The hammer and how to swing it

By Lawrence Cosentino

Symphony nails season shut with Chopin and Beethoven

Maybe it’s just baseball fever, but there was something
clean and mighty, something Hank Aaron-like, about the way the Lansing Symphony
Orchestra and guest piano soloist Ivan Moshchuk got down to business at the
symphony’s season closer Tuesday night.

They could have fussed, spat tobacco and scratched
themselves if they’d wanted to; the hyper-expressive music on Tuesday’s slate
offered plenty of opportunities for that. But Moshchuk, 19 years old, played
Chopin’s second piano concerto with such clarity and fluidity the piano seemed
to disappear.

We’re told the piano is a big box of hammers — a percussion
instrument — but Moshchuk played it as if it were a prism and his fingers were
beams. The notes were there, crisp and clean, but utterly thunkless.

5264389564aa815ab6faf7.jpgAs one of two pianists designated as a Gilmore Young Artist this year by the prestigious
Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, Moshchuk is on a heady victory lap of recitals and
concerts this spring, but he doesn’t act like it. Tuesday night, he might as
well have been alone in his room, communing with music he clearly loves. He
wasn’t out to conquer or charm, and that brought the audience even closer to

Not content with dissolving his own ego, Moshchuk also
managed to distill Chopin’s romantic self-absorption into a crystalline chain
of emotional logic. Chopin puts up a tough front — he’ll throw in a few stern
chords now and then, just to command your respect — but there’s a wet,
undulating udder under his music most pianists can’t resist milking.

Moshchuk didn’t go for wet. Instead, he sprinkled rosin on
the floor and turned the concerto’s virtuosic runs and loops into a lean, light
ballet. He played out enough line for the more languorous passages, but always
kept the chain of logic taut. The disciplined emotion paid off in audience
attentiveness. Toward the end of the slow movement, Moshcuk sprinkled a few
notes down, like snowflakes on a crisp December morning, and the effect was so
beautiful nobody in the hall dared to breathe, let alone cough.

The evening’s opener, “Too Hot Toccata” by Aaron Kernis, is
one of those post-modern bon-bons that fuse a mouthful of eclectic flavors into
a ball, the way candy makers do these days. (White chocolate jalapeno wasabi
almond M&Ms, anyone?) In this case, you get a sweet shell of pretty
melodies, a second layer of chewy fugues, assorted licks of artificial jazz,
and — surprise! — a sourball core of dissonant angst. Muffitt churned through
it all with dynamism and panache, overture style, leaving little trace except
for a feeling of relief that there is no full-length opera or musical to expand
on such jittery, lightweight material.

“Lightweight” is not a word often linked with Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony, the evening and season closer.

Never mind Chopin — here is classical music’s biggest
milking opportunity, a mammoth-sized cow with a blimp for an udder. Every
phrase is fraught with opportunities to hold a note longer, shake an extra
furious jowl, ratchet up the bombast.

Muffitt never took the bait.

He genuinely loves to restore a familiar masterwork to its
original glory, and he does it honestly — not by layering his own coat of
paint, just to make a mark, but by rolling up his sleeves and scouring down to
bare wood.

It doesn’t hurt that Muffitt is a devoted fan of Beethoven’s
teacher, Haydn, and therefore is uniquely capable of finding the classical,
dance-centered poise inside Beethoven’s stormy, personal music.

The Fifth’s famous opening movement rippled, pounded, raged
and breathed with a palpable humanity. All the way through, the brass section
has to trade “Da-da-da-doms” with the strings, and that’s a lot of potentially
disastrous exposure, but they came through with absolute precision and, if anything,
almost too much vigor.

There comes a point in this symphony where I find myself
wondering what it’s all about — usually during the processional march in the
second movement.

The ceremony is noble and pleasing to the ear, but there’s a
scary imperial boot in there. Maybe the last movement, with its earthier and
more spontaneous eruptions, is meant to eclipse the might of kings and emperors
by asserting the newfound power of the artist.

Then again – nah. As Muffitt and the LSO rolled out the last
movement, building wave after wave of mighty momentum, I floated out of my body
and saw a better answer, written high on the white pillars of the Wharton
Center, as clearly as the sponsors of this evening’s concert: This music isn’t
about anything but itself. It’s about the orchestra being a big hammer and
Beethoven’s Fifth being a big nail. Sure, orchestras can play Ravel or Bach,
the same way you can use a hammer to stir soup or play pool. But Tuesday night,
at least, it was clear that Beethoven is the sweet spot, the strike zone, of
symphonic music, where every slot fits into every tab, all cylinders are
firing, and nothing goes to waste. It’s where form and content fuse into a
great big kick in the ass and no other music will ever do.

I’m sure the feeling will pass before the next season