Jan. 11 2012 12:00 AM

LSO delivers sweet Saint-Saens, bipolar Beethoven


Bright-eyed in the morning, heavy-lidded in the afternoon, seeing double by midnight: the Lansing Symphony gave us an eventful day in the life at Saturday night’s MasterWorks concert, and they did it in two hours.

If we had known we’d be banging our heads into the wall with Beethoven by night’s end, we may not have embarked on the journey with such good cheer, but maestro Timothy Muffitt has a knack for avoiding cliché overtures and respectfully opening your ears. It was a pleasure to wake up and smell “Rounds for String Orchestra,” an intricate, caffeinated romp by American composer David Diamond. The string section, once the symphony’s chronic problem district, got a rare chance to shine, tripping nimbly through Diamond’s polyphonic swirls, with a burst or two of peppery harmonies that seemed to bypass the auditory organs and go straight up the olfactory ones. 

When morning calisthenics were over, an afternoon-ish reverie set in with the second cello concerto of French composer Camille Saint-Saens. The music is scaled modestly, with a modest level of tension to match, suggesting something tamer than a tempest in something larger than a teapot. (A cloudburst in a closet? A quarrel in a Mini Cooper?) Guest cellist Felix Wang, primarily a chamber musician, was the perfect man for this neither-larger-nor-smaller-than-life job. His virtuoso passages were workmanlike, but he really warmed up at the concerto’s melodic center. On CD, romantic cello music can feel about as warm as a video of a roaring fireplace; Wang’s rich tone took on a piercing, ember-like glow that can only be felt at a live performance. If a nurse had wheeled around the Wharton Center and taken everyone’s blood pressure, the results would have enrolled us all into the world’s most exclusive insurance plan.

And the coverage would have come in handy, because it was time for the evening’s regularly scheduled medical emergency  — Beethoven’s bipolar “Eroica” Symphony.

The performance vividly evoked a watershed cultural moment when classical music began to crack into the shattered mirror of modernity. Muffitt and the crew played Beethoven’s refined ditties with straight-faced delicacy, all curtsies and lace, refusing to telegraph the bearish growls, moody digressions and bellicose outbursts to come.

It wasn’t a perfect performance. Several times, one section of the orchestra began to outrace another section, opening a hairline crack in the landscape, but Muffitt always managed to fuse it shut with his heat vision within a second or two. 

Time and again, the music opened up like bomb bay doors in the parquet floor of the Enlightenment, offering glimpses of 20th-century wonders and anti-wonders, from Jackson Pollock splattering paint on canvas to dictators consigning millions to flames. That’s what went through my mind, anyway, every time Muffitt tore up a flowery melody by the roots and shook the dirt all over the auditorium, or pulled the orchestra’s mouth open like a mad dentist, giving voice to dark new harmonies.

The first movement has a series of “stuck” chords that bang away, over and over, until the strings shrug them off with an obliviously delicate flourish. Both the hammering and the flourish got their due. How can such disturbing polarities, piled one on top of another for the better part of an hour, be reconciled? Only, perhaps, by taking joy in musical forms themselves, especially the finale’s magisterial fugue, played exuberantly by Muffitt and the crew. The polyphonic wind-up had the nifty side effect of bringing the concert full circle, hooking up with Diamond’s vibrant “Rounds” to roll the evening into one big affirmation of music-making.

Like the cello glow of Saint-Saens, the jerky Jekyll-and-Hyde drama of the “Eroica” hardly ever comes off on a recording, where everything is equalized by electronic distance. This music deserves to live. It isn’t a sterile artifact. It still cuts to the bone. Are we gods or monsters, jewels of divine creation or bags of angry guts? To watch and hear 60-odd musicians throw themselves into this vortex, mistakes and all, was to experience a pageant and a play, a war and a symposium, a continuously breaking fever, in addition to a concert. 

Despite the meticulous, passionate performance, the audience was left with a deep sense of mystery, and that’s the surest sign that the musicians did their job.