On and off the trail

By Lawrence Cosentino

A peek at the 2013-'14 season

Would you rather watch a Ken Burns video or be airdropped straight to Yosemite? Classical music’s perennial favorites are a lot like the national parks. The crags of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, the mesas of Mozart’s Requiem or the arches of the “Polovtsian Dances” are best experienced first hand. That’s reason enough for the Lansing Symphony to bring them alive in 2013-‘14.

But the symphony’s new season, announced this week, also has a significant off-road component.

“We’re going to step off the trail for a little bit and see what’s over there,” said returning conductor Tim Muffitt, rolling with the comparison.

Muffitt laid a lot of groundwork for the orchestra’s first excursion of the new season, which opens Sept. 13. He introduced young percussionist Lisa Pegher to Lansing audiences in 2008, with a crowd-pleasing concerto by Joseph Schwantner. Last season, he snuck in the music of Jennifer Higdon, whom he called “one of our most important living American composers,” with the tintinnabulating mini-symphony “Blue Cathedrals.” Next season he’s bringing the two together, with Pegher playing Higdon’s percussion concerto. Antonin Dvorak’s 7th Symphony, rarely heard in comparison to his hoary 9th, is also on the slate.

For Oct. 5, Muffitt put together what he called a “dream concert.” One of the world’s top violinists, Ilya Kaler, will play both Prokofiev violin concertos in one night. (Kaler and cellist Amit Peled combined for a sublime performance of the Brahms Double Concerto in Lansing in 2010.) Muffitt wanted to pair the Russian-born violinist with the über-Russian composer since the first time they worked together, on the Tchaikovsky concerto. “That was 10 years ago and now I’m finally able to make it happen,” Muffitt said.

A milestone for the symphony, if not for Lansing culture in general, opens the Nov. 9 concert. Topping a triple bill with Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, Lansing will get its first-ever straight-up hit of 12-tone music (organized not by melody or harmony, but by “rows” of non-repeating notes): Anton Webern’s delicate Op. 21 Symphony, which Muffitt recorded in 2012 with Baton Rouge musicians. Webern in Lansing? “How about that?” Muffitt said — and he rarely says things like that. The grouping makes sense, though, because Mozart, Beethoven and Webern were all Viennese radicals. “All three of them took music into a place that no one imagined it would ever go at the time they were writing,” Muffitt said. “They belong together.”

The Jan. 11 concert is a tough-Russian, nice-Russian workover, with Igor Stravinsky’s rarely heard “Fairy’s Kiss” and Shostakovich’s first cello concerto (with David Requiro as soloist) for bicep flexers, and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” making with the nice.

Webern notwithstanding, the season’s biggest envelope-pusher lurks at the heart of the March 29 concert. Each year, Muffitt plants one of the symphony’s top musicians front and center for a concerto turn, sometimes with forgettable results, but no one is likely to forget this year’s entry: a raw, primordial trombone concerto by American Donald Erb, performed by an audience favorite, principal trombonist Ava Ordman. The music calls for the trombonist to play multiphonics, guttural didgeridoo sounds and even scream through the horn. “It’s hard to imagine a piece of music more perfectly suited to a musical personality than this piece is for Ava,” Muffitt said. “It’s a wild piece of music.” Ordman said she already started working out at the gym, in addition to practicing, to get ready for March. As soon as the hot-dog Erb concerto was in place, the rest of that night’s all-American program — Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein — curled around it like a bun.

The season ends April 30 with big statements new and old

“Rainbow Body” was written in 2000 by American composer Christopher Theofanidis, but it has already become one of the most often performed pieces of the post-modern era. The season closes with a definitive wham — Johannes Brahms’ magisterial Fourth Symphony.