May 16 2012 12:00 AM

Pianist steals Lansing Symphony season finale

Say you are airlifted to Alaska, dropped in the tundra with a case of biscuits and a stack of touchy scientific instruments, and left in the snow to track the majestic caribou for several weeks. It’s a rare opportunity, right? So why do you feel guilty for not appreciating it more? 

Big symphonies by titans like Mahler and Sibelius evoke a similar shiver in some listeners, no matter how good the orchestra — or the biscuits — are. To take Lansing’s symphony lovers for one last spin, Thursday’s season finale offered a dread-free symphonic trip: two ripping cruises, with civilization always in view, no storms over two minutes long and a party in every port.

It didn’t make the job any easier. The two kaleidoscopic works on Thursday’s slate, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka,” shift moods and melodies drastically and thrillingly every couple of minutes or so.

With shoals at every turn, the engines purred, the wake curled from the stern and the foam bubbled at the bow as the symphony nimbly maneuvered through both masterpieces without a scrape. 

Was there a favorite? The audience seemed to think so. The first mate on the Rachmaninoff cruise, 23-year-old Gilmore pianist Charlie Albright, broke every heart on board. The theme-and-variations setup was perfect for Albright. He played every variation like a consummate actor whose pianistic skill was a mere bonus.

That was an illusion, of course. Albright’s engine room was stoked to the max with tireless dexterity, split-second timing and booming power in the low register, but his polish and poise disguised the hard work in a cloak of drama. 

When the music called for thunder, his hands coursed down like white-hot bolts onto the keys. While playing a stuffy, Victorian variation of the melody, he leaned back like a dignified matron and took everyone to finishing school. He even dared to be boring while playing a variation that evokes an endless trudge across the Russian steppe.

What can’t the man do? When one tricky variation scrambled each note of the melody into a series of indistinct ripples, he turned his hands into two purple octopi and jetted through it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Buoyed by the Albright effect, Maestro Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra meshed superbly with the soloist to milk every drop of Rachmaninoff’s show-bizzy transitions, estrogen surges, abrupt silences, sudden accelerations and what have you. The crowd wouldn’t let Albright go, giving him two standing ovations. For an encore, he played an improvised riff on Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca” with extra rumblings, polyrhythms and jostlings that sounded like Mozart being played inside a whale’s stomach.

A quick-change series of variations is one thing, but the orchestra faced trickier work when it came back after half-time. There are several brain-fold moments in Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” when two or three contrasting harlequinades, each with its own tone color and dance rhythm, happen at once. The payoff is a heady, rich stimulus lasagna no other art form, even movies, can prepare. The drawback is that if it’s not done right, the audience won’t be able to tell which musical collisions are intentional and which are not.

It’s a measure of how far the Lansing Symphony has come that the problem never even came up. The orchestra sounded slightly tentative in the early going, as if looking down to check the foot marks on the floor before a dance, but the brisk sweep and deep throb of Stravinsky’s masterpiece got into their bones pretty quickly. Muffitt managed the cinematic fade-outs, fade-ins and overlaps as masterfully as Robert Altman circa “MASH,” and hyper-exposed trumpeter Rich Illman fluttered over it all like a yellow and red banner. It was a thumping three-ring circus, a fitting topper to a season with plenty of highlights.