There is no elevator to the top of Ralph Votapek. You have to take the stairs to get to the summit. But once you get there, the view is panoramic, the air is clean, and you feel like you’re on top of the world.
Friday night, the Lansing Symphony teamed up with MSU’s piano monument and artist-in-residence for 36 years to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Votapek’s win in the first Van Cliburn competition in 1962.
Votapek is old school. He doesn’t ingratiate, camp it up, weep over the keys or exhibit any of the extra-musical tics and tricks that make a so-so performance seem deeper than it is. He doesn’t stoop to conquer — he just conquers. You climb to his level, the same way you would approach a sequoia or a skyscraper.
With almost total success, he reprised the two big concertos he played 50 years ago, Beethoven’s Fourth and Prokofiev’s Third.
Lansing Symphony conductor Timothy Muffitt’s big secret — and sorry for blowing it, maestro — is that despite his boyish charm and approachable approach, he’s just as old school as Votapek. Muffitt is the genial park ranger who hands you a cookie and a Boy Ranger badge and then marches you to the top of a glacier.
Friday night’s cookie was “Millennium Canons,” a formless wad of major-chord frosting and tinkly sprinkles by postmodern composer Kevin Puts. The sudden sugar overload made “The Star-Spangled Banner,” led spiritedly by Muffitt at the start of the evening, sound as stern as Mussorgsky.
When the climb to Votapek finally began, the foothills didn’t look promising. Muffitt usually excels at bringing out the throb in any kind of music, but as Beethoven’s circuitous first movement unfolded, he and Votapek couldn’t seem find a heartbeat. Consequently, Votapek’s precise, clean articulation gave an impression of diffidence, even calculation.
All that changed dramatically in the slow movement, when the cellos and basses began to snort and shamble around the piano like grizzly bears. In response, Votapek ventured a series of tremulous, quiet phrases, as if he were trying to make peace with doom.
Votapek’s startling fragility drew the audience close for the first time in the evening. The shared vulnerability lubricated the way toward a joyful finale that came almost as a physical relief.
Then came the apotheosis of Ralph Votapek. The pounding, mechanistic rhythms and toothy, Gershwin-esque glitz of Prokofiev’s third concerto seemed to sum up the energy of the 20th century. The music is a glorious mashup of high Art Deco and Russian Constructivism, Busby Berkeley let loose in a tractor factory. And Votapek is above all a 20th century man, a shark in a black shirt and trousers, known for decades as a definitive Gershwin interpreter. In this world, his ultra-clean articulation and cool agility are supreme assets.
The closest Votapek came to losing that cool was at the end of one stupendous run to the high end of the keyboard, when he leaned so far to his right from sheer momentum that he almost tipped over.
The rest of the time, he was working almost too fast to follow, but Muffitt and the crew stuck with him nearly every second. Many concertos pit the soloist “against” the orchestra, but Prokofiev’s Third is a continuously self-orchestrating piano masterpiece. Many times, the violins or woodwinds had to dance in lightning lockstep with the pianist, pulling off feats of timing that boggled the mind.
After a while, the sheer force of the performance scotched my feeble attempts to track technical feats. A couple of minutes into the finale, everybody really went for broke, in a way you don’t expect 80-odd sober people with clothes on to do. When a wild new theme swept like a gale over the ground-based, bouncy main melody, soloist and orchestra summoned up an overwhelming vortex of sound. Goosebumps don’t lie. I had a vision of Votapek, on a silver platform atop the Chrysler Building, crowned by architectural spikes and scallops, pierced by pink stripes of sunset, spinning into the blue.
Needless to say, Votapek’s hometown audience went nuts. Muffitt slyly waved his arm from soloist to the audience and back, as if to say, “Don’t you want more?” He’d done plenty already, but he chose an encore proportionate in difficulty to his two-concerto feat. After settling back on the bench, he switched the blender from “pulverize” to “liquefy” to wade into Maurice Ravel’s “Jeaux d’eau,” (“Play of Water”), a fabulous fountain of notes that merged and swirled and bubbled until everyone in the hall was thoroughly cleansed.