Lansing Symphony Orchestra pulls out the stops in new season
Sunday, May 1 -- Steady on the podium, gentle in person, Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt is the last person you’d cast as a mad organist.
But Muffitt and his legions are sounding mighty chords in next year’s season, which was announced today.
For the first time in Muffitt’s six-year tenure as music director, the orchestra will unleash a tower of sound from Austrian arch-Romantic Anton Bruckner (4th Symphony, Nov. 5) and a full blast of genius from Russian Igor Stravinsky (“Petrouchka,” May 10).
For a grace note amid the tumult, a pops concert Oct. 21 will give East Lansing jazz vocalist Sunny Wilkinson a long-awaited chance to romp through the American songbook with Muffitt and a full symphony orchestra.
The subscription series is just about as meaty as they come. Call it a crescendo, or a twist of the ratchet, but Muffitt is pushing the envelope again.
“Every season is an opportunity for growth for everyone — for the audience the orchestra, for myself, ” he said.
Fresh music from living composers, Muffitt said, will be a part of that growth. The season will open Sept. 16 with tintinnabulations few people in Lansing have heard: “Blue Cathedral,” a delicate tone poem by brilliant American composer and Pulitzer Prize laureate Jennifer Higdon. On Feb. 24, another above-ground composer, American neo-dazzler Bruce Broughton, weighs in with something completely different — a tuba concerto, with Lansing Symphony tuba man Phil Sinder soloing.
“When was the last time you heard a tuba concerto?” Muffitt said.
When Muffitt and Sinder conspired to uncork Broughton’s colorful, bumptious brass blowout on unsuspecting locals, they passed up the usual place for tubas and orchestras to meet, a (relatively) famous concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
“We wanted to go in a different direction,” Muffitt said. “Let’s see how composers today are thinking about this instrument.”
What tops a tuba? Every night in the six-concert MasterWorks series has a huge, pull-out-the-stops centerpiece, beginning, appropriately, with the “Organ Symphony” of Camille Saint-Saens (Sept. 16). After that, it only gets bigger, with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Nov. 5), with its vast, cathedral-like spaces and blinding beams of brass.
“I think the Lansing Symphony is ready to grab ahold of this piece and sink our teeth into it,” he said. “You can’t program Bruckner with just any orchestra and just any brass section, and we clearly have the right people in the right places.”
The juggernauts roll on with the original Big Statement, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (Jan. 7), Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (Feb. 24) and the mightiest of all piano concertos, Brahms’ Second, with French star Phillipe Bianconi soloing (March 10).
Even the season’s “lesser” stuff, like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (Feb. 24), Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Sept. 16) and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (March 10), are substantial enough to anchor most subscription concerts.
When putting the season together, Muffitt said, he didn’t have an over-arching theme in mind. He was too busy with the symphony conductor’s eternal conundrum: how to shove the square peg of freshness into the well-worn circle of familiarity.
“We want to make each night special and unique, even for people who have been going to concerts their whole lives,” Muffitt said.
Looking back, Muffitt realized that two threads run through the year. For one thing, Saint-Saens, Bruckner and Franck were all organists.
“I can hear the organist’s temperament in their music,” Muffitt said.
Besides the “Organ” Symphony, Saint-Saens is also represented next season in the Cello Concerto No. 1, with Okemos native Felix Wang soloing (Jan. 7).
Muffitt also sees a strong French influence running through the season. Four concerts have French curves on the menu (Saint-Saens, Franck, Debussy and Ravel). Give Beethoven, with his heart-on-sleeve passion for the French Revolution, an honorary tricolor.
Muffitt wove all these themes together, and then some, with the season closer May 10.
Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” make a nice fairy-tale pair, but the affinity is even more organic. In fact, it’s pure math, with a French composer, Ravel, as the numerator, the Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”) as the denominator, and the ultimate cosmopolitan, Stravinsky, on the other side of the equal sign.
“The equation that led to Stravinsky’s style was the blending of French and Russian music,” Muffitt explained.
It felt right to mix French and Russian music that way.”
Thundering away with Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner is nice work if you can get it, but Muffitt’s baritone voice acquires a fond pianissimo when he talks about the pops concert with Sunny Wilkinson.
“Here’s an extraordinary talent, and we wanted to feature her here on her home turf,” Muffitt said. “She’s the real deal in the world of jazz singers.”
Muffit relishes the chance to import an international star like French pianist Phillipe Bianconi (the Brahms guy), but he really loves the idea of giving Wilkinson’s sunny muse an orchestral field of clover, right in her own backyard.
“How exciting to say we can create something like this right here, at home,” he said.