Jan. 11 2017 11:53 AM

Lansing Symphony, Tanya Ell reach into the heart of Dvorák

Just in case a piano falls on your head before you finish this review, let’s cut to the heart of hometown hero Tanya Ell’s noble, graceful performance with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.

As they might say if ESPN did orchestral highlights, it was the bottom of the slow movement and the cadenza was in full swing. Just when Ell seemed to have poured out the last dregs of unfulfilled longing, a hush came over the hall and she dug even deeper, double-stopping low harmonies that extruded from the innermost depths of her soul. Playing alone, she seemed adrift and lost to human comfort until a sweet trill from principal flutist Richard Sherman called her back from the brink.

It was an Aztec-sacrifice, beating-heart-torn-out-of-the-chest moment in an otherwise grand, stately and pretty much flawless reading of Dvorák’s bittersweet essay in nostalgia.

Ell’s command of the music was clear from the start. She cradled the yearning theme of the first movement, rocking it with a vibrato so subtle it never woke this touchy concerto’s undignified inner baby. Following a long arc of ache, she breathed a micron-thick layer of frost onto her warm tone, so as not to overdo the schmaltz.

After the heart-yanking sacrifice in the slow movement, Ell and the orchestra settled into a placid acceptance of the passage of time, in tones so convincing I am tempted to ask my loved ones to play it at my funeral — so long as they don’t let the recording continue to the last movement, a stiff, inexorable march with a quite a bit of cowbell, err, triangle.

Ell maintained her noble, graceful approach to the very end, but by this point, her consistency was a missed opportunity. Having just retreated from the abyss, the last movement calls for a let-your-hairdown, Scrooge-on-Christmas-morning exultation — otherwise, it makes less sense in the overall narrative. The climax was not exactly pro forma, but it wasn’t a cathartic release, either.

With due respect to Saturday’s splendid, heartfelt performance, swells of Dvorák roil the nation’s concert halls with almost numbing frequency — the same composer’s violin concerto is coming to the Wharton Center next week, thanks to a visit from the Prague Philharmonia and violinist Sarah Chang. (See page 15 for more on that.) Middle-of-the-road romantics crowd many worthy composers off the stage, but Maestro Timothy Muffitt deserves credit for keeping most Master- Works bills stimulating. The cooler, subtler charms of Igor Stravinsky are aired too rarely, but Igor also got his innings in Lansing Saturday night.

The Russian composer’s “Symphony in C” snaps sharply like a summer dress drying in the breeze, pinched in place by a tight, three-note clothespin of a motif.

This was a new and bracing world of sound for the Lansing Symphony audience. The familiar orchestral huffing and puffing — the slow buildups and massive climaxes, the soaring towers of melody — had no place in this exquisite little box garden.

As Muffitt and the orchestra slipped into Stravinsky’s intricate, understated world, it took a few minutes for the ears to adjust to the music’s almost miniature scale. The brass and woodwinds were a bit fuzzy at first but quickly fine-tuned their intonation and attacks until a palette of tart harmonies and kaleidoscope of finely wrought forms came into focus.

Almost everyone had a solo turn at keeping the ball in the air, but principal oboist Jan Eberle picked up the threenote theme so often, and with such a light touch, that it seemed as if everyone was playing at her house, with her ball.

Muffitt’s most important job was to keep you aware of the overall musical thread as the orchestra hurtled through a series of mercurial, ultra-brief episodes. He held his ground so authoritatively that every shift, every pause made the audience suck in its breath — what’s coming next? Muffitt timed the pauses so masterfully, neither milking nor rushing them, that silence hit the audience with as much impact as sound.

Stravinsky hated mawkish emotion in music, but this bustling, ant-like soundscape is infused with a surprising amount of tenderness. In the slow movement, the strings added velvety caresses to the pokes and prods of the brass and winds. A heartbreaking bit from principal violist Roman Kosarev captured fleeting sentiment with a gentle pang.

The colors changed ceaselessly from one second to the next. In the last movement, the bassoons slithered in slow circles like snakes, with the trombones murmuring in the mud underneath. The music seemed to coalesce into more formal order toward the end, with quicksilver-y counterpoint spiking out like quartz crystals from all corners.

I wondered whether the audience would lose patience with music that is all but bereft of the usual grand gestures and extended melodies, but the micro-garden of lichen and moss was so vividly brought to life, and the rhythmic undertow was so strong, that all heads and torsos leaned farther and farther forward until a gorgeous brass chorale sounded a valedictory purple burst, and a tangle of quiet bassoon tremors signaled the advance of the shadows.