Mozart madness

By Lawrence Cosentino

Amadeus gets his day in LSO concert

It’s taken Lansing Symphony maestro Tim Muffitt almost four years to get around to devoting a whole night to one composer, and he sounds ready.

“There should be a special reason,” Muffitt said. “This is one.”

The big beast at Saturday’s feast is Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, a rippling fusion of craft and beauty that defies verbal analysis.

Oh, they’ve tried. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the 40 fleeting minutes of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, later dubbed “Jupiter” for reasons endlessly debated but never established for sure in those hundreds of books and articles.

Lounging on the couch in his 1979 film “Manhattan,” Woody Allen listed the “Jupiter” symphony among his handful of reasons to be alive, along with Mariel Hemingway’s face, Cezanne’s fruit and Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.”

Muffitt wanted to give his Lansing legions a crack at it for years, but first he had to resolve a programming dilemma.

He knew the “Jupiter” would have to go at the end of the concert, if only because nothing short of Jesus and Elvis juggling moon rocks on a unicorn could follow. On the other hand, Muffitt didn’t want to start the night with romantic or modern music written after Mozart’s time.

The only answer to this conundrum was complete Mozart immersion. Muffitt hopes an undiluted 18th-century context will give the music a new sting.

“We’ve got all this experience with styles of music that picked up where Symphony 41 left off,” Muffitt said. “If you hear the ‘Jupiter’ after music that owes all of its existence to it, you miss the unprecedented intensity that Mozart unleashed.”

The rest of the music fell into place like so many Jovian moons. With its scowling, cape-flinging air of drama, the overture to “Don Giovanni” makes a perfect bookend for the big Symphony 41.

“It sets the tone that Mozart is pushing the boundaries of 18th-century music,” Muffitt said.

An earlier Mozart symphony, No. 25, is the evening’s cream center, albeit with minor-key cream. Muffitt called it “the perfect palate cleanser.”

“It’s simpler, not as ornate,” he said. “But you see little tidbits of the crowning glory of Symphony 41 — his use of counterpoint and fugato.”

For the uninitiated, “fugato” is the art of making an orchestra play a melody right side up, upside down, sideways and diagonally, all at once, until your ears turn cinnamon and your eyes water. Nowhere in music is this art on more vivid display than in the finale of the “Jupiter” symphony.

As a child, Muffitt fell in love with such Mozartian joys while learning simple piano arrangements.

“It’s a relationship that never stops,” he said.

When Peter Schaffer’s play and movie “Amadeus” took liberties with details of Mozart’s life, he didn’t mind.

“What I love about that movie is that it was so passionate about Mozart’s work,” Muffitt said. In the maestro’s favorite scene, Mozart’s rival, Salieri, looks through a pile of musical scores left after Mozart’s death. The music rushes by on the soundtrack as the dumbstruck Salieri gapes at one masterpiece after another.

Muffitt can relate. “They just slip out of his hands and fall on the floor,” he said. “You saw the genius and the beauty of this music through his eyes.”

The “Jupiter” symphony opens with a salvo of bold, whacking chords, as if the composer had just grabbed a chisel and made up his mind to carve impossible Cemetery wings out of Club marble.

Muffitt said it’s easy to be intimidated by music so subtle and complex.

“We all approach it with, ‘Are we worthy?’” he said. “But Mozart was very specific in marking out how he wanted the music to be played. And when you dig in and really start working on it, it seems like the most natural thing.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $12-45 (517) 487-5001