May 15 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony, O'Riley rile up Rachmaninoff, kill off Juliet


Leo Tolstoy was quite a bastard — check out his wife’s diary for some hair-raising stories — but he made a good point now and then. He once asked arch-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, with typical cruelty, “Is such music needed by anyone?”

Maybe I could have done something more useful Thursday night than listen in louche languor to the Lansing Symphony play Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto and look languidly through my lorgnette at the exertions of guest pianist Christopher O’Riley. No doubt Tolstoy would have preferred that I mow hay or chop wood.

Sadly, I missed the chance to find meaning in simple toil, but I didn’t miss two miracles, one minor and one major. The minor one is personal. The music of Rachmaninoff, so self-satisfied, so redolent of aristocratic Russia, so ripe for Bugs Bunny to disrupt by banging a giant hammer on top of a band shell, has always seemed impossibly remote to me. The hard-working, no-nonsense team of O’Riley and Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt made it feel like a part of my own experience. 

Their tightly woven performance left no space for ironic distance. O’Riley’s piano zig-zagged through dense orchestral tapestry like a universal master thread, the one that holds your underwear up. They didn’t camp up Rachmaninoff’s famous melodies or put on airs. These folks were seriously at work. 

When O’Riley chiseled intently at an intricate melody or set of ornamentations, without looking up, it felt like he was turning a lathe and Muffitt had thrown the door open on a humming workshop. The chips almost flew in your face and you had to sit up straight to catch all the action. 

They took the first and last movements almost too fast, not to show off, but to keep the workmanship airtight. In the last movement, the interplay between O’Riley and the orchestra was almost casually rapid-fire, like an excited café conversation. The middle movement, by contrast, was a bucolic idyll, a romantic picnic in a churchyard with black bread, vodka and an onion dome in the distance. Far from decadent, it was a positively Tolstoyan performance. 

All the while, the musicians’ demeanor seemed to say, “If you’re amazed, fine, but that was not our main intention. We are merely doing our job.” Do we need this music? Shakespeare, another artist Tolstoy loved to disrespect, evaded the question well: “Oh, reason not the need.”

Sex and blood, vanity and vendettas — the urges and oozings of the human mess flood Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet is something else entirely. Crisp, clear, and bright, the music that opened Thursday’s concert was an anti-mess, a gripping distillation of tragedy into vivid orchestral lines and forms. 

As the colors materialized and dissipated, I thought many times of abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s bold wedges, spheres and lines. 

To reflect the play’s tragic ending, Muffitt put together an epic suite, longer than most of Prokofiev’s own symphonies. The big moments were suitably crushing —more on that in a minute — but nobody phoned anything in. The briefest sections were lovingly shaped and cemented to the overall logic of the suite. 

The major miracle of Thursday night was a small-town performance of Prokofiev’s masterpiece that overmatched any recording I’m aware of, for power, precision and well-applied restraint. 

“Young Juliet” sounded brisk and spacious, not fey and cloying, as it often does. “Masques,” a latter-day minuet steeped in the classical elegance of Haydn, had an exquisite edge of vinegar — a taste of court intrigue. The music written for the famous balcony scene was lovely, but frosted with ironic distance. These kids were young and in love, but they were living in a bubble.

That’s where the crushing came in. The music opens with a massive, slow-decaying blast of dissonance, like a rotten exploding whale — early warning that this music is not for the faint of heart. The famous “Montagues and Capulets” theme (heard most recently in these parts as the eternally looping soundtrack to that 3-D movie in the basement of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum) lurched across the stage like a medieval siege tower, lubricated by John Nichol’s supple saxophone. For the ballet’s brutal yet intricate climax, “Death of Tybalt,” Muffitt summoned up thunderheads that would make Thor envious. I forgot to worry about that movement’s violin freak-out, which spurts suddenly at about a billion notes per second, until it was over and I realized I had just heard the Lansing Symphony violin section do the impossible, without a single slip that I could hear. 

Just as I was recovering from that, another whale exploded, bigger than the first. Tybalt was definitely dead. The composer ended his own suite there, but Muffitt wisely appended Prokofiev’s chilling music for the death of Juliet. 

In the final moments, the music seemed to shimmer like a memory as Juliet’s life tick-tocked away and her vital signs flatlined into one glassy note. When it was over, the hall stayed silent for an extra few seconds.