Spank like a nun

By Lawrence Cosentino

Symphony, choirs work up a passionate Mozart ‘Requiem’

Back in the Oldsmobile days, the annual swarming of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra with the three MSU choral groups was a bit of a slog, even if you weren’t related to one of the 400-odd performers on stage. (And who wasn’t?) After sitting through a cautious performance calibrated chiefly to avoid disaster, the highlight of the night was spotting your balding spouse, undergraduate suitemate or ironically smirking offspring in formal wear in the lobby and trundling off in the Cutlass to Red Lobster.

In the Cadillac CTS era — the reign of Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt and MSU choral director David Rayl — showing up is no longer 90 percent of genius. Merely getting through the night without a major collision is an unforgivable waste of mortal lifespan, not to mention tux rental dough. Saturday’s grand, oracular, throbbing, inflammable reading of Mozart’s “Requiem” did everything these grand gatherings are meant to do: Overwhelm, clarify, sanctify, inflame, soothe.

Passion flowed like magma over a solid mountain of hard work. The level of musicianship was so high Saturday that the eternal bugbear of these big concerts, the balance between chorus and orchestra, was never an issue. The architecture was crystal clear from bedrock to the rosy aureole of heaven. Mozart had something to do with the exquisite balance, of course, but plenty of things look good on paper. Saturday night, you could almost see alabaster columns of sound rise out of the granitic growl of the basses and cellos, tapering upward through the woodwinds and brass to balance a vast entablature of choral glory on their shoulders. When the low strings in the orchestra doubled the basses in the chorus or the woodwinds and violins doubled the sopranos — and that was often — mortal rumbles and angelic voices harmonized like celestial spheres.

Balanced atop columns of orchestral sound, the chorus spread out like a frieze of intertwining fugues and voluptuously sculpted chorales that put the Elgin Marbles to shame.

The chorus’s diction blended clarity and ferocity, making the “K” in “Kyrie” spank like a nun while gently snuffing out each wordending in “s” like a candle.

Sometimes star soloists swoop in at the last minute and fake the feeling at these big concerts, but not the four who sang Mozart. Brandon Cedel, a strong and steady baritone, was the perfect foil for expressive Dominic Armstrong, who could melt (not break) glass with his imploring tenor. Soprano Tharanga Goonetilleke was slightly tentative at first, but quickly found a purplish-crimson vein of sound all her own, while alto Allison Sanders pumped her throbbing heart into every note. There was nothing generic about them, separately or together. When they together, their distinct personalities forged an alloy all the stronger for its diversity.

The rest of Saturday’s concert was a strangely mixed bag. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is always fun, with its nutty fits and starts and puppet-master manipulations, but the LSO didn’t seem inclined to give the soufflé much air. It’s easy to get cute with the humor, but Muffitt’s reading went too far the other way and ended up feeling a bit leaden. (Were the players eager to cut the horseplay and go straight to Beethoven’s Ninth? Judging by the Mozart, the chorus seemed ready.)

The evening’s opener was another matter entirely. Kudos to Muffitt for breaking an invisible membrane of cultural literacy in Lansing and airing the serialist music of Viennese avant-gardist Anton Webern to a sellout audience primed for Beethoven and Mozart (and possibly Red Lobster.) With its lack of tunes and reliance on subtle nuances of pitch, timbre and gesture, this music is still a sheer ice cliff for many ears, but how can you learn to listen if you don’t listen? Although it was written is 1929, this nine-minute symphony is more worthy of the label “new music” than the minimalism-meets-E.T. treacle of recent years. Instead of a windy, complacent, instantly disposable overture, the audience was drawn into a crystalline, miniature universe of highly charged sounds. People leaned forward and paid attention. They talked about it afterward. Hearing each note as it was generated, with the maestro and his stripped-down chamber orchestra leaning like biochemists into a Petri dish of plinks, doots and blats, was one of the experiences I’ll treasure most from the Muffitt years, whether I can ever honestly claim I “get” Webern or not.