May 11 2016 12:10 AM

Timothy Muffitt will return as Lansing Symphony maestro

Courtesy Photo
Last Thursday, Timothy Muffitt settled into a chair at a coffee shop near his home in Haslett. There was a lot to talk about. The night before, he closed out his 10th season as conductor and music director of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra with a towering performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Muffitt, 54, had just re-upped his contract with the orchestra for three more years — the renewal was officially announced today — but he was still thinking about the previous night.

“When we cut off that last chord in the first movement, I could hear that people were out of breath,” he said. “I could hear vocalizations like” — he tactfully lowered his voice — “‘Shhhhhiit!’”

Such sincere profanity is sweeter than a Debussy nocturne to his ears.

“When someone comes to a concert and they’re absolutely, visibly thrilled by it, that’s the greatest thing a musician can experience,” he said.

Luncheons and truncheons

Muffitt loves to canoe mid-Michigan rivers, but he is staying in Lansing for three things he considers superlative: the musicians, the orchestra staff and the audience.

“In mid-Michigan, their genuine appreciation and understanding is very high, unlike many places in the country,” Muffitt said. “It’s not only high, it’s authentic. There’s a real hunger for it. I can hear it in the response.”

Under Muffitt, musicianship has approached, and sometimes equaled, the level of big city ensembles. He has vaporized the vinegary community-orchestra snarl out of the strings. The repertoire is still mostly conservative, but Muffitt has found ways to stretch it in new and interesting directions. Guest soloists — culled from the symphony’s own first-chair stars, MSU’s College of Music and growing ranks of young national stars — play like their tuxes are on fire for Muffitt. The players, increasingly young and avid with each passing year, respect him.

Principal flutist Richard Sherman, not a man to mince words, was around before Muffitt began. Under Muffitt’s leadership, he said, it’s a “happy organization all around.”

“He has a great relationship with the board and the orchestra,” Sherman said. “He can get people interested in classical music. His passion for it is very real.”

Non-subscription ticket sales are up 50 percent since Muffitt first took the podium in 2006. The orchestra’s debt is nearing zero. Fold in the maestro’s utter lack of megalomania, his facility at lunching with donors and willingness to give his all to music ranging from Beethoven’s Ninth to the hits of Michael Jackson, and you have plenty of obvious reasons to re-up his contract.

But if you want a deeper reason, an unguarded moment over coffee spoke volumes.

While going through next season’s lineup — also announced today — talk turned to one of the biggest works on the slate next year, Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s searing Fifth Symphony.

Suddenly, the unflappable maestro lost his composure.

Debate has raged for decades about whether the symphony’s crushing finale is triumphant or tragic. Was Shostakovich celebrating the Soviet regime or crying out against it?

“It’s tragic,” Muffitt shot back. “The clue to me is the bass drum at the end. The very … .”

He turned to the wall and paused for five long seconds. His eyes turned red. The symphony sings, in carefully coded language, of suffering so raw that thinking about it brought tears to his eyes.

“It just builds,” he began. His baritone voice cracked with emotion, then smoothed into teaching mode. “You think you know where it’s going. And then — instead of just finishing with the timpani — the ringing, triumphant brilliante of the timpani — he brings in the bass drum.”

Timpani feel ceremonial; bass drums want to crack your bones. If Muffitt is true to form, the audience will feel the symphony’s last few seconds in its solar plexus. The truncheon blows of the bass drum are the signal that the composer was a prisoner, forced at gunpoint to say everything is OK.

Muffitt swung his arms from the shoulder, air-hammering an imaginary bass drum. “Bam, bam, bam,” he whispered, almost fearing to invoke so horrific a moment in a coffee shop.

“If that doesn’t tell us what the piece is about … .”

True believer

When Muffitt was 19, a friend asked him to write a string part for a pop song he had written and planned to record. He was happy to play the George Martin role. Muffitt still enjoys rock, pop, jazz and country music and has a soft spot for Johnny Cash.

At the recording session, Muffitt had to conduct it, because he was the one who knew the music.

“Before that, I guess I air conducted — doesn’t everybody?” he said. “Which probably was helpful, because it got me used to the physical side of it.”

One of the cellists on the gig was impressed and asked Muffitt to conduct his upcoming recital, a Boccherini concerto.

“People started to think of me as a conductor and kept asking me to conduct things,” he said. “It was interesting and I really loved it. It felt natural for me from the beginning.”

Born in Connecticut, Muffitt moved to his parents’ home town of Hillsdale, Mich., when he was 8. There he studied piano, viola and trumpet. His future wife, Elise, played in the Hillsdale high school orchestra with him. His sister, a Boston-based music teacher 10 years his senior, gave him his first LP of classical music, “The Baroque Trumpet,” on the budget Nonesuch label. He still has it.

“She kept feeding my habit and buying me records,” Muffitt said.

He credits “terrific” Hillsdale public school teachers for getting him involved in music.

“There were good conductors, and I guess some of that rubbed off,” he said.

After formal training at the Eastman School of Music, Muffitt landed a plum gig as associate conductor with the Austin Symphony. Now he divides his time between Lansing and the Baton Rouge Symphony, where he has been music director since 1999.

For the past seven years, the Lansing Symphony has benefited from the mutual admiration of Muffitt and executive director Courtney Millbrook. While Muffitt makes the music, Millbrook handles the business end. But both of them agree that it’s ultimately about the music.

“He’s a true believer,” Millbrook said. “Whatever situation we’re in, he’s authentic about it. He gets us all excited about it, even if there’s pieces we’ve never heard.”

Muffitt bows gracefully to financial constraints — “I’d love to do the ‘Turangalila’ Symphony, but it’s not feasible,” he allowed. (The work, by French visionary Olivier Messiaen, calls for electronics and huge orchestra with 11 percussionists and 70 string players.)

A bobble-head likeness of Timothy Muffitt lives in the symphony's downtown Lansing office.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

But money doesn’t drive his vision.

“Yes, it’s important to build an audience and have people come to the concert, but it’s more important than that,” Muffitt said. “We are in the business of enriching lives, enhancing the quality of life of the community and supporting a civil society.”

Bronze bust and bobble-head

In a storage room at the symphony’s new downtown Lansing office rests a heavy bronze bust of Muffitt’s predecessor, Gustav Meier, who led the orchestra for 27 years. Somewhere in a box in that same room, there’s a bobble-head doll of Muffitt.

“He seems very down-to-Earth — and that’s a great image for classical music — but he doesn’t pander,” Sherman said. “He takes some chances.”

Over the next three years, Muffitt will work his way through a master plan of serving up as many essential classics as he can. He’s already shown that the symphony can do justice to sprawling, stratospheric works by the likes of Mahler, Bruckner and Bartok, as well as bread-and-butter works by Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. But that’s only part of his mission.

Muffitt has gradually massaged the edges outward, programming newer music and avant-garde strokes like Donald Erb’s barking mad trombone concerto a couple of years ago and, horror of horrors, a brief 12-tone piece by Anton Webern.

“Sometimes you sneak things in,” Millbrook said. “I don’t think people knew what they were in for until Tim came out on stage and started to explain. That’s the only time I’ve seen him do it.”

The season past was largely one of retrenchment, dominated by 19th-century composers, but next year will bring a world premiere of a percussion concerto by emerging Ann Arbor composer Paul Dooley and Igor Stravinsky’s bracing Symphony in C, among other music that is off the beaten track.

Muffitt credited Millbrook with having his back on artistic decisions.

“She’s actually quite a proponent of new music and understands the importance of it, what it does to the experience,” Muffitt said.

Millbrook and Muffitt aren’t afraid to pitch an unfamiliar or challenging work to the symphony board.

“I tell them, ‘This isn’t going to be a blockbuster; this isn’t going to make a ton of money. There will be people who really don’t like this piece, but artistically, it’s important to do this for the artistic growth of the orchestra,’” Millbrook said.

No DeVoses here

Each year, the Lansing Symphony has to stretch a budget of about $1 million, a minuscule amount in the symphonic world. By comparison, the Grand Rapids Symphony has an annual budget of about $9 million and recently announced that its endowment was up to $40 million, thanks largely to a $20 million gift from the DeVos family.

Any artist or musician in Lansing will tell you there are no DeVoses here. The Lansing Symphony’s entire endowment is about $30,000. Nevertheless, the Muffitt/Millbrook era, set against a national backdrop of declines in attendance, labor strikes and orchestral bankruptcies, is a minor miracle.

Single ticket revenue has gone up 50 percent in the past 10 years. Season subscriptions are down overall, as they are for nearly all orchestras, but rose slightly last year when pops concerts were folded into the deal. Since Millbrook took over as director in 2009, the orchestra’s overall debt has shrunk from $200,000 to under $40,000.

Every push demands a pull. This year, a stripped-down all-Mozart concert with no guest soloist helped compensate for beefing up the orchestra in blowouts like Wednesday’s finale.

“It does feel like a game of inches,” Millbrook said. “If an orchestra our size loses a couple of large donors or one grant, it swings your budget significantly.”

Up until three years ago, Millbrook hoped to bring corporate donor money up to $400,000. But it has leveled off at about half that amount for several years.

“I’m just not as optimistic about corporations giving on a level they once did,” Millbrook said.

To compensate, the staff is hustling to bring more individual donors into the fold. Last week, the orchestra announced a challenge grant from longtime supporters Jack and Susan Davis, promising to match new donations of up to $25,000.

Timothy Muffitt admires a model of the sun near Impression 5 Science Center. The photo was taken as Muffitt was preparing for a performance of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" a few seasons ago.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Jack Davis, a longtime Lansing Symphony board member, said Muffitt has “definitely stepped it up and presented some challenging pieces for the orchestra.”

“Last Wednesday, there was so much enthusiasm after the symphony from everybody I talked to, they can’t wait for next year,” Davis said. “It’s exciting to see them do so well with it.”

Millbrook said it’s easier to build relationships with individual donors than corporations.

“That’s because it’s about a passion and sincere desire to support [the orchestra], versus ‘What’s the marketing benefit?’” she said.

Part of Millbrook’s strategy is to give the organization more visibility downtown, with a new office on Washington Square and a yearly appearance at the Capitol City Film Fest. Someday, she hopes, the long-held dream of a downtown concert hall will usher the organization to the next level.

Muffitt dove into last month’s film fest concert full force, wrangling sirens, frog sounds and water hoses, as well as traditional instruments, to accompany a screening of vintage Disney cartoons. Over 1,200 people jammed the Lansing Center, munching popcorn and — Millbrook hopes — becoming infected with the symphony bug.

Sampling Debussy

Far from putting another nail in the coffin of forever-dying classical music, the ubiquity of computer technology has turned symphony concerts into oases of deep, communal, real-time experience.

“I don’t buy this idea that everybody wants to tweet in their seats,” Millbrook said. “People in their 30s and 40s sometimes want to just be. That’s one of the things the orchestra offers. You can make a complete escape from society for two hours.”

“Don’t take away my technology. I love it,” Muffitt added. “But as a society, we’re finding a balance. More people are recognizing a personal need to unplug.”

If Wednesday’s packed house is any indication, the notoriously aging classical audience is being freshened up by late-to-thetable Baby Boomers, musically omnivorous millennials and even young families, many of them lured in by a family membership deal the orchestra introduced this season.

“My favorite thing to hear a Boomer say is, ‘I didn’t know I was going to enjoy this as much as I did.’” Muffitt said. “Maybe they thought their bandwidth was only 300 songs, but 301 is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.”

His Lansing duties fulfilled for now, Muffitt is spending this week preparing for a May 13 concert in Baton Rouge with star soprano Renée Fleming. After that, he is off to New York’s Chautauqua Festival, where he directs the festival’s music school orchestra.

Between crescendi, he expects to spend time hiking and canoeing with Elise and hanging with his two children, 19-year-old Vincent and 17-year-old Clara.

“Vince writes his own music, hip-hop and R&B, and he’s very good at it,” Muffitt said.

It doesn’t appear to be a rebellion.

“He played me something he wrote the other day,” Muffitt said. “He sampled Debussy’s ‘Sunken Cathedral’ and Tartini’s ‘The Devil’s Trill.’”

Masterworks Series:

MasterWorks 1: Impressions With pianist Jeremy Denk 8 p.m.Friday, Sept. 9 Falla: Suite No. 2 from “The Three- Cornered Hat” Ravel: Piano Concerto in D Major Respighi: “Fountains of Rome” Debussy: “La Mer”

MasterWorks 2: Beethoven’s Ninth With University Chorale, Choral Union and State Singers 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4 Handel: “Zadok the Priest” Corigliano: “Gazebo Dances” Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

MasterWorks 3: Dvo ák Cello Concerto 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7 With cellist Tanya Ell Stravinsky: Symphony in C Dvo ák: Cello Concerto

MasterWorks 4: From Spain to the Americas With guitarist Sharon Isbin 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11 Lecuona: “Malaguena” Tenriero: “Fuentes” Rodrigo: “Concierto di Aruanjez” Chavez: Symphony No. 2 Ginastera: Four Dances from “Estancia” Marquez: Danzon No. 2

MasterWorks 5: Music of Russia 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4 With violinist: Dmitri Berlinsky Schnittke: Suite from “The Dead Souls Register” Glazunov: Violin Concerto Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

MasterWorks 6: Rhythm in Blue With percussionist: Lisa Pegher 8 p.m. Friday, May 19 Smetana: Three Dances from “The Bartered Bride” Dooley: Percussion Concerto, world premiere Torke: “Bright Blue Music” Tchaikovsky: Romeo & Juliet Fantasy

Pops Series:

Oh What a Night! Music of the ‘60s 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22

Holiday Pops 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11

Star Wars & Beyond: The Music of John Williams 8 p.m. Saturday, April 22 With guest conductor Stuart Chafetz

Chamber Series:

Chamber 1: French Wind Music of Les Six Poulenc Sextet 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25

Chamber 2: ConTempus Quartet Mozart, Schubert & Glass 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13

Chamber 3: Piano Quartet Brahms & Schumann 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26

Chamber 4: Piano & Strings Quintet Franck & Fauré 3 p.m. Sunday, April 30

Jazz Band Series:

Lansing Symphony Jazz Band 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11 7 p.m. Sunday, March 12