely perfect spots to tug the audience’s heartstrings without losing the intensity and emotion that the movement demanded.
The third movement, unfortunately, was where the most cobwebs appeared. One violinist, no doubt swept up in the moment, entered too early in an involuntary solo before the rest of the section joined him, but the mistake could not break the audience’s strict attention as the movement proceeded into the booming finale.
This is what you came to hear: the sound of an organ unleashed. For all the orchestra’s power, it was no match for the organ’s roar. But after the rousing beginning, a familiar theme washed over the hall, a theme known to anyone with a fondness for the little sheep-pig in the movie “Babe.” It was easy to see why this powerhouse was left for last on the program — absolutely nothing could follow it. The finale built you up and left you wanting more and the organ’s final notes had barely begun to clear the air before the audience shot to its feet in applause.
If you had any doubts, erase them. Muffit has done it again. The symphony has returned.