Nov. 9 2011 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony brass brings it for Bruckner

My organs of anticipation, wherever
those are, were knotted with pride and dread on the way to Saturday’s
Lansing Symphony concert at the Wharton Center. On one hand, the home
team was about to play a symphony by Anton Bruckner, an ambitious slab
of sound for any orchestra to quarry, sculpt and polish, in Berlin,
Stockholm or Lansing. That was something to be proud of.

On the other hand, they were about to
play a symphony by Anton Bruckner — music that comes with serious
cultural baggage, deserved or not, as the Aryan love call that sent the
Fuhrer himself into raptures. Damn you, History Channel! 

As it happens, there’s a big difference
between Bruckner gurgling behind jerky films of Nuremberg rallies and
Bruckner roaring and glowing in front of you, in all its warmth and

Saturday’s big surprise wasn’t the
finely wrought, seamless, muscular performance of Bruckner’s Fourth the
symphony delivered. By now, we’re used to seeing music director Timothy
Muffitt and the LSO deliver big-city passion and polish on a small-town
budget. No, the kick came from bracing for a blitzkrieg and, instead,
getting a hot-oil massage by candlelight, with just enough blitz to
leave a mark. 

Closing the distance between music and
listener is Muffitt’s specialty. He has an uncanny way of whipping up
lofty joys while keeping you as close as a neighbor chatting over
coffee. In his hands, the Bruckner epic was a deep-breathing cycle of
sunburst and shadow. The second movement, with its gentle ‘pim, poom’
walking beat, was so mesmerizing it was easy to lose track of all the
tricky handoffs from one section or soloist to the next. Behind his
monolithic, foursquare facade, Bruckner moves the ball around a lot,
animating his mile-high beams of light with millions of busy little
particles. Muffitt and the musicians deployed the details exhaustively,
but not exhaustingly, to surround the Wharton Center audience in that
shimmering space.

Two seemingly contradictory moods,
grandeur and intimacy, balanced and nourished each other, as they do
when you go for a walk in the mountains with a friend. When brass
fanfares broke out, it was like stopping to take in a dizzying view.
When the tumult subsided into tender melodies, usually from the
strings, the hiking and conversation resumed, with heightened joy and a
new sense of discovery. Muffitt lovingly walked every step, never
rushing or apologizing for the deliberate pace.

The strings, tentative at first,
blossomed into a supple lyricism, and the woodwinds liquidly linked the
music’s refined skin to its dinosaur bones. But this symphony is most
remarkable for wave after wave of titanic blasts of brass calling forth
Godzilla, God or both. In what may be their finest hour and 10 minutes,
the Lansing Symphony brass brought it. Principal horn Janine Gaboury,
principal trombone Ava Ordman and tuba man Philip Sinder blew like
three horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Principal trumpeter Rich Illman
misfired a few times, but not so conspicuously as to induce a wince.)

It was a good thing the orchestra got
its Bruckner rampage in, because it had to contend with a thunderous,
spirited chorus of more than 200 voices in Mozart’s Coronation Mass.
The orchestra and four vocal soloists got their licks in, but the
massed Michigan State University Choral Union, University Chorale and
State Singers held the floor through a bustling pageant of styles and

The performance hit the heavenly marks
as required, but it also brought out the fun of Mozart’s sacred music.
Close your eyes and the Gloria could be sung by a maid with a feather

Lack of coherence among the soloists was
more of a drawback than usual for this particular mass, in which the
soloists have to sing together most of the time. Bassist Benjamin
Clements often seemed aloof from the others, as if singing from his own
little tower, and soprano Anne Nispel was in her own dimension of

Only the Credo, with its tumbling
momentum, achieved full integration. This is where Mozart maniacally
throws the switch and the express elevator zooms to heights of glory
straight out of Handel. Soloists, orchestra and chorus charged ahead in
full, unified voice. In typical Mozart fashion, it was over before you
knew what hit you.