March 8 2017 11:28 AM

Lansing Symphony, Berlinsky lift the lid on an epic Russian century

Piquing curiosity instead of smacking people to attention is a great way to start a symphony concert.

The Lansing Symphony’s opener Saturday night, Soviet-era composer Alfred Schnittke’s Suite from “Dead Souls Register,” was like a 19th-century Russian music box rescued from the attic, with a headless clown and a one-legged ballerina. It made you want to lean forward and peer inside, if only to see what was waiting to skitter out.

When maestro Timothy Muffitt brings out something that stretches the audience’s ears, it usually fits a larger theme — in this case, an ambitious night covering three generations of Russian composers.

The poly-stylistic head games of Schnittke, the inheritor of so much musical tradition, ushered the audience into the vastness of Russia through the back door, with quiet eccentricity instead of bombast.

As soon as Muffitt dusted off the music box off and turned the crank, the orchestra shuddered to life with wheezy snippets of Tchaikovsky and Mozart and a broken blast of Beethoven — the Fifth, of course, only it sounded like it was being held under water like a stubborn rat refusing to die. Was Schnittke out to preserve the tradition or trash it? This music box had neglect issues. A centipede skittered out from under the ballerina’s skirt and a spring went “ping.”

The stage was crammed with musicians, but they never played en masse. A series of vignettes, like pen-and-ink drawings, brought writer Nikolai Gogol’s bustling, eccentric characters to life, using odd combinations of instruments. (The music was adapted from a TV miniseries of Gogol’s hilarious and sad masterpiece, “Dead Souls.”)

Nobody goes to the symphony expecting to hear a tuba play a tango or a duet combining a wooden flute with a flexatone, a wobbly metal instrument that sounds like a caffeinated spirit from beyond. A prepared piano, altered to create haunting overtones, evoked a Bulgarian chorus all by itself.

Stentorian organ tones, an electric guitar pwee-oink and delicate harpsichord passages kept the audience guessing all the way to the abrupt and strange ending.

It sounds like a stunt, but this was rummaging with a purpose. The music was fraught with the melancholy of the attic, with broken bits of history — a feeling that is not unfamiliar to post-modern audiences. The musicians’ tight precision and relentless focus kept the music from feeling random or cluttered, despite the outbursts, digressions and trapdoors.

The next work on the program took the audience to a time when Schnittke’s salvaged music box was brand new.

Dmitri Berlinsky, the night’s guest soloist, has a dark and chocolate-y tone that makes you completely forget he’s scraping two things together. (Not all violinists achieve this goal.) The gorgeous, flowing Violin Concerto of Russian romantic Alexander Glazunov is one of his specialties.

Is it a sacrilege to say I loved Berlinsky’s take more than Itzhak Perlman’s? Berlinsky’s earthy, rooted sound, lush as a carpet of moss sheltered by an enchanted orchestral forest, made the moody exertions of romantic concertos feel natural and warm, like a campfire with stars glittering overhead.

As a rule, cadenzas — the show-offy bits at the end of most concertos — are extreme tests of how long the audience can go without thinking about dinner, but I was all attention when Berlinsky split like a wood sprite into two beings, double-stopping and playing fugues with himself.

The final and biggest work on the program, Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, was a monumental effort that almost made it to the promised land, but could have used one more rehearsal. Muffitt and the orchestra have worked miracles with massive works before, from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” to Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony to Shostakovich’s own 10th Symphony last year. But a few technical issues, including a nail-biting pileup in the first climax of the finale and an occasional lack of tautness in the epic first and last movements, kept this one from joining the ranks.

However, Muffitt and the orchestra managed to grasp the miraculous when it really counted. Muffitt played the last movement, with its famously ambiguous climax, as a forced march and triumphal apotheosis all at once, glorying in its horrific duality.

The slow movement, the heart of the symphony and surely the most difficult part to put over, was sublime from start to finish.

I hate to keep picking on principal oboist Jan Eberle, but she keeps on asking for it. Eberle’s solo, the heart of the heart of the symphony, matched or surpassed any performance I’ve heard on record — and there are a lot of them. The truly miraculous thing about the performance was its trembling, balalaika-like arc of pain.