Nov. 6 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony and MSU choirs roll out three Viennese visionaries

Wednesday, Nov. 6 — People who are tempted to come 10 minutes late to Saturday’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert to avoid nine minutes of exposure to 12-tone music need to spend five minutes with music director Timothy Muffitt.

To Muffitt’s ear, Anton Webern’s finely wrought Symphony, Op. 21, is right in line with the evening’s big works, the bumptious Beethoven Eighth and the magisterial Mozart Requiem.

“This work is a classic,” Muffitt said. “Undisputed. It's not like we pulled this out of somebody's house in Hoboken. It's an important representation of musical expression.”

Nevertheless, few people ever expected the name of Webern to turn up on a Lansing Symphony slate, if only for nine minutes. The concert is billed as “Beethoven and Mozart,” but let the two titans powder their wigs in the lobby. The Webern infiltration (with apologies to Robert Ludlum) is a new thing in Lansing and it’s worth a closer look.

Without cracking a textbook, let’s say that 12-tone music leaves behind familiar lines of melody, along with the repetitions of notes and phrases that make Beethoven’s Fifth and “Louie Louie” so hummable. It kerfluffs the notes of the scale apart, like a dozen roses, into a non-repeating series of elegant arrangements.

That’s a nice way to put it. Some folks take to their heels and flee back to Hoboken at the mere mention of Webern or his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who invented the technique, even though it’s been around for over a century.

Muffitt, the master of the gentle stretch, wants to nudge us toward 12-tone literacy. He thinks he’s found the right work and the right context.

“I think our audience wants to know what's out there,” he said. “We have a very sophisticated audience.”

Listeners expecting the music to go up, down and sideways for no discernible reason may be surprised by the symphony’s balance, clarity and logic.

“Webern's musical creative process is entirely one of distillation — taking something called a symphony and it's only nine minutes long, distilling the essence of music into just a handful of basic utterances,” Muffitt said.

It’s classicism to the hilt, if you think of classicism as stripping away an accumulation of Baroque curlicues and ornaments.

So it turns out that the big guns on the program, Beethoven and Mozart, have more in common with Webern than getting behind in their rent while living in Vienna.

“Each of these composers took a tradition handed to them and came up with a radical new answer to what is music,” Muffitt said. “They all dealt with some misunderstanding and head-scratching from the audience, even Mozart.”

Muffitt admitted that Webern was probably the most radical for his era. “Here we are, 100 years later, and it still has a remarkably fresh and original sound to it,” he said.

You don’t normally think of Beethoven as comic relief, but his rollicking Eighth Symphony may qualify, coming as it does after the austere Webern.

“We all have that image of Beethoven with a scowl on his face,” Muffitt said. “It's hard to imagine that he had a sense of humor, but he did.”

The second movement may not set you on a roar, but it probably will make you feel bouncy.

“It's not like laugh out loud humor, but it grows out of the tradition of Haydn,” Muffitt said. “The classical composers, when they wrote a symphony, weren't necessarily out to express some deep, profound personal feeling.”

The taut little Eighth may have been a relief to Beethoven himself, coming as it did between work on monsters like the Seventh and Ninth.

“The Eighth was his favorite among all his symphonies, which I love, because I feel that there isn't a single note out of place,” Muffitt said.

To conjure the apses, vaults and arches of Mozart’s Requiem inside the Wharton Center, four vocal soloists and the massed choirs of the MSU Choral Union, University Chorale and State Singers will fill the stage.

Many people associate the Requiem the deathbed drama milked so shamelessly in the film “Amadeus.” For Muffitt, the unfinished masterpiece is a tantalizing window on the road Mozart might have taken had he lived longer than his cruelly short 35 years. He probably wasn’t headed toward 12-tone music, but there’s clear evidence he was searching for something new — by way of something old.

“If you look at all the late works, ‘The Magic Flute,’ the last three symphonies and the Requiem, he began to develop a real fascination with the music of Bach,” Muffitt said. “We start to hear more of a harkening back to some techniques of he Baroque, fugal passages and imitative passages. So we probably would have heard an increasing complexity in his music. We have no way of knowing, but that seems to be the trajectory he was taking in his last year.”

Several composers tried to finish Mozart’s Requiem, but Muffitt went straight for the most often heard version, the one by Mozart’s student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

“They were in on it together,” Muffitt said. “Mozart explained to him how he wanted it. This is the closest to authenticity. It's at least an authentic statement of the era, the time and the place.”

It’s also the version that takes the fewest liberties.

“Süssmayr was smart and re-used music Mozart had actually written to finish the Requiem, and that helps with its sense of focus,” Muffitt said.

I suggested that Süssmayr’s use of earlier material to grow new music was like a skin graft on a burn victim, but Muffitt quickly corrected me.

“It's more of a cloning thing, though, because the tissue remains in the original area and we have the same tissue in another part,” he said.

Of course it is. That’s one of the nice things about music — it doesn’t strip your flesh away. Not even Webern’s.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

University Chorale, MSU Choral Union, State Singers

8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall


(517) 487-5001