Back into orbit

By Lawrence Cosentino

Votapek launches Lansing Symphony season with rare two-concerto mission

In 1962, 23-year-old Ralph Votapek won the first Van Cliburn piano competition, serving a double dip knuckle crunch in a waffle cone: Beethoven’s magisterial Fourth Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s volcanic Third.

That same year, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

There was a big fuss when Glenn went back into space on the shuttle in 1998, 36 years later, though it couldn’t have taxed him much to float around in zero gravity and suck on a straw.

Friday, Votapek, 73, will almost certainly top that. Half a century after his career went into orbit, he’ll reprise both concertos on one night, fighting 1-G force every second, to kick off the Lansing Symphony’s 83rd season.

Votapek isn’t pulling his old astronaut suit out of mothballs to see if it still fits. He’s launched big payloads of music, from Gershwin to Piazzolla to Beethoven, throughout his career. (He’ll repeat Friday’s feat in Traverse City next week.) Votapek simply doesn’t want to waste anybody’s time — his own, the orchestra’s or the listener’s.

“The third is the perfect Prokofiev concerto,” he said. “At times the piano has to fight for its life, because it’s a big orchestra. I know the audience is not going to be bored.”

If he wanted to pull a stunt, he could have played a ego-inflating Chopin concerto and left the orchestra members feeling like cleaner birds in a crocodile’s mouth. But Votapek doesn’t play Chopin with “major” orchestras, including Lansing’s.

“Even with a good middle-sized orchestra, you have the feeling [the musicians] wish they were doing something else,” he said. Not so with Beethoven and Prokofiev. “I feel good playing these two concertos with a good orchestra, because they have a lot to do. The winds play an important part in the Beethoven.”

Votapek is the first to admit he’s not 23 any more, but he shrugged off the stamina issue.

“When you give a solo recital you’re on stage the whole program, so this isn’t that much different.”

Since his Van Cliburn triumph in 1962, Votapek has played all over the world and appeared with every major world orchestra, including 16 gigs with the Chicago Symphony. He’s a major attraction in South America, where he barnstorms through Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Montevideo (where he did the Beethoven Fourth last year) every year or so.

The 1990s and 2000s brought a fresh wave of recordings, including scintillating readings of music by Latin composers. An acclaimed 2010 disc of Schubert sonatas on the Blue Griffin label “has further documented his seemingly undiminished talent,” a critic wrote on the AllMusic Web site. (Seemingly? Was he worried Votapek hired a stunt double?)

Votapek still plays grueling recitals and chamber gigs, even though he’s officially retired and is now a professor emeritus of music at Michigan State, where he’s been an artist in residence 36 years.

He has played with the Lansing Symphony about a dozen times, going back to 1969, but this will be his first appearance with the symphony in seven years. When maestro Timothy Muffitt did his tryout concert in fall 2005, Votapek was on hand to play the Schumann piano concerto.

“It wasn’t the best Schumann I ever played, but I felt very at ease with [Muffitt],” Votapek said, with typical aversion to self-hype. “I’m glad he’s got the job.”

The 50th anniversary of the Van Cliburn win gave Muffitt a chance to really go into orbit with Votapek. “He’s been very giving of himself, but we can’t ever lose track of the fact that this is a world class pianist and we’re fortunate to have him,” Muffitt commented.

Far from coasting on local good will, Votapek said he plans to prepare more seriously than usual for Friday’s gig.

“I know half the orchestra,” he said. “I have to live with myself. You play someplace else, you leave town the next day.”

Votapek learned the Prokofiev Third in 1962, about six months before the Cliburn competition, after catching the eye of Arthur Fiedler, silver-maned celebrity maestro of the Boston Pops.

Fiedler enjoyed showcasing young soloists. Votapek, who looks boyish to this day, worked like a honky-tonk man for Fiedler, playing the Prokofiev Third six times in six nights — invaluable practice with the Cliburn competition looming in three months. He got $75 a night and crashed at the YMCA, two blocks away from Symphony Hall.

“There’s no better experience,” he recalled. “It spoiled you because the Boston Pops is basically the Boston Symphony, and Symphony Hall is one of the world’s great halls. After that, most orchestras seemed lesser by comparison.”

Muffitt got lucky when he programmed the only Votapek-less music on Friday’s slate, the glittering, festive “Millennium Canons” by New York-based composer Kevin Puts. Last year, Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music his opera, “Silent Night,” about a Christmas cease-fire on the Belgian front in World War I. Puts is just the kind of contemporary composer Muffitt likes to showcase — unafraid of narrative in music, aware of the broader culture. (Puts’s Third Symphony, “Vespertine,” was inspired by the ecstatic Icelandic belter Björk.) To give the concert even more of a local spin, Puts is from Alma, Michigan. Think stratospherically, listen locally.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Ralph Votapek, piano
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14.
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall
(517) 487-5001