March 14 2012 12:00 AM

Symphony unleashes two juggernauts and a fawn

    Saturday’s Lansing Symphony concert featured the most highly anticipated orchestra-and-soloist tandem of the 2011-´12 season, French pianist Philippe Bianconi’s energetic go at Johannes Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. Would the collision of a top pianist and a mighty music make for a memorable night?

    Tune in slightly later, masticators of high culture. I turn first, in case I die and transfigure, to the second work on Saturday’s Lansing Symphony slate, for it was truly a mind-blower.

    Maestro Timothy Muffitt and the crew outdid themselves in sheer sweep and grandeur, all but nailing Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration,” to the gates of Heaven.

    This orchestra seems to thrive on big challenges, as recent Bruckner and Mahler blockbusters have shown. This crew works well with a large canvas and plenty of space to layer sound upon sound. The slow, cosmic wheeling of Strauss’ meditation on death was riveting from the start, when a growling contrabassoon began to vibrate from the depths. The buildup was both excruciating and ecstatic, but in due time, supernovae of shimmering strings and brass gilded my cochlea and fused my eyeballs into diamonds.

    Muffitt doesn’t draw attention to himself on the podium, but when he presides over large scale music like this, his granitic resolve and dignified athleticism make him a joy to watch. Stretching his arms what seemed like several yards outside of his tuxedo, he coaxed and pulled a Herculean density of sound out of his legions. The final build-up, a slowly ascending stairway of huge chords, climbed to blinding summits of beauty that ought to be forbidden to mere mortals.

    So what happens after you’ve climbed the stairway to heaven? The Brahms Second had a lot to live up to, even after the cosmic force of Strauss dissipated into an orgy of Toblerone and coffee at intermission.

    Usually, Muffitt has a firm but diplomatic way of giving his guests their head without letting them forget whose roof they’re under. 

    This time, the dynamic between maestro and soloist was a bit different. There was a slight, but not unwelcome, tension in the marriage. Through the epic storms of the first two movements, Bianconi and Muffitt were on the same page, but not always in the same paragraph. Bianconi was reading ahead; Muffitt was savoring.

    It was hard to read Bianconi at first, by demeanor or sound. He looked tense and his tone was hard, verging on brittle, like a bottle pinging as it rolls down the sidewalk. He was almost too firmly plugged into the music, as if he lacked the musical equivalent of a ground wire or a surge suppressor. He kept rushing onward, a hair ahead of Muffitt and the orchestra, but never so far as to break the thread that bound them together.

    As it happened, the tension dovetailed with the music’s inherent energy. At the end of the first movement, the piano makes some extra ominous rumbles, as if it’s thinking of jumping off the train entirely. Bianconi made it a genuine relief when he seemed to give up the idea and go back to the melody like a team player.

    The Big Statements of the first two movements having been made, maestro and soloist seemed to relax into each other for the achingly lovely slow movement. They fell into a deep-breathing rapport and locked in for the rest of the night. After the interval of cushiony languor, they got to their feet, still glowing with warm rapport, and melded into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the high play of the last movement. Orchestra and pianist traded off melodies and finished each other’s phrases so smoothly listeners were grinning in the galleries.

    The omission of over-played, overloud overtures is a welcome trend in recent Lansing Symphony concerts. This season, Muffitt has already used Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedrals,” David Diamond’s Rounds for Orchestra and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” to give the audience a gentle but substantial nudge into concert land. After all, since when did the sun come up like a tromping band of toreadors or a Soviet missile parade?

    This time, the wake-up whisper was Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” played with all of its elusive wisps and flutterings in high definition. On the radio or on record, you hear the violins float along, playing a watercolor-soft melody, and wonder: What’s holding that thing up? Even on a good sound system, the support from the winds sounds like a vague “oodly, oodly, ahh.”

    The French Impressionists mixed orchestral colors like Monet worked pigments. You have to see those hay stacks and lily ponds in person to appreciate the magic, and the same goes for the music. Saturday, you could trace the complicated harmonic updrafts supporting that drifting melody, and watch the musicians create it — unless your eyes were closed in reverie.