Wooed, wowed and overwhelmed

By Lawrence Cosentino

Lansing Symphony, violinist Philippe Quint go for the jugular in first concert of 2012

Imagine two contrasting romantic scenes. In the first, a beautiful person comes into sudden view, coils around you and bite-kisses your lower lip without mercy for about 17 minutes. In the second, you spot a breathtaking beauty under a waterfall in the woods, sit down and swoon quietly on a crag for an hour, unobserved.

What is more delicious: a blatant seduction or a private discovery? Why pick? At Saturday night’s Lansing Symphony concert, the audience got both kinds of love, along with some weirdly snaky foreplay.

This was not a frivolous evening. From the start, the music had an air of exotic menace, verging on voluptuous sadism. Instead of blasting out with an overture, music director Timothy Muffitt seemed to raise a tiny door and let the notes slither into the hall on their own. High, glassy tones and low, earthy murmurs brought the tropics into our zone of dirty snow in an insinuating performance of Ottorino Respighi’s rarely heard gem, “Brazilian Impressions.” After a slightly shaky start, the sections of the orchestra dovetailed into a delicate mosaic of dance fragments and rippling washes of tone. The string section, sounding fuller and lusher than ever, provided rich undergrowth, while the brass sent shafts of light through the velvety tangles. To paint a sonic portrait of a reptile house near São Paolo, Brazil, the woodwinds morphed eerily into snakes, but nobody overdid the schtick. Muffitt’s disciplined reading preserved a hermetic atmosphere of mystery and coiled-up power.

The question remained: Would there be an uncoiling? Need you ask? The red slash running down guest violinist Philippe Quint’s throat was a tipoff that there would be no dozing in the seats. Quint took the stage with the insouciant air of a young hussar, clad in satiny Russian Mafia-black from head to toe, except for a blood-red necktie. The atmosphere was already tense when Muffitt shot a quick runner-on-third look at Quint and they proceeded to go straight for the jugular. John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Chaconne is based on a recurring, up-up-up-and-up theme that’s meant to screw your emotions tighter and tighter. With each turn of the melodic ratchet, Quint’s flamboyant tango with the orchestra grew more compelling, skirting the edge of melodrama but never falling in. It helped that Quint isn’t much of a vibrato man. He cut a bold, clean incision straight through every note, as if he were wielding a scalpel, not a 1723 Stradivari axe. About two-thirds into the chaconne, after an unbearable buildup of tension, a giant blast of orchestral sound laid everything to waste. Right away, Quint began to pluck the fateful four notes, alone, with redoubled ferocity, as if to rebuild the whole universe with his bare knuckles. Then his bow came back down on the violin, his hair got irretrievably mussed (uh-oh) and everything really hit the fan.

After all that wowing and wooing, the LSO’s frictionless, fabulous performance of Brahms’ First Symphony offered a completely different form of seduction. From start to finish, Muffitt and the orchestra seemed completely wrapped in Brahms’s seamless web of spinning, shimmering melodies. They nailed the doom-laden pounding of the symphony’s first minute, like a doctor coming down the hall with a bad diagnosis, with as much conviction as any top-notch recording I’ve ever heard. Monumental, colliding slabs of sound played out a metaphysical drama that resolves with a conciliatory, valedictory fanfare in the last movement — first played nobly, by principal horn Janine Gaboury, for the catch in the throat, then tenderly, by principal flute Richard Sherman, for the full-on sob. When Gaboury’s horn fused with the sweet violin of concertmaster Seunghee Lee for an unutterably beautiful duet, the hall was swept with the sort of apotheosis only Brahms can conjure. The world simply vanished and was replaced by something better, at least for a minute. Never much for showing off, Muffitt was even more of a human tuning fork than usual, maintaining the energy of the longer passages by making slow double circles, like infinity signs, with his arms. (He was conducting this complex, long symphony completely from his head, without a score.) I couldn’t shake the feeling that the musicians would have sat there and played this thing whether there was anyone around to bear witness or not.