The case for Sergei marriage

By Lawrence Cosentino

Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev make for double Russian climax to symphony season

As far as anybody knows, these two guys don’t compare tattoos, but there’s a palpable rapport between Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt and Christopher O’Riley, the guest soloist for the Lansing Symphony season finale. That’s rare in the one-night-stand, fortissimo-and-forget orchestral world.

Several prior missions together, beginning with O’Riley’s first Lansing appearance in 2009, have helped them prepare for the war in store. A double blast of Russian power — Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with O’Riley as soloist, and Sergei Prokofiev’s juggernaut “Romeo and Juliet” — will end the Lansing Symphony season with bangs, whimpers and other passionate noises.

O’Riley, known for championing non-classical musicians like Radiohead and sporting henna arm vines, has a musical philosophy much like Muffitt’s: keep an open mind, but never dumb it down.

“In many ways, he is the quintessential 21st century musician,” Muffitt said. “Chris is aware that there’s a broad range of great music out there.”

Last week, O’Riley and Muffitt both sounded high from an exhilarating ride through the Rachmaninoff First in March, with Muffitt’s other band, the Baton Rouge Symphony.

“We both came to great agreement about tempi, and then threw it all away and really goosed it for the performance,” O’Riley said.

Threw it all away? Really?

“We’re basically seat-of-the pants sort of guys,” O’Riley said.

Two solid rehearsals, Muffitt said, gave them the confidence to succumb to impulse on stage — as they plan to do next week — having built even more confidence.

“We were both probably wondering, ‘Is this OK? Are you OK?’” Muffitt said. “The last thing I want to do is push the artist beyond their comfort zone. But Chris’ comfort zone is pretty broad. So we went with it. It was exciting.”

O’Riley said the give and take went both ways. The intricate tango of soloist and orchestra came alive, in part, because nobody was looking at their feet.

“There were details in the way he would shape the melody that I found very compelling, and I would incorporate that into my interpretation,” O’Riley said.

Maestro and pianist hit it off from the first time they worked together.

“It’s like any relationship,” Muffitt said. “There is chemistry or there isn’t. Chris and I think about music and approach the collaborative process in much the same way.”

Their mutual admiration goes way beyond the usual thrilled-to-be-working-with-so-and-so boilerplate. In Baton Rouge, where O’Riley was an artist in residence, the pair hung out daily and talked about all kinds of music, from John Cage to “Pictures at an Exhibition” — by Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well as Mussorgsky.

“The conversation never came to an awkward pause,” Muffitt said. “We had a lot to talk about.”

O’Riley, in turn, called Muffitt “the most warmhearted person I know.”

“He is a great collaborator and a very exciting technician with the orchestra,” he said. “He gets a very particular, very energized, fiery sort of sound.”

And “fiery” is also a fine word for Rachmaninoff’s First, a product of the composer’s first blush of genius. It was O’Riley who first turned Muffitt’s attention to the concerto, which he’d never conducted before. The First is played much less often than the much-hyped “Rach 3.”

“This is as much a concerto for orchestra as well as piano,” O’Riley said. “The virtuosity required will keep folks on their toes.”

An eclectic set of encores by O’Riley is almost a certainty next week. Last time around, he treated the Lansing audience to a transcription of Radiohead’s “You” and Debussy’s delicate “Goldfish.” This time, bet on a cameo appearance by another rock star — mega-virtuoso and infamous inflamer of women, Franz Liszt. Liszt is often compared to today’s rock stars — with the brooding, the hair and the dangerous air — but O’Riley has a deeper reason to play his music than that.

“Liszt was also a great proselytizer for other people’s music, and I like to think that I am that, in terms of arrangements — classical and otherwise,” he said.

O’Riley’s next proselytizing stint involves unreleased films of Andy Warhol, for which he’s arranging music by the Velvet Underground and Nico.

But let’s not the second Sergei at the altar. As a finale to the Lansing Symphony season — and a bookend to the epochal performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that got Muffitt the Lansing job in 2005 — the maestro prepared a new suite from the bone-grinding, heartbreaking ballet, “Romeo and Juliet.”

This is music everybody knows, probably in bastardized form, even if they think they don’t. It’s been excerpted and imitated to death, especially in commercials and movies, but Muffitt is out to bring it to the concert stage in full glory.

“I feel like we have some artistic license in ballet suites,” he said. “I just tried to put together something that hits all the high points but maintains the integrity of the story.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Christopher O’Riley, piano
8 p.m. Thursday, May 9
(517) 487-5001