What Madagascar is to endangered lemurs, America's universities have become to those exquisite and rarely observed species, classical and jazz music. In 2011, bucking all market trends in the surrounding musical ecosystem, greater Lansing was lemur central. An astonishing array of musical events, large and small, kept music lovers ring-tailed and frisky, thanks largely to the professors and students of Michigan State University's burgeoning College of Music.
These musicians are not a shy species. From gigs in local restaurants, coffee shops and bars to the Wharton Cener and the Metropolitan Opera, they really got around.
On the jazz side, a superb series of concerts at Old Town's Creole Gallery rolled out original suites by each member of the MSU Professors of Jazz, expanding their growing legacy. (Watch for a double CD featuring all four suites to be released some time in 2012.)
There were big names at the Wharton Center, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, vocal legend Tony Bennett and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who came to town just after winning a Grammy, but the biggest jazz story of 2011 was the greening of the local jazz scene. MSU professors, students, alumni and veteran local jazz musicians fanned out to more than a dozen venues and filled every week from end to end with music. There were Jazz Tuesdays at Stober's, Wednesday at Gracie's Place, Thursdays at Mumbai, Fridays at ENSO's (expanded to three nights), Second Sunday at Stober's and much more, with plenty of one-off surprise jams at pubs, coffee shops, galleries and, for all we know, Board of Water & Light substations all over town. Promotion and support from Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan, a new jazz organization, helped spread the word and seed the scene. Such organizations come and go, but from the looks of this well-organized, broad-based group, it looks like JAMM will stick.
Although the MSU Jazz Vocal department folded its tent this year, the program's top prof and guiding spirit, Sunny Wilkinson, was more in view than ever, including a symphonic celebration with the Lansing Symphony.
More big stars came to town for April's Jazz Spectacular at MSU, owing to the pull of Jazz Studies chief Rodney Whitaker. The roster included sax legend Jimmy Heath, trumpet star Jeremy Pelt, and young sax phenomenon Grace Kelly. The pace hardly slowed in summer, with two fine jazz festivals: East Lansing's Summer Solstice festival in June (Kelly came back to astound the older folks) and Old Town Jazz Fest in August, highlighted by an earthy and ethereal set from Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell.
Classical music, from symphonic to vocal to chamber music, was no less aglow in 2011. The Lansing Symphony maintained a five-year blush of passion under maestro Timothy Muffitt, including a sublime collaboration with visiting pianist Anton Nel (two Ravel concertos in one night) and a stunning Ginastera harp concerto with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. The symphony's chamber series and its Old Town doppelganger, Absolute Music, stayed strong and inventive.
Although the Vienna Symphony invaded the Wharton Center with the Eroica Trio for a memorable large-scale thrill in September, top classical stars don't make it to town as often as they used to. That hardly mattered, though, with a constant stream of recitals by MSU's top instrumentalists and vocalists, from flutist Richard Sherman to the Verdehr Trio to soprano Molly Filmore, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Philip Glass's "Satyagraha" in September. (The high-def simulcast in Lansing drew over 50 people, despite some challenging music.)
But Lansing's biggest story in music in 2011 came from the world of opera. Just as Rodney Whitaker helps draw stars like Wynton Marsalis or Jimmy Heath to Lansing, opera director Melanie Helton and her superb opera program lured one of the country's hottest composers to town for the most ambitious MSU production yet, Ricky Ian Gordon's four-hour "The Grapes of Wrath." It was only the fifth production of the opera in the United States, and the student company served up a wrenching, lyrical triumph. The convergence of a brilliant, world-class composer, Helton's passionate and talented young singers, and the opera's painful relevance to America's latest economic crash made for an unforgettable, big-city, pinch-me cultural high in a town that gets more than its share.